Monday 25 September 2017

Greatness the only theme that matters for man of substance

Dion Fanning

Round midnight in the lobby of the Hafnia Hotel, Torshavn, a group of journalists gathered to unwind. A laptop was produced and placed on the table in the middle of the small seating area and soon we were watching the RTE panel.

This may have been the best way to watch the debate between Eamon Dunphy, Liam Brady and John Giles which followed the Ireland game. The best way to watch it was with a live audience because this was a theatrical event, if better than most theatrical events available in the actual theatre.

There are many good reasons to give RTE a kicking but there is a bravery to their football coverage because it is brave these days simply to let intelligent men speak. (It is not the only aspect of their coverage that excels -- in Tony O'Donoghue, RTE have a knowledgeable and smart correspondent.)

There is drama obviously in letting intelligent men like Giles, Dunphy and Brady speak but it seems too obvious for many who feel they need to bring the analyst who is 'uniquely placed' because he might have played for a certain club or met a manager involved in a game.

The RTE panel is almost unique in its eloquence, whether it is Brady, Giles and Dunphy or when Richard Sadlier of this newspaper is supplementing them.

On Tuesday night, they demonstrated all that is good and it was compelling drama.

Brady is the central character, mainly because he is wrong about so many things, but he is wrong for the right reasons. He is wrong because he believes in Giovanni Trapattoni but he is also right, or human, because he believes in Giovanni Trapattoni.

So we watch this unsympathetic character and we sympathise. There are those who think Brady shouldn't be on the panel because he worked with Trapattoni but there are enough attempts to trample on dissent without engaging in another.

Brady provides the conflict necessary in great drama, although Dunphy could provide it on his own, sitting in an armchair, addressing a camera operated by remote control from a secret location.

Giles is a sort of narrator in the drama, providing what could be a voiceover. His wisdom is such it has the ability to sound as if it is a retrospective analysis even though he is working with the same information as everyone else. He has a book out this year which follows on from his superb autobiography, both of which were written with my friend Declan Lynch. His new book explores the great themes of his life or rather the theme of his life: greatness.

While some people destroy their lives in the pursuit of happiness, Giles has devoted his to the pursuit of greatness, a far more satisfying concept.

Giles has educated a nation in football and if his TV appearances have been his lectures, his latest book is a PhD thesis.

In some ways, he is Irish football's Conor Cruise O'Brien in that he has been almost as important as an observer as a practitioner and Giles, like the Cruiser, was often suspected of lacking some key element of Irishness.

Giles is an anglophile and his life has been devoted to the triumph of the rational mind over sentimentality.

His decision to be strong on who can be termed great and who, by contrast, is merely very good is informed by these values.

Anyone who has read his autobiography will be aware of the great presence of his father Dickie. He encountered another formative figure early on when Eamon Dunphy appeared at the local youth club and demanded attention by snatching the ball off the ping pong table, a role he would continue to fulfil with great distinction in Irish life for many years.

Giles was resistant to any attempt to act the eejit, even when singing on Saturday night television, and his book makes the case for substance at all times.

Giles values most things above the idea of being a character. There weren't too many great players who were characters, he says.

There are some who take this view and turn it into some sub-macho cult. Giles values hardness in a player but he sees it in many forms. Kevin Keegan, for example, is praised and deemed great, assessed with a typical Gilesism which would be obvious except for the fact that the obvious isn't said too often -- "Keegan was not the finished article by any means. But he wouldn't have been sensitive to that. In fact, if Keegan had known his limitations, he wouldn't have been the player he was."

There are interesting choices in the book. Jimmy Scoular of Portsmouth and Newcastle is remembered as a "digger" but one who could play and John Robertson,

as anyone who has been paying attention will expect, features as a great player. If you have listened to Giles over the years, you will be familiar with his views on Robertson and his influence at Forest but in the book he explains his influence in detail. "John Robertson is always overlooked." He isn't overlooked by Giles who describes him as the most influential winger he has ever seen.

There is a reason for this and it is the same reason that Giles, Brady and Dunphy are compelling on television. They treat it, not pompously, as important.

It's not the faux importance of Nike ads or the self-conscious marketing aimed at supporters. Giles views those with suspicion, just as he views labels like 'total football' with wariness.

For that reason, he articulated the differences between The Great & the Good.

The sentimentalist will make no distinction, thinking he is doing everyone a favour when ultimately he is engaged in an act of betrayal.

"In football, hard men rule," Dunphy wrote once and Giles can seem hard in his reasoning but ultimately he makes the most romantic choices of all.

dfanning@independent.ie

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