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Freeman John Giles - fairytale of a football man


Illustration by Jim Cogan

Illustration by Jim Cogan

Illustration by Jim Cogan

John Giles has never been a "character". And though he is one of the few public figures in Ireland of the last fifty years who has entirely retained the respect and the affection of the public, a man with his own foundation and now (along with Br Kevin Crowley of the Capuchin Day Centre) a Freeman of Dublin, I doubt that he will ever be a 'character'. Which may explain why it took some time for Ireland to appreciate John Giles.

Indeed when his autobiography A Football Man was launched on the Late Late in 2010, it was actually the first time he had ever been on the show. Back in the 1970s he was one of the world's great footballers, and later he utterly transformed the Republic as player-manager, and yet he was so far down the queue of much-loved Irish characters that on one particular occasion when his name was announced at an international against Bulgaria, it was boo-ed.

I worked with him on that autobiography, which for me was a task made deeply enjoyable by Giles' implacable opposition to blather, blarney, and the various forms of bullshit.

He would describe things, and I would write them down, and to my increasing amazement there would be virtually no waste, no talking just for the sake of talking, no digressions into 'funny stories' that weren't actually funny -again he would not play the 'character', there is just none of that eejitry in him.

Leaving aside the extraordinary clarity of his recall, his 'un-Irish' cast of mind is well illustrated in a casual conversation I had with him some time back, about someone we know who had to go into hospital. In a rare lapse into folksy banter, I remarked that the way things are, if you go into a hospital these days for something small, you're liable to wind up dead.

Giles could not bring himself to go along with this, and he said so, defending the quality of hospital care in general from these populist slanders.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of us would simply have gone along with the urban myth that I had voiced, that unscientific line, but Giles instinctively could not endorse anything which was so rooted in unreason and in peasant superstition.

And having educated us all in the game of football for the last thirty years, he has eventually become much-loved for those very qualities which made him seem strange to Paddy in former times, for the beauty of his logic, for his pragmatism, for just being so right, so many times - along with Brady and Dunphy he made the one outstanding prediction of the recent World Cup, which was to declare from the start that regardless of all the emotional factors, Brazil could not possibly win the tournament, because they were not good enough.

But there is something else to the story of John Giles, something beyond these realms of rationality. It seems to me that it also has the quality of a fairy-tale.

In A Football Man he recalled that he knew from the first time that he kicked a ball, at the age of three, that he had a gift. He knew that he was kicking the ball correctly because of the joy it gave him. But he also knew that he had done nothing to deserve this gift, that he would have to work incessantly to develop it.

There is magic in this, along with that objective awareness of the magic, such a powerful combination. Another moment out of Hans Christian Andersen arrives at the age of eight when his father, Dickie, gives him his first pair of football boots.

Dickie had seen these beautiful boots in the window in a shop in Belfast. They were for display purposes only, just miniatures of the grown-up sizes (kids didn't have proper football boots then), but Dickie somehow persuaded the shop to sell them to him. Thus it was that the prodigy John Giles tried on his first pair of football boots . . . and they fitted him perfectly.

Dickie himself resembles a figure drawn from myth, a full-blown 'character' in utter contrast to the son whose gift he recognised and nurtured, a character who had many bright ideas but little business acumen, who "had somehow acquired the recipe for making a high-quality pine disinfectant . . . he was also a coffee taster and a tea taster for a while . . . he used to drive around the schools delivering sandwiches. He built the low wall that stands around the pitch at Tolka Park. I think he worked for a while as a clerk . . ."

There was the moment, sitting in the tiny pantry in 7A Ormond Square, when Dickie told him that "Manchester United want you to go over", then the night crossing from the North Wall, the 14-year old Giles getting the boat to England on his own. Later that day in Manchester he would be introduced to the great Duncan Edwards, who was sitting on top of a post box, eating an apple, waiting for a bus.

Four years later Giles would return to make his debut for Ireland at Dalymount Park, scoring a brilliant goal in a famous defeat of Sweden, returning to the city of which, one day, he would be made a Freeman, his name on a plaque near that spot where he first kicked a ball, and knew . . .

Sunday Independent