Wednesday 22 November 2017

Senior analyst John Giles all substance in a medium that almost demands shallowness

Senior analyst John Giles. Photo: Sportsfile
Senior analyst John Giles. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

For a man who was reluctant to embark on a media career in the first place, it seems that John Giles is even more reluctant now to relinquish it.

The great man turned 75 last November. His first major gig as a television pundit was the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico. His latest contract will expire after Euro 2016 this summer. RTé confirmed last week they will not be renewing it: the national broadcaster and the elder statesman will be parting company.

In a manner that befits his standing, RTé appear to have handled this delicate matter in a suitably respectful way. The timing seems just about right. They are letting him go at the end of a major international tournament at which the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland teams will also be involved. Giles will depart with the good wishes and gratitude of a massive home audience.

He is not apparently a sentimental man but he deserves an appropriate send-off for services rendered. It looks like this will be as good a time to go out as could be conceived. One hopes he will feel this way about it too. Heaven knows there is scarcely a working environment any place where somebody hasn't been treated shabbily at the end of an honourable career.

Giles himself was typically sensible about the news. RTé's head of sport Ryle Nugent had told him last year that 2016 would be "the final year of my full-time engagement with RTé". A new generation of pundits had to come through. "This was perfectly understandable to me."

By any measure, 30 years in TV land is a good innings, especially for someone who hadn't harboured any ambitions in this domain. In fact, he had harboured a certain disdain for the press during his days as player and manager.

"Giles was circumspect in his dealings with the media," writes Eamon Dunphy in his compelling autobiography The Rocky Road. "He looked them straight in the eye and kept his answers short and not so sweet. There was no attempt to please, no juicy quote. He didn't like the hacks and it showed. His was a slightly intimidating presence for guys who needed copy from a man unwilling to play the game."

But of course it was precisely this unwillingness to "play the game" that eventually made his reputation as a heavyweight pundit. In a medium that almost demands shallowness, Giles was all substance. Having played the actual game to a high and fastidious standard, he remained equally rigorous in the studio. His analysis would be tough-minded, intelligent and clear. Players would be subjected to the same scrutiny in the studio as they would if they were sharing a dressing room with him. In a sense, throughout his media career he never left the dressing room.

Giles's footballing life was forged in a time before television. He was a natural with the ball and obsessed with the game. There was the game and nothing else. For the modern obsessive young talent, there is the game and there is Sky Sports. Television is part of the air they breathe as footballers. It is a relevant and legitimate part of the culture. They are shaped by its influences in one way or another.

For someone of Giles's generation, and with his independent streak, he could take it or leave it - but mainly leave it. So he didn't feel any particular need to play the television game once he got there. He was too secure in himself, and too self-assured in his opinions, to need the TV ego trip. He was too dignified to court controversy for mere ratings. He didn't feel the need to make a big deal about speaking honestly. He didn't portray himself as a fearless crusader for 'The Truth'. He would go against the consensus without even raising his voice. He would stop people in their tracks with a critique; then he'd go home.

In doing it like this he became in passing a teacher to the thousands watching at home. Viewers sensed his authenticity and handed him their trust.

The great irony is that this media sceptic ended up needing to become a media success, even if it was on his own terms. His career in management had run out of road by the mid-1980s. "He wasn't all that pushed about being on TV," recalls Dunphy in his book. And RTé, knowing Giles' somewhat snobbish distaste, weren't all that pushed either. "They wouldn't accept John at any price. 'He'll say fuck all', Tim (O'Connor, head of sport) insisted, instancing John's notorious monosyllabic responses to journalists looking for enlightenment."

But it turned out they both needed each other. RTé acquired a pundit who set the benchmark, across all sports, not just in his analysis but in his personal demeanour too.

And Giles, the accidental pundit, embarked on a second career which, if anything, has accumulated into a personal legacy that will exceed the stature he earned during his playing days. Somewhere along the way he crossed over from the world of sport; he became a respected public figure in Irish life.

Meanwhile, between now and Euro 2016 at least, the past tense should be put on hold. "I want to make it perfectly clear," he added last week, "that I'm not retiring or even thinking about it."

He still has the boots, the shin guards, and the jar of Wintergreen.

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