Sunday 17 December 2017

Home truths brought to book by the master of all he surveys

Dion Fanning

Watching John Giles storming the citadels of cant over the past few weeks, I've experienced the sinking feeling of complete and utter hopefulness.

Giles has been touring, as they say, to promote his autobiography and he has been rewarded in a time when badness usually triumphs. His tender and haunting autobiography is now top of the Irish charts.

As he gigs around Britain and Ireland, Giles has popped up in places like the Sky Sports News studio to try and tell it like it is. In this he is always hampered by the house style. They will be desperate for a link so they will say that it's fitting he's in the studio today with Leeds United playing this evening. For this role, he is one of the many they viewed as uniquely placed.

The desire to find people who have an association with the subject they will talk about has stopped television from asking the only question it should when booking a guest: Has he got something to say?

By this guideline, Giles should be on permanently. At least he has been there over the past few weeks. He has brought some sanity, talking sense when allowed, even if they had to break away from his interview on Sky Sports News to bring us live shots of David Haye's helicopter landing.

In some ways, this was perfect, this intrusion of bullshit as a precursor to one of the great bullshit events of our time, the Haye-Harrison fight.

They wouldn't see Giles as uniquely placed to talk about that even though he would probably have called it correctly, asking why they needed to do so much talking and helicopter-flying if the fight was worth watching. As usual, he would have been right.

Nothing has changed. I can still remember the tremendous hope tempered with enormous anxiety I felt when Giles appeared on ITV as a pundit back when it had first division football.

Giles was sitting beside Elton Welsby and even then, more than 20 years ago, we knew that if they let him say what he had to say then everything would change.

In this fantasy, Welsby would stop, turn to Giles and say, "So what you're saying is this?" Giles would explain some more, Welsby would sigh, turn to the camera and say, "Everything we know is wrong." At which point, they would hand the show over to Giles as they vacated the studio. The means of communication would have been seized.

Instead they tried to get him to sum up in about 17 seconds what he had just seen and if they could have cutaway to some live shots of a helicopter they would have. Television is made by people who think the public still get excited pointing at helicopters.

Even some of the more favourable pieces have presented Giles' views on something like the holding midfielder as some sort of quaint throwback as if he was advocating a return to W-M, rather than a timeless philosophical position.

A couple of weeks ago, one newspaper ran an ad campaign to which an article seemed to have been hastily attached. Giles, it said, had failed to address how Leeds became the side they were, particularly in terms of their nastiness. In fact, Giles explains patiently and in detail how Leeds were not the side they were perceived to be. They were a compelling side and their perceived badness makes them even more so, but only if, as he repeatedly points out, their greatness is acknowledged too.

The one area where Giles could be accused of not telling some stories is in relation to Eamon Dunphy. If the complexities and the feuds are avoided, his presence can't be. He first appeared in Giles' life swiping table tennis balls and he has been a pest in Irish public life ever since.

Giles was prepared for this great friendship by his father Dickie, who took a lot more enjoyment from his son's success than his son did. It could be argued that Dunphy did the same.

Dickie Giles and Dunphy are two of the great football men featured in the book. There are more in this country thanks to Giles. He is football's Socrates, if you forget that football already has a Socrates, and this country has been lucky to be educated by him.

At the book's launch, Dunphy spoke emotionally about the football families that built the game in Ireland. They were forgotten and ignored, he reminded the audience, who may have had difficulty with the idea that Eamon Dunphy could ever have been ignored. But they knew it was true because they were football men as well.

Giles' book is compelling when he writes of the ambivalence he felt playing for Ireland, when he had been told he wasn't really Irish for loving an English game.

The football men of Dublin were drawn to England and his book is a reminder that it wasn't in the last week that Official Ireland started doing things it could be ashamed of. This is a book about football, but it is a book about Irish identity too and football's central role in transforming it.

There might not be controversy as the word has come to be understood but there is truth which is even more disturbing. Giles is not Lorraine Keane. He isn't promising to "lift the lid" on things. Instead he writes about Matt Busby as few have ever done. He provides understanding of men like Busby and the greatness of Bobby Charlton. There is a marvellous scene when Giles and Jimmy Murphy, independent of each other, watch Fulham play Manchester City in Manchester and realise that Johnny Haynes has transformed the game.

In his section on The Damned United, he rightly criticised the makers of the film for looking for and creating a phoney love story between Clough and Taylor. Giles' voice is the authentic voice of the book for which as much credit must go to his collaborator Declan Lynch.

There is a clarity which is the calling card of both men. The chapter on The Damned United benefits most from this but the pace never wavers.

A Football Man is a love story. The object of John Giles' affection is a game and a way of life.

Sunday Independent

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