Sport Soccer

Wednesday 11 December 2019

In this game you're just better off giving it straight

It was Eamon Dunphy who convinced RTE to bring John Giles in for coverage of the 1986 World Cup. The station was reluctant at first, but Dunphy persisted and at the last minute, Giles was signed up. Right from the start, he was determined he would be honest

John Giles. Photo: David Conachy
John Giles. Photo: David Conachy

Having watched football coverage over the years as a player and as a manager, I had found it mostly bland, mostly dishonest, mostly, in fact, ridiculous.

I'd hear the pundits saying that a team "scored too early," which implies that the manager should have warned his team not to score until a more appropriate time. "They'll have to keep it tight for the first fifteen minutes," was another favourite -- as if you don't have to keep it tight for the last fifteen minutes. And 2-0 could be "a dangerous lead." To which I could suggest only one solution -- don't score the second goal.

They were always talking about tactics -- in fact, they still are. Even in 2010, Gary Lineker was attributing England's failure in the World Cup to Capello getting his tactics all wrong, because, apparently, nobody plays four-four-two these days. Frankly, if you're going to play Emile Heskey up front, if you leave your goalkeepers wondering if they are playing until the last minute, if Gerrard and Lampard are playing badly, and everyone else is passing the ball badly, your tactics fade into insignificance.

The best tactic there has ever been, is to find really good, honest players, who will train hard and look after themselves. If the manager plays the best players in their best positions, he is then in the happy position of only needing to employ the oldest and most successful of all tactics since the game was invented -- when his team has the ball, every player is obliged to use it as constructively as possible and when his team doesn't have the ball, every player makes an honest effort to get it back.

Sometimes, this means that the big centre-half has to clear the danger if he is under pressure. That is as positive as he can be in that particular situation. In almost every other situation, players have a responsibility to use the ball constructively.

It sounds sensible enough, yet when the television pundits get going, tactics can have all sorts of meanings. If a team was losing 3-0 at half-time, the panellists would be reluctant to attribute the score to silly individual errors, preferring to talk about tactics and formations -- about four-four-two and four-three-three and all that stuff. They can still be heard holding forth about the losing manager needing "to get more players in the box." But how can you get more players in the box if the opposition has the ball? And if the right-back has the ball in a deep position, you can get plenty of players into your opponents' box, but is it the correct thing to do? The full-back might need someone to pass the ball to, but he can't if they're all in the box.

Alternatively, the manager "will have to push the full-backs forward." Again, where is the ball? Do they still go forward when the opposition has the ball or do they go forward at times when the correct thing to do is to come deep and get possession of the ball?

Getting more players in the box, or pushing the full-backs forward, or putting an extra player in midfield might make the pundits sound knowledgeable, but the fact remains that the ball is the most important thing on the pitch, that good players will take up correct positions in relation to it, while bad players will continue to take up poor positions, regardless of tactics or formations.

Apart from the lack of real analysis, there had rarely been any effort to differentiate between the good players and the bad players. Let alone between the good players and the great players. Which not only did a disservice to the viewers, it did a disservice to the good players and the great players.

Having felt so strongly about this from way back, I started to think that there might be more in this television work than just a bit of fun every four years on World Cup assignments. I had no definite plans to do anything else and I had a young family to support -- football had certainly not left me in any position to retire. I was aware that RTÉ were doing live matches in England, and they didn't have a co-commentator. So I went to see Tim O'Connor, then Head of Sport in RTÉ, and who was also a good friend of mine. Tim took a gamble on me as a co-commentator, giving me one piece of advice, which I have cherished over the years, "Don't talk unless you've got something worthwhile to say." Even if it means nothing is said for five or six minutes of a game, it is the right thing to do.

The commentating led to some work in the newspapers. I started writing a column for Vincent Browne in the Sunday Tribune, and Eamon again paved the way for me to do a column in the Evening Herald, one that continues to this day. I was also recommended to the Daily Express by the outstanding sports journalist Jim Lawton, with whom I had become friendly when I was managing in Vancouver. Jim and I would have a successful partnership doing a column over a twenty-year period, before parting company a couple of years ago.

As I was now officially becoming a pundit on television and in the papers, I felt the time had come to make a big confession. In the eyes of the general public, I had the image of being a creative player, which was true. But because I was rarely in trouble with referees, and was sent off only once in my entire career, I also had the image of being a lot more innocent of wrongdoing than I actually was. In the game, I had a darker reputation, not as one of the clichéd hard men, but as a more dangerous type. I could look after myself in a very professional way, as they say.

I took the decision that if I was to embark on a career in which honest comment was essential, in which I might have to condemn bad tackles, for example, then I would have to come clean about my well-earned reputation among my fellow professionals. It was pretty embarrassing, having to tarnish my own image in the Daily Express. Some of my friends thought I was mad to do it and warned me that, in future, I would be known only for the bad tackles, that the creative play would be forgotten. To a large extent, this has happened, but I still think it was the right thing to do, and it meant that I could never be accused of double standards when I was passing comment on others.

If I wanted to get into punditry properly, I would also have to cut any links with the dressing room, so that I wouldn't be protecting players or managers who were pals of mine. Even today, I can still see this malaise in a lot of television punditry, with ex-players going to great lengths to keep the viewer in the dark about any unique insights they might have. Not only are they not doing what they're supposed to be doing, they are doing the direct opposite.

So when Jack Charlton became manager of the Republic of Ireland in 1986, I found myself in the strange position of commenting on someone who had been both an old pal from the dressing room at Leeds United, and a rival candidate for the Ireland job. To some, Jack was my friend; to others, my enemy. You could get yourself really tangled up there, which again demonstrates that, in this game, you're better off just giving it straight.

* * * * *

Of course I knew Jack. One cold Monday morning in Yorkshire, a long time ago, the Leeds lads were sitting around after a hard training session when Jack picked up his newspaper, wrapped a towel around himself and announced that he was "off for a crap." The toilets were outside, opposite the dressing rooms, and were open-topped. When we knew that Jack was settled in across the way, Allan Clarke and I went outside, found the big drum used for gathering the kit, emptied it and filled it with freezing-cold water.

There was a skip outside the open-topped toilet where Jack was ensconced and we quietly lifted the drum onto it, and then got up there ourselves. Peering down into the toilet, we could see that Jack was totally engrossed in his newspaper. We couldn't miss him. We lifted the drum and let him have it. I can still hear his gasp of shock as the cold water lashed over him. We ran back to the dressing room and began to look as innocent as we could. Jack burst in, angrier than we'd ever seen him. He picked me out and said, "You fucking little Irish bastard, I know it was you."

He was right, but he couldn't know for sure -- and he never got an admission from me, until now.

"Jack it wasn't me," I said in injured tones. "You don't know who did that and still you're blaming me."

Allan Clarke, who wasn't Jack's favourite person, began to say something, perhaps the start of a confession. But Jack was too angry now, and he interrupted, "Don't you start, you skinny bastard." And as he stood there, his wet hair stuck to his head, his towel dripping, and the newspaper in his hand soaking wet, Jack declared defiantly, "I wouldn't mind, but you missed me anyway."

Then he slammed the wet newspaper on the dressing-room table and, looking around the room, gave us this warning, "No one . . . and I mean no one . . . will have a crap in peace again as long as I've anything to do with this club."

Yes, I knew Jack.

He could be a grumpy bugger, but he had qualities of honesty and decency which outweighed that. He was also the best centre-half in England between 1963 and 1972, and I am always delighted to see him at our Leeds reunions. We did have basic differences about how the game should be played. So when Jack was managing the Republic in his way, and I was starting to criticise him in my way, really it was just like old times.

Jack's main emphasis in the game was to "put them under pressure" when the opposition had the ball. Football is about time and space, and clearly the less time and space you give the opposition, the more chance you have of getting the ball back. I agreed with that. But I totally disagreed with Jack's lack of emphasis on using the ball constructively when his team was in possession. The way I see it, the more you keep the ball, the less you need to be winning it back in the first place.

When Ireland qualified for Euro '88 and then Italia '90, this basic philosophical difference between myself and Jack was being aired on RTÉ at a time when a lot of people just wanted to celebrate the Republic's success -- and it was worth celebrating. That success could partly be attributed to Jack's leadership, his absolute belief in what he was doing, and his ability to communicate that to the players. But if we were to do our job properly on the RTÉ panel, we also needed to point out that we now had an outstanding collection of players -- better than England's at that time -- and that this tabloid notion, that Jack was taking a bunch of journeymen and somehow enabling them to compete at the highest level, was just not right.

Amidst the growing euphoria of Italia '90, Ireland played a dire, scoreless draw with Egypt in Palermo, after which Eamon was seen to throw his pen across the table in frustration, declaring, "I am ashamed of Irish football today." The press mischievously turned this into Eamon declaring that he was ashamed to be Irish and, for a while, he became a scapegoat -- they couldn't turn on Jack or the players, so they turned on Eamon, whose car was surrounded by an angry mob at the airport as he arrived back from Italy. Mercifully, the guards arrived, and advised him to get out of there quickly, to take the long way home via Portmarnock. Yet despite all the ructions -- and maybe because of them -- Italia '90 was probably the making of the RTÉ panel.

While I would not agree with some of Jack's philosophy, I was delighted at his success in popularising the game in a way that had never been seen before in Ireland. We were getting huge audiences and even amid all the madness of that time, I think viewers could see that we weren't like the others on the BBC or ITV, who just said what everyone wanted to hear.

Today, we have a pool of about ten panellists and presenters for the World Cup, back then there was just Eamon, Bill O'Herlihy and myself broadcasting from a tiny studio in Montrose, covering all the games. Our life was studio to bed to studio, eating on the run. We had no time to read the papers and had no real contact with the outside world, so we weren't aware of our growing popularity. We went a bit mad with the scratchpad when Frank Rijkaard spat at Rudi Völler, and Eamon traced the trajectory of the spit from the Dutchman's mouth to the German's head, a special moment.

Then, as now, Bill had to hold it all together. Eamon and I had to know our own minds, but Bill had to know the minds of the viewers, and the questions they'd want him to raise, a job he has always done brilliantly.

We found out people were out there impersonating us. We used to say, "Hold it there," when we were using the scratchpad, and that became a catchphrase for comedians. The scratchpad itself was an innovation I had seen first in Canada, used by an ex-player called John Madden to illustrate the finer points of American football. I told Tim O'Connor about it and he brought one in for Euro '88. It is a cliché that football is a simple game. In fact it is very complex, and, like most things in life, it only appears simple when it is done properly. The scratchpad helped to simplify some of the complexities for viewers, just as John Madden's scratchpad had taught me about the moves leading to a touchdown.

Long before I arrived, Eamon's contribution had been immense. When he began in 1978, the ground rules for this sort of programme were already established. The producers were the bosses and the panellists had little or no influence in deciding what segments of a game should be analysed. But Eamon changed that. He felt that the former players were the professionals, which, of course, in matters of football, they were. And his judgement was backed by Tim O'Connor and Mike Horgan, all of which meant that our programmes were "driven from the floor," a phrase that is now synonymous with Eamon in RTÉ.

Eamon and I have had one horrible and well-known dispute, during the Saipan fiasco. Eamon supported Roy Keane. I tended to side with Mick McCarthy. I think Eamon felt that this was the same old FAI nonsense that we'd both been fighting against all our lives and, as a result, he may have expected me to support Keane.

And, of course, there were elements of the old FAI nonsense in it. But I still felt Keane himself was in a bad place at the time, that he was probably being oversensitive, that he should have waited until after the World Cup and then created a storm. Eamon and I had a fundamental difference of opinion which mirrored the split in the nation, and it damaged our relationship at the time. Millions of Irish people were caught up in the fever of Saipan, and we were feeling it too.

It was difficult for us, trying to do the programmes when we weren't on speaking terms, either off-air or on-air, but it was even more difficult for Bill O'Herlihy and others who worked around us, trying to make the best of it. The rapport we used to have just wasn't there for a while, which affected the programme as a whole, quite apart from what it was doing to Eamon and myself. We had known one another since we were kids, and now it had come to this, over something that happened between other people, on another continent.

It took us a while to make up, but we did, and it's all right now.

There was no dramatic summit meeting between us. I think that time just healed it, as it does for most people. And things were happening that confirmed the absurdity of it all. Keane accepted employment at Sunderland from Niall Quinn, one of his former arch-enemies. Keane and McCarthy shook hands as rival managers. And Keane has been quoted as saying that he now realises he wasn't playing for Mick McCarthy but for Ireland.

Eamon and I were actually together in RTÉ when we heard the stunning news that Keane was joining Quinn -- or Mother Teresa as he had called him -- as Sunderland's new manager.

"Imagine we fell out over those guys," I said.

* * * * *

We are also well-known for making that distinction between good players and great players. I feel it is important to draw that line for a few reasons. First of all, it is just better to be accurate in the words you use. If you're saying that everything is great, it all becomes meaningless. After all, if everything is great, ultimately nothing is great.

And in my view, football is entitled to the same set of standards as books or films or the theatre. In all these areas, serious efforts are made to try to establish who the true greats are, the ones whose work will stand the test of time.

Football has its own men of genius, as important in their own way as any of the great writers or painters -- arguably, they are more important because their genius is accessible to everyone. Basically, football makes more people happy than almost anything else out there. So it should be taken seriously, and its great practitioners should be honoured in the right way.

I was lucky enough to play with and against some of the great players of the game, and to watch some of them as a pundit. Players like Pelé, Garrincha, Beckenbauer, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto, Cruyff, Zidane, Bobby Charlton, Van Basten, Gullit, John Robertson, Kenny Dalglish, Roy Keane and Paul McGrath. They set the standards by which great players should be judged.

So when it comes to assessing Eric Cantona or Cristiano Ronaldo, I would say that they have done some of the things that great players do, but they have also done some things that the great players would never do. For example, Ronaldo does not always work for the benefit of the team, but for his own glorification. He remonstrates with his team-mates, even when he is at fault and he seldom, if ever, makes the effort to chase back and to regain possession of the ball when his team has lost it.

Like Cantona, he is an extraordinarily talented lad. He is a star -- and the game needs stars. A player may have great ability, but there are five other criteria for someone to be what I would regard as a great player.

1. Whatever abilities the player possesses must be used for the benefit of the team. This requires honesty of effort.

2. Moral courage is needed to take responsibility in accepting the ball, no matter how important the game and regardless of the score.

3. An honest effort must be made to regain possession when the other team has the ball.

4. There must be no public remonstration with team-mates.

5. A player must have the intelligence and humility to play the simple pass when that is the right thing to do.

Broadly speaking, all the great players have all of these virtues. And it diminishes their achievements when they are placed in the same bracket as players who are just extremely gifted. Television and television pundits are mainly responsible for raising a certain type of player who shouldn't really be there, to the very highest rank. My own father, Dickie, who had a real knowledge of the game, towards the end of his life was watching Match of the Day with me. "That Glenn Hoddle . . . great player," he said with an air of certainty.

Dickie was always totally convinced of his own rightness in football matters, to the extent that he was once sitting in the company of my Leeds team-mate Norman Hunter, and Norman was holding forth on the game, only to be told by Dickie, "Norman, son, you don't know what you're talking about."

Now, as we watched Match of the Day, in his eyes Glenn Hoddle had suddenly become a great player. Growing up, I had always deferred to my father's knowledge of the game, but now I had had my own career, and had developed my own knowledge, so when he started on the greatness of Glenn Hoddle, I felt it was time to pull rank on him.

"I played against Glenn Hoddle loads of times. And I can tell you he's not a great player," I said. I explained that Hoddle had excellent technique and was a wonderful distributor of the ball, but that he never really delivered in a way that the great players did. I felt this was because he lacked the real sharpness and aggression which top midfielders possess. When he had the time and space, he could have a series of matches in which he was outstanding. But this would lead to closer marking and because of this lack of sharpness in tight situations, he couldn't lose his marker. So he would become anonymous for a few games, at which point opponents relaxed a bit, giving him the freedom and space to show his class. And so it went, which helps to explain why Hoddle could have fifty caps for England, and was still widely regarded as "promising".

"And another thing you're forgetting," I said to my father. "Match of the Day is a highlights programme."

Even Dickie Giles, who had seen countless thousands of football matches, was tending to ignore the fact that Match of the Day was leaving out a lot of things. That the camera, in this case, was lying.

I never thought I'd end up in front of those cameras one day. But I'm very glad that I did.

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