John Giles’ world-wide standing in the game was illustrated in 2003 when he was a winner of a UEFA’s Jubilee Award as the best Irish player of the past 50 years. His reputation is without parallel in Ireland after a distinguished career at club and international level as player and manager.
His enduring excellence saw him enjoy an extended career that stretched more than 20 years and featured successful periods as player and manager in Ireland, England, the USA and Canada.
His contribution to football did not end there for, over the past 25 years, he has entertained and enlightened followers of the game as a football commentator/analyst on Ireland’s national TV station, RTE, and as columnist in a number of national daily newspapers.
Indeed he is probably more widely known for the forthright and trenchant contributions he has made to RTE’s coverage of major football than for his football, despite his distinguished and remarkably successful career as footballer/manager.
For he was at his peak as a player in the 1960/’70 era when TV and media coverage generally of the game was far from being as extensive or as sustained as it is now. Live coverage on TV of cross-channel and international football matches was especially limited in Ireland in this period.
John Giles was identified as a special football player early for he was just 15 years of age when signed by Manchester United in 1957 on the recommendation of the club’s famous Dublin-based scout, Billy Behan.
The schoolboy Giles joined the most famous club in England at a time when Matt Busby was electrifying the English League after assembling a team that threatened to revolutionise the game.
This team, known popularly as the “Busby Babes”, was composed of some of the most precocious talents ever produced in England in the persons of Duncan Edwards, the Dublin-born Liam Whelan, Bobby Charlton, Harry Gregg, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, David Pegg, Bill Foulkes, Jackie Blanchflower etc. etc.
United won back-to-back League Championship titles in 1956 and 1957 and were set on a course to dominate English football when the team was devastated by a horrendous plane crash in Munich in February 1958 on their return journey from a European Champions Cup tie in Belgrade.
This tragic accident meant that Giles was denied the opportunity of playing in this exceptional team and when he made his League debut for United in 1959 against Tottenham Hotspur, he had but two survivors of that crash alongside him in Harry Gregg and Bobby Charlton.
Giles helped United win the FA Cup in 1963 when United, captained by another Irish international in Noel Cantwell, defeated Leicester City 3-1 at Wembley. It was his first senior trophy and the forerunner of many more honours after he transferred later that Summer to Leeds United.
It was at Elland Road that Giles enjoyed his most prolific spell. Leeds were promoted from the second division to the first in his first season and they developed rapidly to dominate the English game for the next decade.
Giles was the on-field general of the team in midfield and in partnership with manager Don Revie he directed a team that brought unparalleled success to Elland Road. He had capable lieutenants alongside him on the pitch in players such as Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter, Peter Lorimer, Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray, Jack Charlton,
Paul Reaney, Gary Sprake and Leeds challenged for major honours every season.
Leeds were pipped for the League Championship title in the first season following their promotion and they went on to win the title in 1969 and 1974 and were runners-up five times.
He made 383 appearances and scored 87 goals for Leeds as they won the FA Cup in 1972, the League Cup in 1968, the UEFA Fairs Cup in 1968. They were runners-up in the UEFA Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1973 and the European Cup (the UEFA Champion Clubs’ Cup), the forerunner of the current Champions’ League, in 1975.
John Giles excelled in midfield for Ireland throughout this period. His international debut at 19 years in 1959 was memorable for he scored an exceptional goal against Sweden in a match won 3-2 by Ireland at Dalymount Park.
He played in 59 international matches and scored five goals, He was player/manager and then manager of Ireland from 1973 until 1980 and was captain in 24 matches.
West Brom & Shamrock Rovers
Giles always showed the capacity to accept and thrive on responsibility and when he left Leeds United in 1975 he took over as player/manager of West Brom in the second division. He led them to promotion in his first season and in 1977 returned to his native Dublin to take over at Shamrock Rovers.
He spent almost six years with Shamrock Rovers and led them to win the FAI Cup in 1978. And then he moved to Canada where he was manager of Vancouver Whitecaps from 1981 to 1983. He was voted Coach of the Year in the NASL in 1982.
Giles brought his active football career to a close with a final spell in charge of West Brom in 1984/85 but his contribution to the game that made him famous continues in his media work and in his involvement in this latest venture – the John Giles Foundation.
First published January 25th 2011