John Giles Leeds Utd & Ireland Legend Talks About His Career & Euro 2016
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John Giles is one of Ireland’s most iconic football men. He won every major domestic honour in English football in addition to two European trophies with Leeds United and was capped 59 times for Ireland. Having both captained and managed his country, he has since become one of Ireland’s best loved pundits on RTE as part of the holy trinity with Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady. The upcoming European Championships will be the 16th and final major tournament that he will cover for RTE having started back in 1985. Iconic Underground were delighted to get the chance to catch up with him after the official launch of the station’s coverage.
IU: First off I’d like to say thanks from all at Iconic Underground to one of Ireland’s most iconic footballers for giving up your time to talk to us, we’ll start by going back to when you were growing up in Dublin. Obviously your Dad would have had won the league over here with Bohs and went on to manage Drumcondra, had you any interest in the League of Ireland as a child or was the focus on England even then?
JG: Oh yeah. Well, although I took an interest in England I was born on Ormonde Square which is Northside and most of my pals were Drumcondra fans apart from a few Shamrock Rovers. So we used to go to all the Drumcondra matches and as my Dad was manager of Drums from when I was around 9 or 10 he used to take me down the country to the away games as well. My first match was Dundalk but obviously there were no motorways back then so there were some long trips, I remember going to the likes of Sligo and Cork on the team bus and they wouldn’t come straight home after the match, the bus would leave at 11 so the lads, including my Dad, would be going for a few jars. There was a lad called Dessie Glynn, who was a terrific player, and a lovely man called Jack Kelly who went on to be involved with the FAI who didn’t drink so they used to look after me which must have been a total pain for them! And of course all the lads wouldn’t arrive back at 11 but would be in dribs and drabs and would always bring a couple of crates with them for the sing song on the journey back so it’d be all hours before we’d arrive back although I’d usually sleep on the way home. But, yeah, I was a big League of Ireland fan at that time. That Drums team of Kit Lawlor, who my father idolised, Benny Henderson, Kinsella, Coffey, Johnny Robinson, Peter Crowe, Pa Daly, I would have known them all and they would have been my idols as a kid
IU: And would you have kept going to LOI matches up until you went to England?
JG: Well my Da had finished with Drums then but the great Rovers teams came along around 54/55 with the great Paddy Coad, Noely Peyton, Liam Tuohy and Liam Hennessy so I used to go and watch them a bit but then I went to England and kind of lost contact with the League of Ireland.
IU: Would you have been to any League of Ireland games recently?
JG: I covered a couple for RTE a few years back but I’m usually away so don’t get a chance.
IU: You were very young when you made your debut for Ireland at 19 having only played a couple of games for Man United yet you made an immediate impact. Do you think it’s possible for that to happen today?
JG: I think it can be done, I was just short of 19 when I made my debut and I’d only played 2 matches at Man Utd although there was less players to select in those days. Liam Brady did the same a good bit after me, I was ’59 and he was ’74, I think if you’re good enough you can do it. If you look at Rashford in England, he’s gone into the Man Utd team and gone straight into the England set up. There seems to be less players coming into the game from the likes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I think we have a bit of an advantage in that there’s now players coming out of areas that we didn’t have before because of the success under Jack, Long from Tipperary, Doyle from Wexford before him. We always had lads from football towns like Sligo and Waterford but it’s bigger in other areas as well now. But there’s distractions of computers, play stations etc these days, kids don’t play ball in the streets as much as they used to.
IU: In your own career, which was a bigger professional disappointment: Not winning the European Cup in 1975, or losing the 1965 playoff v Spain in Paris? Would you rather have won what’s now the Champions League or played in a tournament for Ireland?
JG: That’s a good question. The European Cup came at the end of my career, in fact it was my last game for Leeds. <pause> Very difficult question. The European Cup is a one off, you either win it or you don’t win it and back then you had to win the league to get into it so it was huge. In my time with Ireland we never really looked like qualifying especially when I was younger so I was never that disappointed about it. When I became player manager we could at least challenge for it but what you never had you never miss. We were close in ’65 but it was a bit of a freak situation and we weren’t really prepared for it. We were in a group of 3 and one pulled out so it was us or Spain. We beat them in Dublin but they gave us a hiding in Seville. As it wasn’t aggregate back it went to a playoff in Paris but we weren’t really prepared for it.
IU: Do you think playing it in London as it should have been would have made any difference?
JG: Well, we did alright in Paris but it should have been played in London. But we had a mickey mouse set up back then, we had a selection committee of 5 picking the team, I don’t know how we would have done had we qualified, I think it could have been a mess going into a big tournament like that with a selection committee still picking the team.
IU: I suppose the one plus is it would have been close to home so the support would have been good.
JG: Well the support would have been good but we’d still have had a selection committee picking the team don’t forget! <laughs>
IU: Was that the biggest disappointment of your Ireland career, not playing in a major tournament?
JG: I would have loved to have played at a major tournament but it wasn’t on in the early days. In the old days when the draw was made all they’d talk about was how much money could be made, there was never talk about qualifying with the selection committee. When I took over after Liam Tuohy at least we were looking to qualify although we never got there.
IU: Was the game against Bulgaria in Sofia in 1977 the dirtiest international match you played in? Do you think we could have qualified had we managed to win over there after getting back to one all?
JG: Nobody was winning in Bulgaria back then. There was a lot of speculation, more than speculation about Bulgaria and I saw it first hand. They qualified for every competition back then and never won a match when they got there. The time we played I scored a goal myself and they looked on RTE for 10 reasons why it was disallowed and they couldn’t find one so that was a major disappointment. I actually went to the French match over there that campaign and they were robbed as well, it’s just how it was at that time.
IU: When you selected the side to play the USSR in 1974 including 18 yr old Liam Brady did you ever contemplate we’d demolish that formidable team 3-0?
JG: No, no. I’d taken over the previous year and we’d played Poland and we won before going on a tour of South America and we did ok, lost 2-1 to Brazil and 2-0 to Uruguay but beat Chile. So we were coming on but the first competitive match was against the USSR who were a top team at the time so we were going into the unknown a bit. We never thought beforehand we could have got a result like that but we played exceptionally well, it was Liam’s first match, Don Givens got his 3 goals, we really deserved the win.
IU: Looking back at footage from that game and era that atmosphere looks very special in Dalymount with people crammed in and even standing on the roof of the school end. Should the FAI have kept our home matches at Dalymount and looked at redeveloping it rather than moving to Lansdowne in the 70s?
JG: I don’t think they had the money to redevelop, I think they had to go. When we were doing okay we were getting 50,000 at Lansdowne, we couldn’t have got 50,000 at Dalymount without everyone going through the roof of the stand! <laughs> Dalymount was special though, teams didn’t like coming to Dalymount, it was compact with the crowd on top of them, we were actually at a disadvantage leaving, if it was up to me I’d have preferred to play the games there but there was no choice and it was the right decision to go. There were good crowds in those days. Jack took over in 1986 which was great but what I find strange is that some people talk as if there was no football in this country before Big Jack. There was always huge interest in the game when things were going well.
IU: What were your proudest moments as international manager and international player apart from your debut for each?
JG: The USSR match was a turning point for us and started the expectancy with the crowd and the players for qualification. As player and manager that was my proudest moment but I’ll never forget my first match. Like most kids, I used to go with my Da to watch the Irish team and dream about playing so it was a dream come true and your debut is a one off but the USSR game felt like it was leading to something.
IU: How did you find working with the FAI when you were international manager?
JG: I was okay with them. What I established with the FAI was that I could look after the team affairs, I’d a free hand to do what I wanted with training, picking the team, I never had any interference with squad selection and that was all I wanted, the admin side had nothing to do with me.
IU: How difficult was it to manage Ireland while still playing and effectively holding down two jobs?
JG: I think it was a full time job even in my day. What happened with me was that Liam Tuohy was doing a good job and he quit unexpectedly so they came to me when I was still at Leeds and asked would I do the job as player manager which I said I would do but they knew and I knew that I would have to do it on a restricted basis. I was only 33 and still playing at a Leeds team that was doing well so I couldn’t go and see players but they had no money to get anyone. I didn’t really want the job at that stage but I wasn’t doing it for the money, they were paying buttons at the time, it was always a full time job but that was the best they could do. .
IU: After you resigned following a 3-2 victory against Cyprus at the start of the World Cup 82 campaign, did you have any regrets when you saw how close the team came to qualifying and do you think we may have got over the line had you remained in charge?
JG: I don’t know but I think it was the right time to go on a personal level, whatever happens after that happens…..I remember that Cyprus match and we were winning 3-0 and we got 2 outrageous decisions against us including a penalty to bring them back which made us a bit nervy but I wasn’t surprised when we put 7 past them in Dublin, I feel we could have got 5 or 6 in Cyprus had those decisions not gone against us, without making excuses.
IU: Was there much criticism back here after that result?
JG: Well, I’d been in the job 7 years at that time so you start getting a bit of criticism regardless by then. I don’t think it was too heavy as we won the game, there was a bit of stick for letting them back in at 3-0 but the game was more comfortable than the result suggests.
IU: You were only 15 when you went to England but in 1977/78 when joining Shamrock Rovers you said:
“I want to see Irish football standing on it’s own feet, to set standards to be followed by others rather than for us to be led. We should not worry about England but set our own standards at League and International level. We must entice young boys to stay at home and create something worthwhile here.”
Do you think it’s luck that the likes of Long, Doyle, Coleman, Ward, Hoolahan, Forde and McClean have made it following a stint in the LOI rather than any systems that clubs have in place or do you think that what you spoke about in the 70’s is possible today?
JG: <Long pause> I think it was probably almost impossible then and now. Although we kept a certain amount of young players here we were trying to do it on our own with no real back up. At least today the clubs have had a bit of government backing in recent years but we got more resentment than backing. We did produce a few players eventually such as Liam Buckley, Alan Campbell, Pierce O’Leary and Jim Beglin but I made the mistake of concentrating too much on the youth and the supporters got fed up with us, quite rightly as we weren’t winning, I was thinking too much of the future, a bit like Arsene Wenger! <laughs> What Jim McLaughlin did when he took over was add some experienced LOI players, which I should have done, and Rovers had a lot of success after that. But I think the lure of going over to England will always be too strong for most lads.
IU: Would you like to see our young players go to more diverse locations than just the UK?
JG: Yeah, that could happen now. Going back to ’77 the idea of players going to France or Germany was unheard of but now young people have a different outlook on life and to go to Germany or France or Spain or wherever, if they’re good enough to do it why not.
IU: They could even get a better grounding in the game there than they would in England.
JG: They may well do but we’re still losing them! <laughs>
IU: Staying on the League of Ireland, attendances were much higher around the time you were a player. Any thoughts on how to improve attendances today?
JG: I think it’s very very difficult. When I watched LOI football there was no television so you didn’t have to compete with the Premier League or Sky, I mean you can watch football every day of the week now without leaving the house. And the competition now is getting greater than ever, there’s 5 Premier League matches on TV every weekend and then you have people going over to watch matches as well. And that’s not including Spanish football and Italian football. I’d love to see increased crowds at LOI games but I don’t see how they can do it.
IU: It’s a pity because I think that players will play better in front of a big crowd, if you saw the Copa 90 documentary last year about the Bohs-Rovers derby, there was a full house and the players responded to the atmosphere, it was a cracking game.
JG: Definitely, there’s nothing worse than playing with nobody at the match. In fairness, I think what has happened in the LOI is that the pitches have improved, in my day we got Milltown in good condition but apart from Dalymount and one or two others it was dismal. People got fed up with me and they’d tell me to stop moaning, that it was the same for everyone which is the biggest load of nonsense ever, you don’t expect the great snooker players to play on a bumpy table! You can even see it in the LOI, players can play better if the pitches are good and that’s one great thing that has improved.
IU: Do you feel the FAI should make a more determined effort to support, finance and encourage LOI football?
JG: I don’t really know how they can, I think they’ve done their best but how do you finance it? A lot of the clubs went full time a few years ago and all got into trouble, Shels, Drogheda, Cork, Bohs, I mean how do you finance that?
IU: Funny thing is the standard definitely increased at that time as the wages offered attracted better players but it was unsustainable.
JG: Exactly, it couldn’t be sustained. It was all a gamble to qualify for Europe, get a good draw and get money in that way but what if you get a bad draw?
IU: Even with Shamrock Rovers when they got into the Europa League group stage a few years ago the only game that sold out in Tallaght was against Spurs.
JG: Exactly, I don’t see how the FAI can finance it. The league or a club can’t stand on it’s own without the crowds coming in, otherwise you’re spending too much.
IU: How come a country like Uruguay with a similar population size to us can produce some great footballers and go far in tournaments, is it just down to the competition from GAA and Rugby in your opinion?
JG: What we must remember in this country is the Gaelic Football and Hurling are our national games. If we were playing World Cups in them we would win them every time! <laughs> So soccer’s not our national game, I’m not sure if it’s Uruguay’s but they probably have a bigger proportion of kids playing it. We also play Rugby, Golf etc, the amount of sportspeople we produce is incredible.
IU: Getting back to management, in 1986 the original managerial shortlist was yourself, Liam Tuohy and Jack Charlton, until Bob Paisley was added to the list at the last minute, do you think you would have been reappointed manager if Paisley’s name hadn’t been added to the list and skewed the voting?
JG: I don’t know. I think whatever was going on at that time I wasn’t going to be appointed anyway! <laughs>
IU: What motivated you to put your hat in the ring after walking away from football a few years before that?
JG: To be honest I’d spoken to some friends who said I should do it but I didn’t really have my heart in it, if I’d really wanted it at that time I’d have canvassed for it. The way it was done wasn’t right, there was a lot of maneuvering going on behind the scenes at that time but it was a long time ago.
IU: Did you feel any bitterness towards Jack for getting the job ahead of you?
JG: No, no, it was nothing to do with Jack. <laughs> Jack put his name in the hat and he was as surprised as anyone when he got it! There was no rivalry between Jack and myself, none at all.
IU: How do you think you would have done had you gotten the job, would we still have qualified for 1988, 1990 and 1994 under a second Giles reign?
JG: Nobody knows. All I’ll say is that we had the best collection of players we’ve ever had before or since at that time. I mean for centre halves alone we had David O’Leary, McCarthy, Moran, Lawrenson, McGrath. We had Stapleton, John Aldridge and Ray Houghton coming on the scene, Whelan, Staunton, Beglin before he got injured. Then Roy Keane, Denis Irwin, Townsend coming through. Terrific group of players. But nobody knows how anybody else might have done, I couldn’t even comment.
IU: Is there anything you’d have done or would do differently if you managed the Irish team again?
JG: Every manager does it in their own way. Jack did it in his one way and did things I wouldn’t have agreed with but he qualified us for 3 tournaments. And what Jack did that was great was that he popularised the game in a way that it had never been popularised before. That was great for the game itself, as we mentioned earlier with players produced in areas that didn’t produce players before.
IU: What’s your opinion on the job Martin O’Neill has done so far?
JG: Well, all’s well that ends well, I mean his job was to get us to the Euros which he did and although there were a few ups and downs on the way, we got there. It’s a bit like Big Jack Charlton when he first had the job for Euro 88 it looked like we weren’t going to make it so he was getting criticism after we’d finished our matches but Scotland still had to play in Bulgaria and the famous Gary Mackay goal beat Bulgaria and put us through. So Jack qualified without the team having to kick a ball, he’d gone off fishing for a week and given up on it but then he was a hero!
IU: In relation to the squad announced last night, is there anything that stands out or any changes you’d have made?
JG: I don’t think so, a squad of 23 is big enough so I don’t think you can make too many mistakes. I think there might be a bit of controversy over Shay Given going ahead of David Forde, who played very well earlier in the campaign, particularly away to Germany when we got the 1-1 draw but it’s very hard to criticise or grumble when you’ve a squad of 23.
IU: I’d have gone for McGoldrick over Murphy personally as I don’t think Murphy gives us much of a goal threat but outside of that and Given over Forde as you mentioned I don’t think there’s any surprises
JG: Well, I don’t think either Murphy or McGoldrick would be likely to play anyway.
IU: Although O’Neill did start Murphy in a few of the qualifiers, against Scotland and Germany and even the first leg against Bosnia.
JG: That’s true but Long has come back into form since then and he wasn’t in the team at that stage.
IU: Yeah, I think Long’s form is a huge plus for us.
JG: It’s huge for us if he plays as well as he has been playing.
IU: That actually brings me onto my next question, Shane Long hasn’t always started under O’Neill or Trapattoni before him but, as you say, he’s finished the season really strongly and surely has to start?
JG: Oh, definitely. He’s been excellent at the end of the season. As we said, he hasn’t always started under Martin, the goal he scored against Germany he came on as sub. I hope he can do it for us as he did for Southampton recently
IU: Talking of the Germany game at home, the team obviously got a lift from the win but reverted to old habits for the away game in Poland where we could have qualified automatically but played very poorly. For me, the momentum really began with the two playoff performances against Bosnia which were probably the best two performances of the campaign, would you agree?
JG: We had a free shot at the Poland game really as the playoff place was secure but we didn’t play well. You have to take the game on it’s merits, go out to play positively and if it’s there for the winning, go out and take it.
IU: Being over at the game myself, I thought having got to one all after 15 minutes we had a chance to kick on and get a second goal which would have left them needing two but we didn’t do it.
JG: Poland were very nervous, I thought they were there for the taking but anyway we didn’t do it but we’re there anyway, we’re competing in the tournament and that’s the main thing. The Bosnia games were a big improvement.
IU: When I last spoke with you, Trap was still in charge and playing with 2 centre midfielders in the holding role whose main job was to protect the defense, which was the norm. There was some criticism during the campaign that we hadn’t moved on from that under Martin, what do you think?
JG: I think there’s more variety in Martin’s teams than there was in Trapattoni’s. I think when Trapattoni came in he said this is how we’re going to play and this is what we’re going to do and I don’t think there was any change in it. I think there’s more flexibility in this team.
IU: Is there anything you’d change in the Irish set up to improve the team?
JG: I definitely think we need more creativity in the middle of the field, I don’t think Whelan and McCarthy give us the creativity we need. I think we need to get Brady and Hoolahan in there somewhere.
IU: I think Brady will probably start at left full but he’s vital for his set plays. I was sorry that Harry Arter misses out through injury as I think he can offer something different
JG: Yeah, it’s very unfortunate for him, he’s had a troubled season with injuries, it’s just bad luck sometimes, you can’t do anything about it.
IU: Jon Walters has become a bit of a cult hero with the fans during this campaign and I know you’re a fan of Wes Hoolahan. Who else do you think can have a positive impact in the tournament?
JG: Walters has been great all the campaign, hopefully his injury is okay and he’s match fit for it because we need him badly, he’s been a terrific player for the Irish team. I really hope he’s fit and well.
IU: For me, himself, Hoolahan and Long are probably the three stand out players that we need playing.
JG: Yeah, we need them fit and well. And, as I said, we need to get Brady in there somewhere.
IU: How do you think we’ll do in France?
JG: I think we’re capable of coming out of the group but you have to do your stuff, nobody is going to give us anything. We’ve got to make the most of what we have and if you do that then you can’t do any more. What I hope is that if we don’t qualify that we can’t say “Well, we could have done this” or “we should have done that”. I think we’ll prepare for it well, get the right players on the pitch and hope that they do themselves justice. If we do that then I think we have a good chance of getting out of the group.
IU: How vital do you think the Sweden game is?
JG: Well, all the games are vital, once we play Sweden then the Belgium game is going to be more vital. You can only play one game at a time and that’s what we have to do, play Sweden, get a good result and then go on from there
IU: Hopefully it’ll be better on the pitch than 2012 anyway!
JG: I hope so! <laughs>
IU: You left Robbie Keane out of the best Irish 11 you picked for your book, ‘The Great and The Good’ for Frank Stapleton and Don Givens. What’s your thinking behind that given how far ahead of anyone else he is in terms of goals scored, his goal-scoring ratio and important goals scored in qualifiers, playoffs and at the World Cup?
JG: Robbie’s a top player. When you’re picking a best 11 you can’t win! I don’t like picking best 11’s because you have to leave so many players out but it’s about talking points. I mean I could say Don didn’t play as many matches as Robbie but people will look at that and say ‘well, I’d have picked so and so’. I’d have the highest regard and respect for Robbie.
IU: I think even his biggest fans agree that a starting position is possibly beyond him now but do you think he can still have an impact from the bench?
JG: He’s been a great servant but he is playing in America so the traveling goes with that and he’s not at his peak anymore. But he’s still scoring goals in the States and got a few in qualifying, albeit against the smaller teams, so maybe there’ll be a goal in him in France.
IU: Speaking of him being in America would you see any comparison with your stint at Philadelphia Fury?
JG: I was 37 or 38 at that stage, my career was basically finished. Without being jealous, the players of my generation wouldn’t have had the financial rewards available today so the money on offer in the States was too good to refuse. All the lads of my generation had to find a way of making a living when they retired. Good luck to the lads today, if I’d been earning the money they do I’d have been long finished by then! <laughs>
IU: What advice would you give youngsters trying to make it professionally in the game and, ultimately, play for Ireland?
JG: Practice, practice, practice. Play as much with the ball as you can, play as many games as you can. Have your dreams and keep at it. You can’t have too much time with the ball, same in Ireland as it is in Brazil, your control can never be too good. As you get older you have to work harder but for young kids, get the ball, play with the ball, and practice with the ball as much as possible.
IU: Who was the best player you played with for Ireland and the best you would have seen?
JG: <long pause> I’m not trying to sit on the fence here but all players play in different positions. It’s easier to say who the best centre forward was for example. I played with Charlie Hurley who was an outstanding player. Liam Brady was outstanding, Don Givens, Tommy Dunne, Noel Cantwell, Steve Heighway, Frank Stapleton. I didn’t have the pleasure of playing with Roy Keane and Paul McGrath.
IU: We’ll just finish up with a few light hearted questions. What do you think of Après Match?
JG: I think they’ve been very good over the years, obviously their job is to add a bit of humour to the coverage and they’re very funny.
IU: Have you ever felt like launching a 2 footed tackle at Eamon in the studio?
JG: No! <laughs> You’ve seen the big debates with Liam and Eamon over the years, it’s what lads have in the pub. You know what it’s like, you sometimes get into a heated debate with your mates but once it’s over you don’t fall out over it.
IU: Another icon you played with, albeit that he became famous in a different field, was Luke Kelly of Dubliners fame, what was he like as a centre back? I saw you use the word ‘gentle’ talking about him before?!
JG: He was yeah! He was the same age as me, I would have played for Home Farm with him, he was already as big at 15 as he ended up. With the big mop of red hair and he looked like he’d kill you on the pitch but he was the gentlest player I ever played with! He loved his football!
IU: John, thank you very much for your time, it’s been great talking to you.
JG: No bother, all the best!
John Giles will be part of the RTE panel for their Euro 2016 coverage.
Part of this interview was previously published by the same interviewer on www.ybig.ie.
John Giles latest book, ‘The Great and The Good — The Legendary Players, Managers and Teams of 50 Football Years’ is published by Hachette Ireland and is currently available in all good book shops.
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