Goodbye to football men

It is not an uncommon scenario; the rugby man, with all his connections and influence, sending the football man, with his talents, away from the office disappointed.

Goodbye to football men

No doubt John Giles would have experienced many more meetings in his life like the one with RTÉ head of sport Ryle Nugent, had he not been among the top two or three football men the country has produced.

It might be a little unfair to Ryle, and to RTÉ, to see The End of Gilesy in that context, but you could excuse Giles a rueful recollection of old orders.

In his great autobiography A Football Man, Giles described the football community of his youth “as a sect which had to look after itself”, a state of affairs that persists, in many ways.

‘Corner boys’, boxed in between the influence of rugby and the establishment of GAA.

John Giles was never a corner boy, though he was never called ‘Pythagoras in Boots’ either, one of the many labels Johan Cruyff collected.

On Thursday, we said different kinds of goodbye to two men who were on intimate terms with a football.

“Right from the start. I could kick a ball correctly. I was not aware of this in any abstract or technical way, I could just feel the joy in it,” is the way Giles tells it.

In David Winner’s book Brilliant Orange, Ajax historian Evert Verneer recalls how Cruyff would criticise technique while looking away from the pitch. “It’s obvious. When he kicks the ball, the sound is wrong.”

By the time Giles volleyed, at 18, his first goal for Ireland at Dalymount Park, awareness had heightened. And joy. “A contact that felt so perfect I could hardly feel it at all.”

With the way the term “Football Man” has been hijacked, across the water at least, as shorthand for wheeler-dealing, gilet-wearing, bantz-cracking Phil Brownery, it seems more crucial than ever to enshrine the game’s most important relationship — between a player and the ball.

Where Giles and Cruyff parted ways, on the face of it anyway, was on tactics. On Thursday, on Newstalk’s Off The Ball, Giles lauded Cruyff’s greatness as a player and a manager, but couldn’t help play down the influence his Ajax teams had on the way the game was played.

The great Hungarian team. The Germans. ‘Us at Leeds’. Manchester United. They all played in that way, reckoned Giles.

Mostly, Gilesy’s wariness of the Total Football tag is down to a trained nose for bullshit, or ‘nonsense’ as he’d call it. “Journalists and that want to give it a name.” A phobia of spoofers packaging the game’s fundamental truths into a brand.

In reality, everything we have ever heard from Giles — and have seemingly tired of hearing — echoes Cruyff’s core principles.

Always make yourself available to receive the ball. Make an honest effort to win it back as soon as you lose it. Great players make the game simple.

A mistrust too, of the showboater. Like Cruyff, Giles would send the player who juggled the ball four times “to the circus”.

But if Rinus Michels and Cruyff revelled in the detail of tactics and formations and built a philosophy into a brand and even a way of life, Giles has more or less rebelled against any distractions from the core imperative: Taking up the right position to receive the ball.

“There are no great tactics out there,” he’ll tell us, none at least that will help the centre-mid who has just turned away from his full-back.

“To know the game is an innate thing. An instinct in itself. A mysterious ability that can come from anywhere,” Giles has written.

Perhaps, if there were more players around like him, visited by that mysterious ability, Michels and Cruyff wouldn’t have had to work so hard to sell their boys the right thing to do. And Leeds would have won three European Cups.

We only have one Giles and it seems we have had enough of him.

Cruyff was Holland’s John Lennon, insist the great thinkers, the man who did more than anyone to shape the personality of the modern Netherlands.

Gilesy preferred Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis and had enough to be getting on with trying to knock some shape on the FAI.

When finally a football man — his old pal Jack — came along that did make some adjustments to the personality of this nation, it was left to Giles — while Eamo threw his pen — to quietly share his misgivings about some of the missionary’s preachings.

Just as it was left to the father of Dutch football to disown his son after the 2010 World Cup final, when the Netherlands betrayed their heritage by attempting to maim Spain, Johan’s adopted son.

When our greatest footballing influencer threatened to shape our personality into something a little meaner and less forgiving in 2002, Giles was called on again, with Liam Brady, to defend the part of our football culture that demands respect.

If his departure from RTÉ has anything to do with cost, a look at the Montrose top-earner table will tell you the value placed on that football culture.

Giles may no longer be the man to give you players’ names. He was never the man to chart formations.

He’ll always be the man to turn to on sad days like Thursday, the man who was in the middle of the field at Elland Road, beating Cruyff’s Barcelona in a European Cup semi-final.

A modern ‘Football Man’ would likely give you some bullshit, if that night came up. But Gilesy has the moral courage to tell how it went, how Cruyff stayed out the left wing, doing nothing, not really making himself available to receive the ball.

Gamers salvage this dull week

They are dangerous, terrible things, international friendly weeks. Worse nearly than the national leagues.

If there were any more of them, this regrettable notion that some football matches don’t really matter could infect everything we hold dear.

You can see why the rugby lads persist with the pretence of the ‘Test match’.

Already this lull in the real action has claimed a victim, Martin O’Neill, the sheer tedium of the whole thing luring him knee-deep after Novak Djokovic into Keysian, Sid the Sexist territory.

Did we get the obligatory ‘some of my best friends are women’ retraction yet? I’ve lost track.

The week’s saving grace, then, was the Fifa Interactive World Cup, shown on Sky Sports.

The best players in the world — on Xbox and Playstation at least — playing football that really mattered.

It certainly mattered very much to the pundits, who even criticised some of the officiating, which might be the best argument yet against a video referee.

Alexis Lalas and David Villa were on duty this year. But given his sudden availability, and his many lectures about the damage Playstations — and ‘personal stereos’ — have done to our supply of footballers, you couldn’t help imagine an unsuspecting Gilesy landing the gig next year.

A Danish lad beat an English chap in a dramatic finale, scoring twice in the last 20 seconds.

The commentator felt “we had just seen the best Fifa interactive World Cup final of all time.” Villa hailed the “professionalism and mental strength.”

You can almost picture Gilesy’s face. Especially as the Danish lad hit pause and spent an age rejigging his tactics and formation before bagging the winner.

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