LARRY RYAN: Bringing out real personality

The day before the day of days. Soon, that protracted qualification tournament held in London last summer will have produced an overall winner.

Somebody will claim the crown that gained added prestige in 2006, when Zara Phillips — 13th in line to the other throne — won for some kind of horse whispering.

The importance of this weekend in the British sporting calendar is best illustrated by Gary Lineker’s cleared diary. There will be no Match of the Day for Gary tonight, as rehearsals continue for the big one; BBC SPOTY.

Britain’s leading pun writers will, by now, have assembled at his disposal as he teases out a little flirtatious banter with Sue Barker, while Jake Humphreys looks on, mortified. And the finest choreography and comedy minds are doubtless busy finalising a topical segment involving Tom Daley and diving footballers that will, if the budget and the suits stretch to him this year, culminate in some class of belly flop from James Corden.

So with Gary thus sidetracked, what better time for John Giles to wage his ‘war of words’? This week, as you may have noticed, Gilesy ‘hit back’ at Lineker’s suggestion that RTÉ’s pundits are forthright only because they don’t have to deal directly with the footballers they routinely criticise.

Nonsense, insisted Gilesy. You’re in the wrong gig if you want to keep friends in football, was his gist.

Right and wrong on both sides. The extravagant, if compelling, exaggerations of Eamon Dunphy, wouldn’t, as Lineker contends, wash in an environment where people like Alex Ferguson can disappear for seven years over a grievance. Scurvy pups and congenital losers make reluctant post-match interviewees.

But, at the same time, the non-hysterical yet authoritative wisdom of Giles would complement any panel the BBC could throw together for Lineker to chair. And the only friends lost would be enemies of the truth.

Gary and Gilesy could have made a magnificent punditry double act. As hinted at in his documentary work, Lineker is more thoughtful on football than MOTD suggests.

Gilesy’s minimal tolerance for banter might have helped Lineker inherit a little of Jimmy Hill’s ability to set agendas. While Lineker may, if he had the interest, have prized Gilesy’s mind ajar to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, tactics sometimes have a part to play in football at the highest level.

Lineker complains MOTD doesn’t have time for real analysis, but just as Gilesy always made time for himself on the ball, he can be incisive however the clock allows. In many cases, ‘dreadful, Gary’ might well be enough.

Lineker choose a different route, a way where word-play is at least as important as great play. The books they have released this Christmas offer perhaps the best indicator of how far Gary and Gilesy’s paths have diverged. In Football: it’s Unbelievable! Lineker explores “embarrassing mistakes, ludicrous haircuts and ghastly shirts.

In The Great and the Good, Giles does what he has always done: set standards.

Tomorrow, Lineker throws himself into the coronation of a sporting personality with almost obscene relish. But it’s hard to imagine Giles holding any event in less regard. It’s evident through his book Giles treats notions about personality and ‘characters’ with suspicion. One marvellous passage underlines how mistaken Lineker is, just as Matt Busby once was, in not recognising what an asset Gilesy could have been.

Ryan Giggs won the SPOTY gong in 2009, when Lineker described him as a true sporting great. Giles isn’t sure, suggesting Giggs is “as close as anyone can get to being a great player, without quite being a great player.”

Giles found “something lacking in his concentration at vital moments, something casual about the way he delivers the final ball”.

“Experience taught me that there are moments in the game when everything is exaggerated, like when you get to the end line and it is vital that you deliver the right ball. Over time, in these situations, in my mind I would hear a click. Now… concentrate.”

Giggs, Giles feels, for all his ability, must not quite hear that click. If that kind of feeling for the game would drive Fergie into hiding again, perhaps that’s a price MOTD should be willing to pay.


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