On its merits: 80 things John Giles has taught us

To celebrate the 80th birthday of our greatest football man
On its merits: 80 things John Giles has taught us

Johnny Giles in the 2017 RTE documentary about his career. 

The wisdom of John Giles, our greatest football man, could, and should, fill a shelf of reference books in any home. To celebrate his 80th birthday, here are just 80 of the thousands of things he has taught us over the years. 

1. Thou shalt need moral courage.

2. And honesty of effort.

3. Work hard, produce the magic moments, and do the bread and butter stuff as well.

4. Do your stuff at the right time and kill the game off when you have a chance.

5. Be extremely wary of the high line.

6. The same goes for zonal marking.

7. Never mention tiredness.

8. If everybody is great, nobody is great.

9. Don't get involved in showboating, unless you get really bored when 7-0 up against Southampton.

10. Don't get onto your teammates.

11. It is vital that somebody dictates the pace of the game.

12. England haven’t always been ready to kill their grannies for it and Roy Hodgson hasn't been down any back alleys.

13. Bobby Charlton is the greatest player he ever played with or against.

14. Pele, Maradona, Garrincha, Beckenbauer, George Best, Carlos Alberto, Cruyff, Zidane, van Basten, Gullit, John Robertson, Kenny Dalglish, Roy Keane and Paul McGrath, John Charles, Xavi, Messi and Iniesta have all gained the ultimate seal of approval as Gilesy-certified great players.

15. Personal stereos, third level education and traffic are impediments to the development of top players.

16. Playstations aren't great either.

17. There are no great tactics out there, at least none that will compensate you for other key failings. See number one above.

RTE Television at Croke Park 17/10/2007 A view of the studio with from L-R: Bill O'Herlihy, Johnny Giles, Liam Brady and Eamon Dunphy Picture:  ¬©INPHO/Donall Farmer
RTE Television at Croke Park 17/10/2007 A view of the studio with from L-R: Bill O'Herlihy, Johnny Giles, Liam Brady and Eamon Dunphy Picture:  ¬©INPHO/Donall Farmer

18. There is no need for false modesty, or false anything.

“Right from the start I could kick a ball correctly. From the time I was about three years of age, I knew I was kicking it the right way. I realise it was a gift. And I also realise I had done nothing to deserve this gift. I had not worked hard to develop it. I just had it. I can take no more credit for it than I can take the credit for receiving a gift on my birthday.” 

19. Self-awareness is the antidote to entitlement. 

“As I got older I would also be lucky enough to have the awareness that I needed to do everything I possibly could to honour this gift.” 

20: The root cause of most problems in a poor side is the lack of a midfield player making himself available to receive the ball.

21: At Tottenham, Jimmy Greaves was the icing on the cake, but Dave Mackay was the cake.

22: You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. And you shouldn’t attempt to. In his great autobiography, A Football Man, written with Declan Lynch, Gilesy told us that he doesn’t have a sweet tooth; that he maintained his ‘fighting weight’ of 10 stone two pounds through staying away from all that kind of stuff. So when he and Dunphy got together to dance for a Cadbury ad, it’s important to note it was Eamo tucking into the chocolate. Whatever Gilesy is prepared to do for a few quid, he is not ready to mislead us.

23: That said, there is a time and a place for commercial expediency.

Gilesy: “I’ve no time for the UEFA Cup at all.”
Billo: “Hold on a second John. We’ve got the final on Wednesday.”
Gilesy: “It should be a great final Bill. It always is on RTÉ.” 

24: “Every hour that passed without a ball at my feet was an hour wasted.” 

25: "Playing the simple pass may sound easy, but for some it is too easy."

26: Facts are facts.

Billo: “Sixteen days from now we’ll all walk a little taller, won’t we, John?”
Gilesy: “Well, er, I don’t think we’ll be any taller, Bill.” 

27: "In every great player, there's a bit of animal."

28: You should always have a song ready.

29: "An honest effort must be made to regain possession when the other team has the ball." Does this mean Messi has been relegated from the pantheon?

30: But having won it back, remember to use it as constructively as you possibly can. Somewhere along the way you will need "a little bit of magic".

31: “The great players, after their first touch, have more time and space than they had before they touched it. The more touches, the more time and space. With bad players, it works the opposite way. The more touches, the less time and space they have, and they seem to be inviting players around them.” 

32: The best comedy is improvisational.

Billo: “Carsley lacks a bit of skill in those situations. Let’s call a spade a spade.” 

Gilesy: “Yes, Bill, he’s in there to dig.” 

33: “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."

34: If it’s the right thing to do in the first minute, it's the right thing to do in the 90th minute. And vice versa.

35: And if it's the right thing to do when you're one-nil up, it's the right thing to do when you're one-nil down.

36: And indeed if it is nil-nil.

37: There is never a bad time to score a goal.

38: All of that is what we know as playing the game on its merits.

39: “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.”

40: Honesty is the best policy. When he was Ireland player-manager, RTÉ’s Liam Nolan tried an unusual gambit with the then taciturn Gilesy.

“Have you got the ability to be a bit of a bastard if you have to be?” 

“I don't think it's a question of being a bastard really, Liam. If you're honest with one person then he knows you're going to be honest with the next.” 

41: “Don't talk unless you have something to say.” 

42: Never become bitter over money. The old pro’s lament at the obscene wealth of today’s players? Not from Gilesy. “When the clubs had a chance to be decent they were terrible. So when I hear about lads getting this and that now, I say ‘good luck to them’.” 

43: "As a footballer, you go in at 15 and you come out at 30 odd and you're still 15."

44: Know your audience. Gilesy has often told us the parable of Mick Bates, a squad player during his time at Leeds. “Good player, good ability, could have been better.” Gilesy got onto Bates regularly, trying to coax a little more out of him, until one day Bates called Giles aside on the training pitch.

“Look John, I know you want to be the best midfield player in the world, but I don’t want to be the best midfield player in the world.” 


45: Stats and research and encyclopedic knowledge are great. But Gilesy will still tell you all need to know about a player after watching him for 20 minutes.

46: Get to the pitch of the ball.

47: Don’t get into football punditry if you want to keep friends in football.

48: Players who have everything except the final ball, something is just not clicking for them: “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.” 

49: "All the best players I ever knew came from poor areas. They played on the streets..."

50: In the foreword of Giles’s other fine book ‘The Great And The Good', Eamon Dunphy told us that “John is undemonstrative by nature. But his passion for the game is real and deeply felt.” 

An FA Cup final win will break down the barriers of the most reserved Irish man.

”I also have this distinct memory of getting to the hotel after the match, seeing my mother, going over to her and giving her a hug. This was most unusual for me, and for her. Neither of us were the hugging type. See you, Ma. Have you been drinking, she said.” 

51: Even in the engine room there is a line you don't cross, at least one he and Peter Storey knew about. 

“Peter and I lived by our own paradoxical code of conduct. We could kick each other but never feigned injury to have each other booked or sent off.” 

52: “There’s something about football that movie makers have never been able to grasp.” 

53: Football is the great meritocracy: “There’s no way you can spin your way out of defeat, the numbers are there for all to see. In football, if you haven’t got it, you can’t make it up.” 

54: Another of Gilesy’s bespoke seanfhocail: “There’s an old saying in football: if the opposition fall asleep then you take advantage of it."

55: “Concentration is a mind thing.” 

56: "A manager should choose his own players."

57: Play your best players in their best positions. And three at the back is a crutch for the weak. "If the two central defenders are doing their jobs properly, they don't need anyone to help them."

58: "There's no point talking to managers after a game."

59: Leadership is not a popularity contest. "Players voting for their own captain is absolute nonsense."

60: The trickster is not necessarily going to jink his way to greatness: "He's actually at his best when he's got players around him rather than when he's got time and space. Which is the very opposite of what you want on the football pitch."

61: “Because Steven Gerrard played in midfield, people saw him as a midfield player.” 

62: “Greatness is a combination of many things. It is about talent and brilliance and the ability to make the crowd gasp in amazement. But it is not about those things alone. It is also about being able to do it on a blustery day on a bumpy pitch, when nobody really really feels like doing it.” 

63: Sometimes you have to give a little.

Billo: “Do you see any improvement in Walcott?"
Gilesy: “No... he's better than he was."

64: "You’ve got to speculate to accumulate." 

65: There is no such thing as a holding midfielder. Or at least there shouldn’t be.

66: "Liverpool are go go go."

67: "Don't go where you're not wanted."
“Just accept it. I’ve no animosity to RTÉ at all. They’ve got to get on with what they want to do.” 

68: True friendship and a shared ethic will last forever.  John has sadly lost several of his teammates from that great Leeds United team, but their bond will endure. "If you didn't stick together you were gone. That bond exists forever. We don't get together very often but when we do it's like we've never been apart."

69: You can educate a nation via frantic scribbling on a TV screen.


70: "Goals change games, that's why you score them."

71: Gilesy: "When you play football you need to be problem free, domestic or business."
Dunphy: "That's why I was an average player."

72: Be extremely wary of ‘sunshine boys’.

73: All we know about primitive transport was wrong. "You can't put the horse before the cart."

74: Live off your own means.

Eamo: "We all need sugar daddies in our lives."
Gilesy: "I've never had one."

75: There is no such thing as scoring too early.

76: "I wouldn't believe anything Alex Ferguson says about anything." 

77: "Most wingers are a bit brainless." 

78: You can dish it out, but have to know when you've gone too far. “On the way home from Brunner, myself and a pal Paddy Hayes threw stones at a row of pigeons... We weren’t proud of it especially on the day I caught one of the birds on the leg, and with a bad conscience, brought it home to try and save it."

With the help of a mate Hego, John got the “injured bird right again” and his hobby as a pigeon fancier took off from there. A hard man with a heart.

79: "If this was a jungle we were playing in then it's better to be a lion than a lamb." 

80: That gift he had. How do you know if you've caught it just right? 

His Ireland debut, against Sweden, aged 18, brought the goal that "changed everything".  “A contact that felt so perfect I could hardly feel it at all.”

His mother, listening at home on the radio, heard the roar first. “It travelled all the way to the Navan Road.” And a great career was up and running. That was his one regret, Giles has said, about missing out on football's money age.

“I was determined, if and when I became a professional footballer, to look after my mother as best I could and, in fact, the only regret I have about not getting paid the vast Premiership salaries of today is that I could have looked after her better if I had been a lot richer."

Happy birthday, Gilesy.

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