My Autobiography
by John Giles with Declan Lynch
Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien
From WSC 287 January 2011

Buy this book


British readers remember John Giles primarily as the stocky, gifted, hyper-aggressive midfield engine of Don Revie's Leeds United. In his native Ireland, he inhabits a loftier plane as the conscience of modern football, having spent 25 years as RTE's main studio analyst.

Giles's television work is characterised by frequent solemn sermons on "moral courage" and how "you've got to take the game on its merits". But while he's easily parodied, he remains by some distance the best and most honest pundit on either Irish or British TV. The title of A Football Man smells strongly of the fanciful reveries that Giles's friend and RTE colleague Eamon Dunphy often launches into on air, about "all the great players... Maradona, Pelé, Cruyff... (gestures sideways) John Giles!" He was never in that class, but he remains, along with Liam Brady, the finest player ever to line up for Ireland.

There's a surprising amount of score-settling here – though perhaps not that surprising, given that Giles freely admits his attitude to midfield battles was basically: "Do him before he does you." Matt Busby, who managed Giles for a time at Manchester United, has his saintly image torn asunder. Busby is portrayed as personally cold ("In my case, he must have had a man-management bypass") and reflexively mean, forming a two-man cartel with Bill Shankly to keep their players' wages low.

Blasting a large hole in Shanks's image as a socialist everyman, Giles writes that the Liverpool boss "would always favour the men who paid him over the men who played for him". Later in the book, Giles physically chokes Leeds chairman Manny Cussins for reneging on a promised payment.

There's plenty of unspent anger in A Football Man, not all of it about money. Giles is unhappy about the enduring perception of that Leeds team as brutal hackers, unhappy about the refereeing in their European finals against AC Milan and Bayern Munich, and very unhappy about David Peace's The Damned United – he took legal action to have certain passages removed from the book. According to Giles: "He [Peace]  never talked to me, though I was there for those 44 days [under Brian Clough] and I am easily contactable."

Giles also reveals that after a match he would lie in bed, unable to sleep, going over the game in detail from beginning to end and mulling over the errors he had made. It's hard to know what's more disconcerting – that he could remember an entire match from start to finish, or that his idea of eliminating the mistakes didn't involve refraining from two-footed challenges. Regarding John Fitzpatrick, the Man Utd defender who notoriously suffered a dire injury when fouled by him, Giles takes responsibility for the challenge itself ("a bad tackle") but not for the ending of Fitzpatrick's career at the age of 26: "He knew the terms of engagement – if you give it, you have to take it."

But if A Football Man is sour, it's also intelligent and well written – the ghostwriter, Irish journalist Declan Lynch, tells the story in a pared-down manner with no real trace of his own prose style, unlike the approach Dunphy took to Roy Keane's memoirs. And if Giles had chosen to gloss over the hard stuff and let bygones be bygones, we'd have a far tamer, softer, drearier book.

Buy this book

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday