Surrounded by pictures of his family and former team-mates, Johnny Giles contemplates his own mortality.
The Dubliner turns 80 this year and is the oldest surviving member of Leeds United’s great title-winning sides of 1969 and 1974.
How he wishes that Jack Charlton, five years his senior, was still here. Norman Hunter and Trevor Cherry, too, all three Leeds legends who have died in recent months.
Leeds United legend Johnny Giles was part of the 1969 and 1974 title winning squads
A framed poster of their decorated team resides on the wall of Giles’ sitting room here in Birmingham.
Next to it, on the mantelpiece, a picture of Giles and his brother-in-law, England World Cup winner Nobby Stiles. They are suited – no longer booted – but still smiling, two of the finest midfielders of their generation, together at a family wedding.
But that was then. Today, Stiles is cared for in a home, unaware of his surroundings, his mind defeated by Alzheimer’s disease.
Giles with England legend and brother-in-law Nobby Stiles who he said was a ‘great lad’
‘What a great lad. Honestly, the best. My sister married a good ‘un, and how he loved her,’ says Giles.
The pair were team-mates at Manchester United – original Busby Babes – and were apprentices when eight of the senior stars they so revered were killed in the Munich air disaster of 1958.
‘I was 17, a kid, going to all these funerals,’ recalls Giles. ‘It’s only later in life that the sadness and tragedy of it all really hits you.’
He remembers seeing Duncan Edwards for the first time, ‘waiting for a bus, sitting on top of a post-box eating an apple, he was only a kid himself, but what a player, I was in awe’. Edwards died aged 21, the youngest Munich victim.
In that sense, Giles has lived a full life – 57 years married to Anne, six children, eight grandchildren, 59 caps for Republic of Ireland and seven major trophies.
Giles described the loss of Norman Hunter this year to coronavirus as a massive shock
But the loss of Hunter, to coronavirus in April, has led to much thought.
‘It was a terrible shock, I was only with him at Christmas. I’m terrified of this now. At my age, If I get it, I’m a goner. I’ve driven my good lady mad. I’ve had the virus about six times, in my head anyway.
‘So yes, I think about mortality, all the time. But you know what, when it comes, I can’t have any complaints, the life I’ve had.’
Ahead of his landmark birthday, and with the sadness of the summer eased ever so slightly by the joy of Leeds finally winning promotion back to the Premier League, Giles is ready to reflect.
Anne arrives from the kitchen with a pot of tea, and Giles begins. Much like on the pitch, he doesn’t hold back
WE begin at the end – or at least the beginning of the end for the Leeds we knew – and Brian Clough’s arrival as Don Revie’s replacement in the summer of 1974.
‘There shouldn’t have been a problem. We’d just won the league and wanted to win it again,’ says Giles.
Only, there was a problem. Clough’s opening salvo to the squad is infamous – ‘You f***ing lot, you can take all your medals and throw them in the bin’.
Giles – who had joined Leeds in the Second Division from United 11 years earlier – recalls: ‘We were stunned, “What the f*** is this all about?”. We’d worked our b******s off over the years and he’s telling us that.
‘He said to me, “It’s not my fault you didn’t get the manager’s job, Irishman”. I didn’t want the job!
‘Norman was great. Clough says, “Hunter, I know you want to be loved, don’t you?”. Norman says, “I couldn’t give a f***”.
‘We were experienced players, the best in the country. When he went into Derby or Forest and said, “You’re all f***ing useless”, he was right! But we were the f***ing champions!’
What piece of advice would Giles give Clough were he able to go back?
Brian Clough (left) didn’t last long at Leeds United after he replaced Don Revie in 1974
‘All he had to say was, “I know you didn’t like me. I didn’t like you. But we’re in this together now”.
‘But he never stood a chance after that first meeting. I think he was very insecure. It was needless, so stupid.’
Clough was gone after 44 days, a period immortalised in The Damned United, the book by David Peace subsequently made into a film.
Giles successfully sued the publishers after he objected to being characterised as a ‘winking, scheming leprechaun’ who made life difficult for Clough, and his irritation has not faded with time.
‘He (Peace) never spoke to any of us, he portrayed us all in a totally unjust way. A lot of people said, “You didn’t come out of that book too well”. I’m sure I didn’t, because most of it didn’t happen.
‘Then the movie… well that was a misinterpretation of a misinterpretation. There was no need to embellish the story, it was crazy enough anyway.’
Liverpool’s Peter Cormack puts his arms around Giles who had just punched Kevin Keegan
Crazy is one word to describe Clough’s first game in charge, the 1974 Charity Shield versus Liverpool at Wembley in which Leeds captain Billy Bremner and Kevin Keegan were sent off after trading punches.
Not that theirs were the first thrown. ‘No, that was me,’ says Giles, who somehow escaped a red card when landing a right hook on Keegan’s jaw.
He shuffles to the edge of the sofa, fist and palm readied for the reenactment.
‘Kevin was a great lad, a superstar. But I got the impression that day he was in a bad mood, looking for trouble.
‘He got into a challenge with Norman and buried him. You’re thinking, “What’s up with him?”. Next thing, he’s jumping on my back, all over me. I lost my head. So as he came past…’
There it is, fist on palm. Bang.
‘I caught him a beauty. I should have been off. But none of the Liverpool lads complained, it was as if they were saying, “F***ing well done”.’
Giles is somewhat unique in that he is remembered as both a wonderfully gifted ball-player and, in his own words, ‘a dirty little b*****d’.
‘I had to be to survive,’ he offers in defence. ‘I remember the moment I knew I had to change, when Chelsea’s Eddie McCreadie did my knee ligaments. I said, “That’s it, never again, if I don’t handle myself, I’ll be kicked out the game”.
‘I had to start scaring people who wanted to hurt me. I had to get my retaliation in first!’
So did he ever settle the score with McCreadie?
‘I had to be patient but there was later a moment when Eddie was chasing the ball down… I’d dreamt of this. As he cleared it, I smashed him.
‘He said, “What the f*** was that about?”. I said, “That’s from Stamford Bridge”. He said, “That’s seven f***ing years ago!”.’
Giles scored 115 goals in 527 appearances for Leeds United from 1963 to 1975 when he left
THERE is a scene in the TV comedy classic Auf Wiedersehen Pet when Oz, played by Jimmy Nail, likens his bedroom liaison with an attractive older woman to ‘playing with someone like Johnny Giles for 90 minutes’.
It is a compliment, the suggestion being that, as Giles got older and slowed his game, he became better for it.
Giles knows the scene. ‘I loved that. My kids actually sent me a copy, I still watch it.’ We laugh at the response to Oz from the character Moxey… ‘Funny you should mention footballers, because the only older women I’ve ever had looked like Billy Bremner!’
But it leads us into conversation about Giles and his genius with a football. It has long been said that he could ‘land a ball on a sixpence from 50 yards, with either foot’.
He takes us back to an incident in a pub in Dublin.
‘This fella comes into the toilet, p****d out of his head, clearly doesn’t like me. “See you Giles, I could do what you do”. I thought, “That’s great, if I’m making it look that easy”. It was one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever had!
‘I don’t want to be too sanctimonious, but I had a gift. Thankfully, I realised that, and I had a responsibility to that gift.
‘As a kid, people used to stop in the street and watch me kick the ball. Later, I’d lie in bed and think about the game, visualise what I could do. You have to live it, never be satisfied with how good you are.’
Giles won seven major honours under the leadership of manager Don Revie (left) at Leeds
That hunger ran through Revie’s team, who won the First Division and Fairs Cup twice, FA Cup and League Cup.
Giles knows where this is going and is ready for it… ‘But you’re going to mention the six finals we lost and five times we finished second?’
‘‘People always said, “Leeds, runners-up again, losing finals”. But we finished second the first season we were promoted in 1965, we shouldn’t have been near it.
‘For f***’s sake, we would have been better off finishing 10th to avoid the criticism! Same season we made the FA Cup final. What’s better, ducking out in the third round?
‘You have to win a hell of a lot of matches to be runners-up or get to a cup final. So no, we weren’t chokers, we were consistently brilliant over a long period, one of the greatest teams ever.’
Not that missing out on those trophies does not irritate him to this day.
Giles in action during Leeds United’s 1-0 FA Cup final defeat to Sunderland back in 1973
‘Sunderland in the ’73 Cup Final, we didn’t deserve to win, didn’t play well, it happens. After that game it was all, “Giles finished, Bremner finished”. It fired us up. Twelve months later? We’re champions.
‘I wish we’d done the double in ’72, of course. We won the FA Cup on the Saturday and needed a point at Wolves on the Monday for the league. We lost.
‘I was sat with Peter Lorimer on the bus going back to Leeds. There was a celebration at the Queens Hotel but no one wanted to go.
‘Peter said, “I’m going in, I think we’ve had a great year”. You didn’t feel it at the time, but he was right. I said, “You know what, I’ll come with you”. So there we were, me and him, the spread to ourselves, the only two sat having a drink, celebrating winning the FA Cup.’
It remains the only time Leeds have won the competition.
‘So we did right to enjoy it, didn’t we!’
When Leeds kick off the Premier League season at champions Liverpool next month it will be on the ground where they won their first league title in 1969.
‘I smiled when I saw they’re going to Anfield, although it’s hardly good news. Without the fans though… not the same.
‘The Kop applauded us the day we won the league, that was special. Saying that, someone then threw a brick through the bus window!
‘It finished 0-0 and Bill Shankly came into the dressing-room and said, “The best team drew”. He could never admit it. But we knew we were the best.’
Mention of that title win causes Giles to revisit his exit from Old Trafford, six years earlier.
‘I fell out with Matt (Busby), or at least he fell out with me. We played the great Spurs team in the ’62 FA Cup semi-final and I had a nightmare. I was 21, up against Dave Mackay, Danny Blanchflower and John White. From that day Matt lost confidence in me. He never spoke to me, I was just out.
Giles said he smiled when hearing Leeds would play Liverpool opening game of the new year
‘I actually played in the final when we won the FA Cup the following year, but I was only in because Nobby (Stiles) was injured.
‘I didn’t think Matt was fair with me, I’d had one bad game, so I put in a transfer request and he didn’t object!
‘But there was a big thing at Manchester United, no one was supposed to leave there and do well. I didn’t subscribe to that. I said to my wife, “I’ll come back to haunt him”.’
So who was right – Giles or Busby?
‘We both went on to do okay! He did win the European Cup after all, one of the great managers. But it worked for me as well. We were champions the year Manchester United were relegated.’
Giles means no malice by that, it is a statement of fact. He had been sold to a second-tier club who weren’t considered a threat and, under Revie’s guidance, helped transform them into the best team in the land.
‘What Don did – taking over a Second Division club with no real support or tradition and leaving them as English champions – that is why Leeds is the magnificent club it is today.’
Giles was on the phone to his Leeds team-mate Eddie Gray last week. The old boys are planning to meet in Leeds to remember their lost friends when it feels safe.
‘We’re lucky really, you know, to have these wonderful memories together. It’s been sad this year, but we’ll raise a glass to the good times too – and there were plenty of them.’