Interview: Leeds legend John Giles

John Giles turned 70 the other week and celebrated by publishing his memoirs, an engrossing read about a storied era. He is sitting at home talking about the story of his life and how prevalent Scots are in the narrative.

Scots at Manchester United when he was making his way in England, Scots at Leeds United when he achieved greatness, Scots with him and against him; ball-playing Scots, hatchet-man Scots, charismatic Scots, dour Scots. His great hero was a Scot, Bobby Collins. He went to court a few years back to defend the reputation of a Scot, Billy Bremner. One of the most intriguing aspects of his tale is the collapse in his relationship with another Scot, Matt Busby. "Oh definitely," he says. "The Scottish lads were everywhere in those days. Just thinking about it now, it was incredible, really. Just a small country like Ireland, but so many brilliant football men."

It's hard to fathom, but Giles has become a national treasure in his homeland, not because of what he did with a ball at his feet but what he has said with a microphone to his mouth. Giles, along with Roy Keane, are by far the greatest players that ever came out of the Republic of Ireland, but it is not the heroics of Elland Road that made him such a popular figure. It is his perceptive analysis on the RTE television football panel over the past 20 years. The intelligence of his commentaries have made them events in themselves, often times more entertaining than the football he is there to study, a world away from the kind of lazy trash we are subjected to in Britain. As an illustration, Giles did a book signing in Limerick last Thursday - and it took four hours for the queue to clear.

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He's talking now about his early days, his journey from Dublin to Manchester as a 15-year-old and leaving Old Trafford at 22. The beginning of the end came on the day of the FA Cup semi-final in 1962. He was 21 years old and Spurs were the opposition. He was up against Dave Mackay, Danny Blanchflower and the great John White. United lost 3-1 and Giles had a nightmare. "Oh, I was hopeless," he recalls. Busby suddenly lost confidence in him. That's how it felt anyway. Busby hardly spoke to Giles from that day onwards.

"In the end, things between Matt and myself were very, very poor," he explains. "Now let me say that Matt Busby was a great manager and Manchester United wouldn't be where they are without him. He was a god at the club, but he wasn't a god to me. Football is like that sometimes.

"I remember seeing George Best on television years ago and he was talking about how Matt was a father figure to him. In my opinion, Matt wasn't a father figure to George at all.There was no protection for George. When George's time was up, he was gone. There was no testimonial. George had to make his own way. This is just my take on it. I wanted to leave the club and Matt wanted me to leave. It was a mutual thing. When I left United I said that I was going to haunt Matt because the feeling at the time was that nobody leaves United and does well. Ah, it was a juvenile response from me and over the years I completely forget about all of that. But it was a driving force for me when I first went to Leeds, no doubt about it."

Why Leeds? Well, it had to do with Bobby Collins. He had done his time with Celtic and Everton by then and was a Leeds player for a year by the time Giles moved there. Giles had idolised Collins as a Celtic player. He'd seen him play in Dublin a few times and had looked up to him from an early age. The way he saw it, if Collins was playing for Leeds then Leeds must be worth playing for.

From Collins he learned what will-to-win actually meant. The Glaswegian was the senior pro in the dressing room and everybody looked up to him. "Bobby set the example to myself and Billy Bremner and everybody else. His influence ran through the club and it was still there long after he left."

What a team they became. What stories. What characters, many of them Scots. Bremner and Peter Lorimer, Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen, Eddie Gray and Frank Gray and others. When Leeds won the 1968 Fairs Cup - beating Hibs, Rangers ("Alex Ferguson played, a good grafter without quite being there as a player", recalls Giles) and Dundee on their way to the final - there were three Scots in the side. When they controversially lost the 1975 European Cup final to Franz Beckenbauer's Bayern Munich - a defeat that sparked rioting by Leeds fans - there were six Scots on the field at the full-time whistle and there would have been a seventh had McQueen not been suspended. People say they should have won more and, of course, they should have done. But they won enough. More than anybody else. Two First Division titles, two Fairs Cups, an FA Cup and a League Cup. Their light burned brightly from 1964, when they were promoted as champions from the Second Division, to 1975, Giles' final season at Elland Road.

"We were one of the best teams that ever played the game - and I include Brazilian sides in that. The Scottish boys were outstanding players. I never saw Billy suffer from nerves. He would do the unexpected, but unlike a lot of other players he had the ability to pull it off. Eddie was magic, an extraordinary dribbler. Joe wasn't blessed with talent, but he made himself a top-class player. And Peter, he was one of the most under-rated players I ever saw in my life. Everybody called him Hot Shot, but there was way more to his game than that. Peter was doing his stuff on the right wing long before David Beckham was ever heard of. He was a better crosser of a ball than Beckham and he scored more goals. He was a much better player.Peter used to score 20 goals a season from wide on the right. He was a brilliant player."

Giles is protective of his team's legacy. Over the years he has heard it said at every turn that, yeah, Leeds were a great side, but a dirty side, a cynical mob with Giles himself at the helm. "They could all dish it out," said Tommy Baldwin, the Chelsea player of the era, "but Giles was the instigator of the really bad tackles."

He doesn't portray his side as saints, far from it. Indeed he explains why Leeds in general and he, in particular, developed a hard edge at that time. "We've been vilified for 30 years," he says. "What happens in the game is that it becomes the accepted wisdom that Leeds were filthy and people become frightened to go against that view. But there were hard nuts all over the place in the 1960s and 1970s. It was the culture of the day. I mean, if you went to Chelsea you had Chopper Harris and Eddie McCreadie and Peter Osgood. If you went to Everton you had Jimmy Gabriel, Sandy Brown and Johnny Morrissey. All the players could handle themselves, but it was always about Leeds. It was an exaggeration. Even George Mulhall, a terrific Scottish winger who used to play for Sunderland, said recently that he didn't know why we did some of the things we did. Well, I don't know why Sunderland did some of the things they did. George played in a team with Len Ashurst, Johnny Crossan and Amby Fogarty. Hard men.

"I was a creative player, but I got some bad injuries early on and I decided that if this was a jungle we were playing in then it's better to be a lion than a lamb. It was only when I started doing punditry that I admitted to having that side to me. I thought if I was going to be criticising players then I didn't want ex-pros coming out and calling me a dirty sod and a hypocrite. People didn't know until I said it publicly that I had a nasty side. It was never obvious to the fans. I never lost my head, you see. Never got sent off. It doesn't sound right, but I was clever in what I did. I don't mind people saying that Leeds were mean as long as they say we could play. By God, we could."

The portrayal of dirty, dirty Leeds was cranked up a level when David Peace wrote his book The Damned United, a largely fictional account of the 44 days Brian Clough spent as manager at Elland Road in 1974. Clough is presented as unhinged and Giles and Bremner as a pair of sneaky plotters determined to get rid of him. Giles sued - and won. He says he did it as a protest on behalf of those men - Bremner, Clough and Revie - who weren't alive to defend themselves.

"It was outrageous. He just made it up. He had me in first-person conversations with Clough that never happened. It was very cruel on Brian Clough. His portrayal of him was dreadful. He had him as a raving lunatic, breaking up Don's desk and all that and it never happened. I thought it was scandalous. And the movie was a misinterpretation of the misinterpretation.I mean, I didn't get on with Clough at all, but I certainly felt sorry for the family because they had no comeback on the book. Of the people who were wronged, I was the only one alive who could take action.."

He's protesting still. Defending old Leeds and commenting on football today with all the bite and intelligence he showed when he was young and the master of the midfield.

• John Giles: A Football Man (Hodder & Stoughton, 19.99)