Johnny Giles: a force of nature (part two)

johnny giles part two

Last time out we examined the early career of Johnny Giles, a man who would go on to reach the very top of the game in later years with Leeds United but who started out with Manchester United.

Despite some success at Old Trafford, Giles was rather unsettled due to a feeling that he was not trusted by United manager, Sir Matt Busby. This lack of chemistry eventually led to Giles requesting a transfer, and so early in the 1963-64 season, he decamped for Elland Road, Leeds United and Don Revie.

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Leeds had been struggling at the wrong end of the Second Division when Revie arrived at the club as player-manager a few years earlier, but in a short space of time had turned the club’s fortunes around and in 1963, a strong fifth-place finish had been achieved.

So it was that despite dropping into the Second Division, Giles found himself joining a club on the up, and most important of all, he felt wanted from the off. A big factor in signing for Leeds was the presence in the Elland Road ranks of Bobby Collins, the former star of Celtic and Everton, who Giles admired immensely.

Giles immediately felt at home with Leeds, and as someone who despite only being 22 had played for Manchester United and won the FA Cup, he was already considered by some of the Leeds youngsters as a senior professional. Players such as Paul Reaney, Gary Sprake, Paul Madeley, Norman Hunter and Terry Cooper would go on to become household names in coming years, but at the time were unknown youngsters and Giles immediately bonded with them.

That first season saw promotion gained as Leeds won the Second Division title ahead of Sunderland, with only three defeats suffered all season. Under Revie, the team was well-organised and attention to detail was second to none with high hopes for a fruitful and successful first season back in the top flight. Even so, the 1964-65 season was to prove better than anyone anticipated.

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As the season moved into its last weeks, the league and cup double was a distinct possibility with Leeds locked into a three-way battle with Manchester United and Chelsea for both trophies. With all three teams into the FA Cup semi-finals and placed in the top three in the league, things were shaping up for a titanic end to the season.

When Leeds overcame Manchester United after a replay to book a Wembley date with Liverpool, who had defeated Chelsea in the other semi-final, the double dream was still a possibility. Unfortunately, just when Leeds needed it most their form deserted them in the league and successive slips at crucial times ended up putting the title tantalising out of reach on goal average by the time Leeds ran out at Wembley.

Playing in his second FA Cup Final in three seasons, Giles took up his place in the heart of Leeds’ midfield alongside the Scottish firebrand that was Billy Bremner. The two men would form a partnership that would last the better part of a dozen years and although both were considered small in size, they would prove themselves to be a giant of a combination.

On the day, however, Leeds failed to perform particularly well as a team and Liverpool emerged as 2-1 victors.

The next ten years or so saw Giles, Bremner and all consistently challenge for all the major trophies. To say they were not universally appreciated outside the confines of Elland Road would be an understatement, and Revie’s side has gone down in history as one of the most controversial in terms of ruggedness and supposed gamesmanship. The moniker, ‘Dirty Leeds’ was bestowed upon the side at a relatively early stage and, rightly or wrongly, it was a label that would stick.

It is true that the Leeds team of this era was no shrinking violet of a side, and with such luminaries as Giles, Bremner, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter and later Allan Clarke and Terry Yorath making their collective presence felt, it was perhaps no wonder. Although it has often been said that the physical side of the game was nothing unique to Leeds in those days, and that every side seemed to employ at least one ‘hard man’, whose job it was to nullify the opponents, Leeds did seem to employ more than their fair share of such characters.

It was this viewpoint that prevented Leeds from gaining the recognition and accolades that their undoubted talents deserved over this period, but they were not popular with the public at large. Think of Manchester United under Alex Ferguson circa 1994 and then treble the public’s distaste and one becomes close to the disdain that Revie’s Leeds were held in at times.

A pity, but still.

Leeds and Giles would win a lot over the years – two league titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup twice – but would become equally famous for the number of near misses they suffered. Public sympathy was in short supply when Leeds famously lost two cup finals in 1973, the FA Cup to Sunderland and the European Cup Winners’ Cup to Milan.

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Throughout this period, Giles had transformed from being a good player to a truly fantastic one. He was known for his rugged tackling, of course, but he had so much more than that in his locker. He had a vision and a grace about him that was pretty much unique and it was through him that Leeds operated. When he was on song, the whole of the Leeds side seemed to purr and so it was often seen as a great frustration when Leeds reverted to their spoiling tactics. Had they concentrated on their real strengths – the ability to play blinding attacking football – it is likely they would have been even more successful and not have been so universally detested along the way.

In 1974, the league title was won for the second time under Revie and it seemed the glory days were set to continue. However, storm clouds were brewing with the powers that be at FA Headquarters set to make a change in the England management set-up.

Having failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, the FA decided to dispense with the services of Sir Alf Ramsey and so went looking for a new manager. It was no real surprise that it was to the League Champions and Don Revie that they looked and after some consideration, Revie accepted the post.

Upon departing for Lancaster Gate, Revie recommended to the Leeds board that his successor should be Johnny Giles, but in a move that leads football folk to shake their heads in disbelief to this day, the Leeds board ignored Revie and instead appointed his arch-nemesis, Brian Clough.

Clough had been a more vocal critic of Leeds than most, and quite what possessed the Leeds board to think the appointment could ever be a success will never be known now, but needless to say, it was an unmitigated disaster.

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Giles himself was disappointed to not be offered the post of player-manager at Leeds but he continued as a player under Clough for the 44 days that he lasted before being unceremoniously sacked.

This time Giles was seriously considered for the vacancy and had been told pretty much that the job was his if he wanted it. It was now, however, the sands shifted again as Billy Bremner, then only 31, threw a spanner into the works by declaring his own interest in the position. This threw the board into another spate of uncertainty and so, unwilling to upset the applecart and the dynamics of the Leeds changing room, they once more opted for an outside appointment and Jimmy Armfield was poached from Bolton Wanderers.

Giles again was disappointed and by now 34 years of age was beginning to slow down a bit on the field. He remained in and around the team as Armfield began rebuilding Leeds and was part of the starting lineup when Leeds took on Bayern Munich in the 1975 European Cup Final in Paris.

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Unfortunately for Giles, in what would prove to be his final appearance for the Elland Road side, Leeds were on the wrong end of some questionable refereeing decisions and the West Germans emerged 2-0 victors.

Giles knew his time was up at Elland Road and so he accepted an offer to become player-manager at Second Division West Bromwich Albion. Still able to make a difference on the pitch, Giles would play regularly over the next two seasons as promotion was gained at the end of the 1975-76 season and a solid first season back in the top flight followed.

Although Giles hadn’t particularly wanted to leave Leeds, he would later write that his two years at West Brom were amongst the happiest he had in his career. Perhaps it was the freedom of not being under immense pressure, plus the knowledge that his playing career was winding down, but he was able to enjoy an Indian Summer on the field whilst cutting his team in league management.

Giles had actually gone into management at a relatively early age when he became the player-manager of the Republic of Ireland side in 1973, while still an integral part of the Leeds United midfield. It was a role he was to continue in for seven years and encompassed later playing and managing roles at West Bromwich Albion and Shamrock Rovers.

As player-manager of his country, Giles was able to bring about an upturn in the country’s fortunes and, although no qualification for major tournaments was secured, the Republic came much closer than previously. The 1976 European Championships qualification campaign saw the Republic drawn in a group alongside the Soviet Union, Turkey and Switzerland with each side playing the others home and away and only the group winners progressing to the final stages.

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Two wins and a draw in the opening three games put Giles’ men into a strong position, but unfortunately, back-to-back defeats to the Soviet Union and Switzerland were to prove fatal and, ultimately, qualification was missed by a single point.

Qualification for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina came down to a straight fight between the Republic, France and Bulgaria in a three-team group. Despite beating France at Landsdowne Road through a solitary Liam Brady strike, and a goalless draw at the same venue against the Bulgarians, the Republic were eliminated courtesy of two away defeats in the group.

The 1980 European Championship qualification process pitted the Republic alongside England, Denmark, Northern Ireland and Bulgaria. Here the Republic were unbeaten in all four home matches but were only able to pick up a solitary point away from home – a 3-3 draw in Denmark – and Giles and his team had to settle for third place in the group. It was at this point that Giles stepped down as team manager.

At West Bromwich, the team responded well to Giles and his methods honed under Revie and, to an extent, Matt Busby, and once again the future looked rosy. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Giles quit his position in April 1977. Many years later when writing about the decision to leave the Hawthorns, Giles simply stated that he discovered that the ways of management were just not for him – the politics, the penny-pinching, the need to balance the books, and all the other pressures of management were not what he, as a ‘football man’ had signed up for.

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So, it was with some regret that Giles departed the Hawthorns but before he did so for the last time he was at least able to bequeath the Baggies with a couple of signings in Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, both of whom would go on to become club legends.

After West Bromwich, Giles had a spell as player-manager at Shamrock Rovers where he continued to play intermittently until 1980 before concentrating on managing. A further spell in Canada as player-coach of Vancouver Whitecaps followed before an ill-advised return to the dug-out as manager of West Brom once again finally brought the curtain down on his active footballing career.

Instead of management, Giles then went on to carve out a career in the media. Starting first as a columnist at the Daily Express, Giles moved into television and for many years was the face of Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) in Ireland.

Giles finally retired after Euro 2016.