Another day, another birthday celebration for a United legend. This time it’s Johnny Giles, 75 today and famously one half of the best central midfield partnership of the last century. If Billy Bremner was the heart of Don Revie’s peerless team of stars, then surely John Giles was the brains and the vision, dictating and switching play, spraying passes all over the park with laser-guided accuracy and combining with Bremner in a way that many described as “telepathic”.
Johnny Giles was recruited by the wily Don Revie from under the nose of the great Matt Busby at Man U. He had shown his quality there, despite never really being played in the position where he could best influence matters on the field. Even at Leeds, his transformation from good winger to great schemer came about almost by accident, injury to the existing midfield general Bobby Collins influencing Revie’s thinking. Man U’s loss though was most definitely Leeds United’s gain over more than a decade as they rose to the top. Don Revie referred to his capture of Giles from Man U for a mere £33,000 as “robbery with violence”. Busby called it simply “my greatest mistake”.
Giles brought so much to Leeds United that it’s difficult to find the space to describe his impact. Put in on-field control of the play, he pulled strings and evolved strategy as each game progressed. His range of passing was legendary – TV commentators used to admire his latest pinpoint delivery by comparing it to the appropriate golf shot (that was the six iron). His ability on the ball, whether passing or shooting, was well-known and much admired; Gilesy was the acknowledged master.
What was often overlooked by the uninitiated was his steely efficiency in looking after himself in the warlike atmosphere of combat at home and abroad. Peter Lorimer tells the story of how Giles inflicted summary justice on a Turkish player who had persistently fouled him in the away leg of a European tie, and was then daft enough to crow in his face at the final whistle. John was miffed, and advised the Turk that he would see him in a fortnight at Elland Road. This was no idle threat.
Two weeks later, Giles asked Norman Hunter to drop the game’s first pass a couple of yards short – what is known as the “suicide ball” in football circles. Norman did as he was asked, the Turk eagerly jumped in to dispute possession – and Giles pounced, leaving his foot in to reduce his tormentor of the previous game to a grievously-injured heap, swiftly off on an urgent journey to the nearest hospital.
After the game, there was some puzzlement over how promptly the ambulance had arrived to assist Giles’ victim. The Elland Road switchboard operative swore blind that Giles had booked it for him before kick-off, something Johnny always denies. But the message was stark: mess with Giles or any other Leeds player at your peril. They looked after themselves and each other, and the bond thus forged endures to this day.
When Don Revie left for the England job, it was an open secret that he had nominated John Giles as his successor. The board were set fair to act on this recommendation, before backing down for fear, it is said, of upsetting Billy Bremner. It was an appointment that clearly should have been made, to ensure the kind of continuity Liverpool enjoyed after Bill Shankly stepped down. Who knows what the subsequent history of the club might have been? Giles had already had managerial experience with the Republic of Ireland and he went on to great success with the revival of West Bromwich Albion. In the event, he played on at Leeds for one more season under Brian Clough and then Jimmy Armfield. His last game for United should have crowned a glorious career with the top honour in club football. Sadly, thanks to the atrociously crooked display of referee Michel Kitabdjian for the 1975 European Cup Final in Paris, this was not to be.
Johnny Giles went on to enjoy a successful career after Leeds United, both as a manager and later in the media, where his eloquence and vast knowledge of the game served him well and earned him enormous respect in his native Ireland and further afield. He has gone down in Leeds United history as one of the true legends of the club – a great among greats. In terms of value transfers for Leeds, he has to be the top capture, despite the rival claims of Bobby Collins, Lucas Radebe and Gordon Strachan. It was a thief’s bargain, possibly the buy of the century.
Thanks for the memories, Johnny Giles, and a very happy birthday indeed.