Phil Hay catches up with catches Whites legend Johnny Giles.
There are some who say the debate over Leeds United’s finest exponent stops at Johnny Giles. Included in their number are several of his former team-mates. “Gilesy was the man,” an ex- colleague once said. “He was the player who made things happen.”
Few testimonies come higher, and those which did were not confined to West Yorkshire. Alf Ramsey famously expressed his regret that Giles, a Dubliner, was not of English stock. Sir Matt Busby classed the sale of Giles from Manchester United to Leeds as an unforgivable error. “Not seeing his potential as a midfield player was my greatest mistake,” Busby is quoted as saying.
A recurring theme of the vote for the YEP readers’ Leeds United Dream Team was the sense that Giles, while lacking Billy Bremner’s aura and iconic status, possessed the more precocious talent. The margin was slender but real nonetheless, even if Giles would prefer to think otherwise.
“There’s a well-known saying that self-praise is no recommendation,” he said, speaking from his home in Birmingham. “For anyone to talk so highly of me is, to say the least, very flattering, but I couldn’t say I was the best of that bunch. Not when you think of some of the players around me.”
It surprises Giles in any case that the squad built and fashioned by Don Revie are held in such great esteem three decades on. Appreciation of that team, he said, goes above and beyond his idea of respect, at least among supporters of the club and those unaffected by talk of “dirty Leeds”.
“I don’t deny that we were a great side, or that we achieved great things,” Giles said. “But I can never get over the amount of respect the club’s fans show us. It amazes me and I’m always touched by it.
“When all’s said and done, all of us were simply doing our jobs – doing what we were paid to do. Those supporters who came to see us paid good money to watch. It wasn’t like we were doing them a service. I didn’t expect to be remembered as fondly as we seem to be.
“It’s one thing saying ‘they were a great team’ and, in all honesty, it’s right that people say that about us. But to be held in high regard so many years later is something I’d never take for granted. I guess that era defined the club in so many ways.”
Giles is typical of the Revie era – a player who saw out 12 years at Elland Road and took his appearances and goals into the hundreds. He appears ninth in the list of United’s all-time appearance-makers, behind seven players with whom he shared a pitch and a dressing room. Only Gary Kelly, a fellow-Irishman, succeeded in entering a top 10 which otherwise consists exclusively of Revie players.
By today’s standards, the statistics are astonishing – Jack Charlton on 773 appearances and Bremner on 772. Paul Reaney, Paul Madeley, Norman Hunter and Peter Lorimer all passed 700 and both Giles and Eddie Gray amassed in excess of 500. No member of the existing squad at Elland Road lies anywhere close.
“Freedom of contract means you’ll never see that happen again,” Giles said. “Groups of players don’t stay with the same club for 10 or 12 years anymore. In rare cases it happens with an individual but the done thing now is to move around every few seasons.
“With the squad at Leeds, Don knew we were his players and he knew that he could build that team over a decade or more. These days, someone would have come in with millions of pounds and nicked your Peter Lorimers or your Billy Bremners. It’s a totally different game now and money seems to talk.
“By the time Don’s team was at its height, we knew each other inside out and the camaraderie was excellent. Even now when the lads get together, we’re cracking on straight away. There’s a strong bond still and those were great times for all of us.”
Giles led the defence of himself and his ex-United team-mates after the publication of The Damned United, criticising the best-selling book as “totally fictitious” and “outrageous and wrong”. He won damages from publishes Faber & Faber and saw references to him removed from the text.
United’s support, regardless, are more inclined to dwell on Revie’s 13 years as manager of Leeds than Brian Clough’s 44 days. That much is shown by the extent to which Revie’s squad are represented in the Dream Team. In the vote for the central midfield positions, Bremner and Giles took a combined share of 74 per cent, a firm acknowledgement of an incomparable partnership.
“What we did back then was something the supporters had never seen before,” Giles said. “Don’t forget that we brought the first trophy to Elland Road, or that we won the club’s first title and first FA Cup. Before Don Revie, Leeds United had never won anything to speak of. It’s a long time ago now and I left Leeds in 1975. Like everything else, you get on with your life. But it’s never a bad thing to reminisce about those days. Whenever I’m in Leeds, it’s all people want to talk to me about. That makes me very proud.”
HOW YOU VOTED
Billy Bremner 50%
Johnny Giles 24%
David Batty 13%
Gary McAllister 5%
Tony Currie 3%
Olivier Dacourt 3%
John Sheridan 1%
Bobby Collins 1%