By Peter O’Connell
TWENTY-FIVE years ago this week, 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives at Hillsborough, during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between the Merseyside club and Nottingham Forest.
Former Leeds United, Manchester United and Irish international, John Giles, who was in Sixmilebridge last Saturday to launch Bridge United/Leeds United Schoolboy Soccer Summer Camp, was in Sheffield, working with RTÉ, on that dark day.
“We were doing the match live. From where we were watching it unfold, initially it didn’t look serious at all. The game was going on. I just thought it was a bit of crowd trouble,” the RTÉ soccer panellist told The Clare Champion in Sixmilebridge.
John’s son was at the game supporting Liverpool, although he was not injured in the tragedy. “In those days, there was a lot of crowd trouble anyway. It didn’t look like anything but it turned out to be a dreadful tragedy. I have a son who went to a lot of the Liverpool matches and he was there that day. I never thought anything of it because he used to go fairly regularly. You don’t expect people to be killed going to a football match. Nobody expects that. That’s what made it so dreadful,” he reflected.
On a less heavy note, Giles sometimes has to tell photograph-chasing children that, yes, he did kick the odd ball in his time. “I often find, when I meet young kids, they’ll always say ‘did you ever play football?’ I say ‘yeah, a long time ago’. They’d know you from doing the television but not from playing. But they’re very good generally,” he laughed.
Along with Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady, Giles is part of an often argumentative RTÉ soccer panel.
“There’s none of it contrived,” the ex Republic of Ireland and WBA manager insists. “You saw the time when Liam (Brady) lost the head over Trapattoni. But, luckily enough, it’s never taken personally. We’re fine afterwards. When you get honest opinions, you’ll get disagreements but that’s all they are. They’re not rows but I think the public enjoy it,” he maintains.
The now veteran analyst keeps an eye on pundits in the UK. He has been impressed by the former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, who now works with Sky. However, Giles believes Gary Neville, who also works for Sky and is an England coach, has to indulge in a bit of fence-sitting.
“Jamie Carragher is ok, especially when he’s talking about defenders. But I think Gary Neville is in a funny position. I think he’s compromised. If you’re doing the television, then you can’t be in the dressing room with the England players, who you’re going go be commenting on the following week. I think he’d be better off with one or the other. I know I wouldn’t like to do it. When Liam (Brady) was involved with the Irish team, he had to pull out of the panel. You can’t serve two masters,” Giles believes.
On a personal level, he still keeps an eye on Leeds United results, although he knows very few people at the club these days.
“I take an interest in them because I played there for 12 years, which was a good while ago now. There’s nobody left in the club from my time, although I think Peter Lorimer does a bit of work for them. But the supporters are the people I feel sorry for.
They’re great supporters, as you can see every week. They’re fanatical about the club. I think they way they’ve been treated has been shameful,” he says of the numerous buy-outs and rampant instability that has beset the Elland Road club.
On a broader note, Giles is critical of overseas owners who have bought clubs like Hull and Cardiff City but don’t appear to respect the traditions of the clubs. The Hull owners are currently trying to change the name to Hull City Tigers, while Vincent Tan, the Cardiff owner, changed the colour of the club’s jersey at the start of the current season.
“I don’t think they’ve any respect for the history of the club. They’ve come into the game, at Cardiff and Hull particularly, in recent times. But the history of the clubs have been maintained by the supporters, who pay in week-in week-out. But now it’s as if they have no say at all in the running of the club. I find that very, very unfortunate,” Giles said.
“It’s their club. No matter who buys it, they don’t own the club. It’s the supporters who own the club, over the last 100 years.
These guys have only come along in the last two or three years. They want to change the name and the colour of the jersey. It’s as if it’s nothing to them. The history of the club means everything to supporters,” he stressed.
Following their 3-2 win over Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday, Liverpool have every chance of winning their first league title since 1990. If they pull it off, they will replace Manchester United as Premier League champions, who are struggling under David Moyes.
“I think he has done the best he can,” Giles said of the Old Trafford manager. “I think he’ll only be really judged from 12 months time anyway, when he has put his own stamp on it, if he’s allowed. That’s the way it works,” he added, before suggesting that he hopes Liverpool deliver the title under Brendan Rodgers.
“People are talking about Liverpool making a comeback now but look how long they’ve been out of the picture. They had a dynasty, for maybe 30 years, which was even longer than Manchester United. It shows you how fragile success can be and it’s taken for granted for such a long time. But it’s good to see Liverpool come back. They are one of the great clubs and they’re genuine contenders for the Premier League now.”
Unlike John Giles’ time, most Premier League players can issue their every thought to the planet via Twitter or Facebook. Admitting that he’s a bit out of touch, Giles simply doesn’t get the social media obsession.
“I don’t like it. I’m a bit old fashioned but I can’t understand why people reveal their private thoughts. I think it’s particularly bad for football because, in my day, they used to say ‘what happens in the dressing room, stays in the dressing room’. The lads must know that when they tweet something, it’s going worldwide. It’s very difficult for the managers because they have to ban it. The managers always say ‘what happens here, stays here’ and the next thing they see somebody tweeting. The players can’t be that stupid not to know that it’s going worldwide,” he said.
And no, John Giles will not be tweeting any day soon. “No. Definitely not. I believe in privacy. If people want to do it, they want to do it. It’s none of my business but it wouldn’t be for me,” he smiled.
Speaking in the hurling heartland of Sixmilebridge, Giles expressed his delight that soccer appears to be thriving in parts of Ireland that are perceived as GAA-dominated regions.
“It’s always a surprise to me. Kerry is a big stronghold now in soccer and there’s a lot of soccer in Clare and Tipperary. I think sport, no matter what it is, is great for young people. I don’t think there should be any competition between the GAA and the soccer communities. It’s about kids playing sport and we all know that sport is a healthy past-time and keeps kids out of trouble.
Whatever they want to play, they should be allowed to play. If they have a preference for GAA or hurling that’s fine. I don’t care what the kids play to be honest as long as they’re out there playing,” the genial Birmingham-based Dub said, before heading towards the N7 and back to his home town.