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Top marks for Ireland's pass master

As player and then coach of the Republic of Ireland national team during a 20-year period, Johnny Giles was always looking to raise standards.

Johnny Giles with the Irish national team in 1978
Johnny Giles with the Irish national team in 1978 ©Bob Thomas/Getty Images

To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. The Republic of Ireland chose Johnny Giles as their Golden Player.

When they sat down to select the Republic of Ireland's best player of the past 50 years, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) had a tough task. They could have picked any of the legends of the recent past, such as Liam Brady, David O'Leary, Roy Keane or Paul McGrath. Instead, they went for Johnny Giles, former player, captain and manager of the Republic's national team.

He may never have played for his country at a major tournament, but Giles's contribution to Irish soccer over a 20-year period was immense. Giles may be no longer active in the game – and only known to younger fans as a media analyst with RTE television and Dublin's Evening Herald newspaper – yet he is still regarded as one of the best players, and probably the finest passer of the ball, to represent Ireland.

Giles won 59 caps for his country from 1959-79, and was still playing for the national team aged 39 as player-coach. "I have always respected John; as a player he compared with the best in the game," said Liam Brady. "In his time as Ireland manager from 1973-80, John brought a new professionalism to the job and demanded high standards, not only from the players but from the FAI," added former Ireland striker Frank Stapleton.

"John gave Irish soccer a sense of identity," continued Stapleton. "He knew what was expected in terms of standards at international level and looked for that from the players and the FAI. We never achieved his ambition of going to a major finals, but John was a vital part of the success which was to come later. Success didn't happen overnight and it took Ireland a long time to achieve it, but John Giles should be remembered for his part in it."

Giles's first club was Manchester United FC, where he moved in 1957 from Dublin at the age of 15. He won the FA Cup with United in 1963, but was surprisingly sold to rivals Leeds United AFC for just €45,000 later that year, a decision Old Trafford manager Matt Busby would later consider one of the worst of his career. Giles went on to achieve great things at Leeds, winning two league titles (1969, 1974), the FA Cup, English League Cup and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (1968, 1971).

"John was a superlative soccer technician whose ability had no limits," was the view of his Leeds manager Don Revie. "He had great natural aptitude but was always working hard to improve. When we finished a training session he would go off to the gym to work more on his own."

Appointed player-coach of West Bromwich Albion FC in 1975 after 12 seasons at Leeds, Giles won the club promotion to England's top division but in 1977 made a surprise decision to return to Ireland to become player-coach of Shamrock Rovers FC. He hoped to turn them into a fully professional outfit capable of competing in Europe, but that never happened. After that Giles had only brief flirtations with management, working with Vancouver Whitecaps FC (1983) and West Brom again (1985), but ultimately decided to step out of football and into the media world.

Yet he had made a lasting mark, not least on the international stage. He scored on his Ireland debut against Sweden in Dublin in 1959, and was appointed player-coach in October 1973, a job he held until 1980. "It was John's attitude to the job which began the transformation of the team into a side which was looking to compete with – and beat – the top international sides in the world," Stapleton concluded.

Last updated: 26 January 2011