Giles hails Derry man for career

1963... Pictured at England and Manchester United legend Nobby Stiles' wedding are, from left, Eamon Dunphy, John Giles and Jimmy Shields.
1963... Pictured at England and Manchester United legend Nobby Stiles' wedding are, from left, Eamon Dunphy, John Giles and Jimmy Shields.

Irish football legend John Giles has admitted that he may not have had a football career but for a Derry man.

Giles, who played for both Manchester United and Leeds United during a glittering career in which he won domestic and European honours, pays tribute to Jimmy Sheils in his autobiography, ‘A Football Man.’

The Dubliner became firm friends with Sheils while they were young players at Manchester United in the late 1950s - the era of the famous ‘Busby Babes’, many of whom lost their lives in the Munich air crash of February 1958.

According to Giles, the Derry man, who played at full back, helped him feel a “sense of belonging” at Old Trafford.

The former Irish international player/manager recalls: “Jimmy was much more outgoing than I was. With his reddish hair and Northern Irish accent, he seemed to have a stronger personality all round.

“And, clearly, I was open to his influence at a very formative time because I learned a lot from being around him. I guess this sort of thing happens during your teenage years. When your pal is much better at getting on with people than you are, and you see how well it works, you just want to be more like him.”

Giles - now a respected football analyst on RTE Television - adds: “Just from being in Jimmy’s company, seeing how people warmed to him, I started to become less shy and introverted, and more confident in my relationships with the rest of the players at United... It took Jimmy Sheils, with his charisma, to really bring me out of myself at United.”

Giles says he can’t over-emphasise the influence the Derry man had on him - “wisecracking with the likes of Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Roger Byrne [who all died in Munich] without making any enemies.

“He had arrived the same year as me [1956] but was three years older, so he would have been with the first team first-team squad for pre-season training. He was able to have a laugh with these guys that I had found so intimidating.” Jimmy Sheils’ world, says Giles, was a “place I wanted to be, and needed to be.”

However, for the Derry man, bad luck was just around the corner.

Giles recalls: “As footballers, we know that our world can end in an instant. In a training match, Jimmy was running back towards the keeper Gordon Clayton, who dived over the ball and caught Jimmy’s knee, giving him a cartilage problem that wasn’t diagnosed properly, and that wasted a year. When that happened, you were a cert for a free transfer and Jimmy duly went off to Southend for a year.

“By the early 1960s, Jimmy was out of the game but starting to do very well in the fast food business. We are still friends, and it is a sick joke between us that he curses the name of Gordon Clayton to this day.

“Jimmy might have had a football career if it wasn’t for Gordon. I mightn’t have a football career if it wasn’t for Jimmy.”

John Giles, of course, went on to forge a spectacular career - winning the FA Cup in 1963 with United before being transferred to Leeds United where he secured myriad honours.

England’s World Cup winning manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, said of Giles’ influence as a player on English football: “As I look at all the talent and character at my disposal today, my one regret is that John Giles wasn’t born an Englishman.”

Matt Busby later realised his error in allowing Giles to depart for Leeds.

“Selling him to Leeds, not seeing his potential as a midfield player, was my greatest mistake in football,” he said.

For Giles’ on field abilities, his former boss at Leeds, Brian Clough, said: “Giles could grab hold of a match, tuck it in his back pocket and carry it around with him. He didn’t need to find space, it was as if space found him.”