Sat Jan 10, 1970 – Chelsea 2 Leeds 5
I remember, as a child at school, discussing with a priest my choice of a new middle name for my Confirmation. ‘So, Michael, have you chosen your Confirmation name?’ ‘Yes, Father. It is John.’ ‘John. That’s good. Is that after Saint John the Baptist, or Saint John of God?’ ‘Neither, Father. Johnny Giles. (pause.) He plays for Leeds. (pause.) They’re a football team.’ On reflection, while Giles regularly performed football miracles, his canonisation would have been hindered by Leeds’ reputation for ‘letting their opponents know they were there’. But it was lucky that he had by then left Man United, or I might also have had to explain that my proposed saint played for the Red Devils.
It was also lucky for another reason. When I was eight, Giles was the number one Irishman in the English game. He scored in the first Match of the Day I remember, as Leeds beat Chelsea 5-2. So I adopted his team, Leeds, as mine. And, unlike your religion, which I have long abandoned, you can never change your football team. So, if born a few years earlier in Giles’ career path, I would now be a consumer of the intergalactic conglomerated Manchester United plc industrial complex. Instead I have followed Leeds through relegation and promotion and relegation, through European Finals to financial meltdown. I have loved every moment, even the most painful ones. Oh, and I almost forgot, I have never been to Leeds.
You see, football is not a rational passion, and it is all the more powerful for that. Its power is even greater in real life. Leeds are my ‘television’ team; Bohemians of Dublin are my ‘real’ one. I spent most of my teenage weekends at Dalymount Park when we thought it was a great stadium, in Milltown before it was a housing estate, in Tolka Park when it had muck instead of seats, and being chased out of Oriel Park in Dundalk by people who were probably much less ferocious than they seemed at the time. The Pat Grace’s Famous Fried Chicken League of Ireland never had the glamour of the English game, but it was just as passionate, just as exhilarating, and just as neurotically obsessively addictive.
Now in my mid-forties, I still have the same plain red and black scarf to Dalymount that I did as a child. When I went to Paris to watch the 1998 World Cup Final, I saw France beat Brazil 3-0 while wearing my childhood Bohs scarf over a plain white, round-collared 1960s Leeds United shirt with no sponsor’s logo to compete for attention with the comforting blue-stitched owl badge. That particular ensemble got me searched several times by the French police, delaying me from being present when my partner Anne met England legend Nobby Stiles in a Paris railway station. I have also since met Johnny Giles, at a 30-year reunion dinner for the Leeds cup-winning team of 1972. I told him the story of my confirmation name. I think he thought I was a stalker.