Giggs was undoubtedly a Manchester United great but far from their greatest, despite what the medals say
21:27, 02 Mar 2011Miguel Delaney
In the week that sees the 20th anniversary of his Manchester United debut, Ryan Giggs's decorated career should be celebrated. But his exact contribution to all those medals can still be disputed. He was never the best player at the club at any given time, let alone in history.
Cometh the hour, cometh the boy. Fifty-nine minutes into Manchester United’s trip to Loftus Road in February of the 1993-94 season, a very competitive QPR were matching the English champions tackle for tackle, stride for stride. With a team featuring Trevor Sinclair and Les Ferdinand, Rangers would finish ninth of 22 that season and, at that moment, looked on the verge of overturning the away team’s 2-1 lead.
Until, out of absolutely nothing, Ryan Giggs produced. Scampering onto a loose ball ahead of Ray Wilkins, he skipped past Darren Peacock and dribbled through three other QPR defenders to drill the ball past Jan Stejskal. Recently turned 20, it was the young winger’s ninth goal of 13 in the league that season. What’s more, it was a strike that seemed to bring together every one of Giggs’s most breathtaking talents: lightning wit, eviscerating acceleration, fleetness of feet, an eye for goal and – overall – a frightening sense of uncatchable brilliance. On Match of the Day that night, commentator Clive Tyldsley had only one – oft-repeated – response: “the boy’s a genius”.
Since then, Giggs the man has been a great servant, a model professional, a standard-setter and a glitteringly decorated Old Trafford hero.
But a genius? Never quite to the same degree.
To some, that will sound like sacrilege. At the very least, however, hear us out.
This week, Giggs will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Manchester United debut. Should he mark it by being part of a team that gets a good result at Chelsea tonight, it will go a long way towards securing a record 12th English league medal. Yet another individual milestone, he can add it to two Champions Leagues, four FA Cups, four League Cups and two World club titles. Appearing to top off all this, Giggs was named United’s greatest ever player in a recent magazine poll. That status is unsurprising given he possesses one of the most impressive medal collections in the history of the game.
Unsurprising, but possibly underserved.
Because there is always a danger of confusing longevity with actual application. And, arguably, Giggs never quite had the overall effect at Old Trafford that his ability of the 1992-94 period suggested.
For a start, he never again reached the rampant scoring levels of the 1993-94 campaign. That season, Giggs managed an average of one in three. Since then, and right through his peak years, that has dropped to one in five.
Effectively signposting this, his best ever season was followed by his worst: 1994-95. In that notorious campaign for United, when Giggs also turned 21, he hit just one goal in 29 league games. Such a decline in form even became a matter of huge media debate. Some put it down to his relationship with Dani Behr, others to the Samson effect of having shaved off his slicked curls. More measured critics agreed it was probably attributable to a natural period of burn-out for someone who had played so much so young.
Nevertheless, that dip coincided with a watershed Champions League campaign for Alex Ferguson. Although hamstrung by the foreigner rule, the manager attempted to take that United team’s adventurous approach away from Old Trafford only to see it picked apart by Barcelona and IFK Gothenburg.
It was then that Ferguson realised he had to add greater sophistication to United’s attitude. And, still young and in his formative years, Giggs’s career progress represented this experimentation and evolution better than anyone else.
Just like with his team, Ferguson began a long process of rounding off Giggs as a player; adding astuteness to his acceleration, perception to his potency.
It wasn’t the only example of this from Ferguson. Having signed a free-scoring Andy Cole from Newcastle, the United manager attempted to complement the striker’s inherent selfishness with a team selflessness. For a time, it took the wind out of Cole and resulted in a miserable 1995-96 season. Eventually, however, it resulted in better overall end product for the United side as a whole.
In giving the player more measured qualities though, Ferguson arguably took away a glorious sense of chaos. That applied even more to Giggs. From 1994-95 on, he was perhaps too bound by the parameters of team perfection. Never again did we see him cut loose so ferociously, so frequently. He had too much responsibility.
Yes, there were examples like the shot fired into the roof of the Juventus net in the 1997-98 season or the 1999 FA Cup wonder goal against Arsenal. But it’s often forgotten that fellow left-winger Jesper Blomqvist had more league appearances than Giggs that treble season. Again, his effect was never quite as emphatic as 20 years of memories seem to make out.
Put simply, Ferguson had to rebuild Giggs for the team rather than build the team around Giggs because there was always a better player at Old Trafford; always someone else that had a superior claim to be given the role of unrestricted focal point. Between 1992 and 1997 it was Eric Cantona; between 1997 and 2005 Roy Keane. In the latter period, too, all of Dwight Yorke, Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham and Paul Scholes could be said – to varying degrees – to have superseded Giggs in both importance and effect.
Indeed it probably speaks volumes that the years when Giggs was one of United’s most experienced and influential players, 2003-06, were among the leanest in Ferguson’s tenure. Nor should it be forgotten that, although he hit the post and subsequently scored a penalty in the shoot-out, he wasn’t named in the first XI for the 2008 Champions League final. Throughout that 2006-09 spell of success, he remained a valued member of the squad. But never a vital one. And he has arguably only returned to prominence since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure because of Ferguson’s ongoing struggle to find “value” in the market.
None of this is to actually criticise Giggs. Although never as coruscating a player as between 1992 and 1994, he has contributed to the club in so many other ways. Both on the pitch and off. Primarily, he has been foremost in sustaining United’s sense of identity. But the question does remain as to how good a player he could have been.
Essentially, Giggs sacrificed the more unique and unrestrained elements of his game for the good of Manchester United. He gave up his own progress as an individual for that of the team. In that, however, there’s perhaps no higher compliment that he can be paid.