There have been better United players. Ronaldo unquestionably, a handful of others arguably. There have been more charismatic heroes, characters with edge and a kind of madness that our fans adore. Cantona, of course, but also the likes of Keane and Schmeichel. Just as the Pope is regarded as God’s representative on earth, these hardboiled figures obsessed with the notion of winning somehow seemed like their manager’s representative on turf. Scholes is more gifted, Solskjaer more loveable but when all is said and done (and the obese female must surely be engaging in vocal warm-ups at this point), I suspect Ryan Joseph Giggs will enter the canon as the greatest player ever to have pulled on a Manchester United shirt.
I have thought about Giggs a great deal in recent weeks. In the first part of the season I was convinced this would be his last as a result of a number of poor performances in the centre of the pitch. I feared his astonishing sequence of at least one league goal for every year as a professional (not just since the formation of the Premier League, however much Sky insist football was invented in August 1992) would be broken. Five minutes into the Everton game at Old Trafford I realised I needn’t have worried. I turned to my Dad and told him I felt sure his goal was coming today. It duly arrived, along with another on Saturday at QPR on appearance number 999. Not bad for a bloke born in the same year as Brendan Rodgers.
It’s incredible to think that on the day Giggs made his debut in 1991, a senior member of the squad like Ferdinand was just twelve years old whilst Phil Jones had not even been born. The longevity of the Welshman must astound even his teammates. He’s like a creature from Greek mythology – half man, half kit.
To put things into context, I was six at the time Giggs made his first appearance. I can only dimly recall an era pre Giggs; the man has been an almost constant presence in my life over the two decades or so since then. I was there last season on his 900th appearance when his injury time winner at Norwich looked to have struck a crucial blow in the race for the title, I was there a few weeks ago when his glorious 50 yard pass found van Persie at West Ham and United remained in the FA Cup. Countless title deciders and cup finals have marked his career and, on a variety of fortunate occasions, our lives have intersected briefly and I’ve been there to witness such events. It is sometimes said of great and charismatic orators that a single person in a crowd of thousands will feel as though the speaker is addressing them personally. Despite this, I remain convinced that Giggsy waved at me as he joined his teammates in a lap of honour at the end of the 2009 Carling Cup Final.
What’s strange about Giggs is that he’s not a particularly charismatic figure. When you’re young, footballers can seem larger than life but in the case of someone like Cantona the effect hardly diminishes with the passing of time. Giggs never had the feel of an icon though despite the immense hype at the start of his career. The comparisons to George Best were so frequent that the Northern Irishman felt compelled to comment: ‘One day they might even say that I was another Ryan Giggs.’ Best, along with Sir Bobby Charlton, used to turn up at the Cliff training ground in those early days just to watch the Cardiff lad run rings round his opponents.
It was often claimed that Ferguson sheltered his young starlet back then but I suspect Giggs himself was just as responsible for the lack of interviews. In spite of this, he was the Premiership’s first poster boy and his ability ensured this heartthrob would be around a tad longer than Lee Sharpe. There were magazine covers and celebrity girlfriends years before we’d even heard the name David Beckham. I recall an early interview in which the young Giggs seemed almost bemused by the multiple sacks full of Valentine’s cards on his doorstep. Girls with no interest in football had his poster on their wall. I owned the Ryan Giggs Soccer Skills video but, as is so often the case, it wasn’t as good as the book. Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football League showed a video of him picking his nose at a press conference and I was mocked at school. He felt like a part of my family, almost a part of myself. This was only exacerbated by my Mum leaving little notes in my lunchbox in which she referred to me as ‘Giggsy’. I am now approaching thirty and the same man still plays at the highest level.
Giggs certainly doesn’t have the temperament of his manager. He’s has never been sent off for United and, in many ways, it’s as admirable a feat as Gary Lineker’s zero yellow cards in the previous era. Unlike Lineker, Giggs plays in an area of the pitch in which tackling is required, not to mention the fact that officials have become a good deal more stringent in the last twenty years.
The Welshman does resemble Ferguson in two crucial ways though. Firstly, his hatred of losing surpasses his enjoyment of winning. It has been generally acknowledged that Ferguson began plotting his revenge just minutes after City secured the title last season and Giggs is no different. I recall an interview with him in which he was asked whether he thinks about all he’s achieved, twelve titles, two European Cups and so much more. He said he thinks about losing the title on the final day of the 1995 season far more often. Avoiding an obvious joke, I think it’s fair to say Ryan Giggs is insatiable. Secondly, like the manager, Giggs’ fortunes have often reflected the team’s. Both have been written and or booed off over the years but have generally found an answer. At United the motto tends to be adapt or die. Even this season, years after it seemed a plausible option with that youthful pace but a distant memory, Giggs has rediscovered his form by playing in a wide position once more.
Football is about moments. Giggs has never dominated seasons like Keane, Cantona or Ronaldo yet he has consistently provided moments of genius throughout his career. His most famous, at Villa Park in 1999, the winner in the last ever FA Cup semi-final replay, I was not lucky enough to see live, either at the ground or on television. I’d been to the first leg (a wretched 0-0 notable only for David Elleray disallowing a perfectly legitimate Roy Keane goal) but by the time of the replay, seen by some as the high water mark for football in this country, I was on a school trip in France. We huddled round my crappy old portable radio as a succession of modern language teachers implored us to keep it down. The Tottenham fans fell asleep as the game progressed, leaving only an Arsenal fan and myself. The battery was running so low that, during extra time, we had to turn the radio off at five-minute intervals to ensure it’d survive the whole match. During one such hiatus, Giggs scored. When we turned it back on, Alan Green informed us United were winning 2-1. It wasn’t until the next day when we bought a copy of The Sun with the headline: ‘Is this the greatest goal ever scored?’ that I had any idea exactly what had happened. I remember little about that trip but I recall vividly watching all 120 minutes the second I got home. Much hyped, the goal, like the young Giggs years before, did not disappoint. Ferguson called it: ‘The ultimate expression of the natural gifts he has always had since he came to us as a 13-year-old.’ During that run, Giggsy truly left the defenders with twisted blood.
As a side note, my mother was still writing me messages at this point and slipped a bon voyage card into my bag before we set off. The night before we left I had been devastated by Paul Ince’s late equaliser for Liverpool that looked like costing United the title and the message concluded with: ‘There’s plenty more football left to be played.’ She was right of course, and United went on to win the treble. I often think about the way Ince celebrated that goal and reflect on the fact that we won that title by exactly one point. The final sentence of the card could just as easily apply to Ryan Giggs. It’s hard to believe that goal was fourteen years ago and by no means in the first flushes of the boy’s career. I once saw Barry Davies on television mention that Giggs had said to him he fears the goal will only be remembered for the hairy chest celebration. Davies simply replied: ‘No it won’t, Ryan. No it won’t.’
The years have passed and we continue to sing songs of Ryan Giggs running down the wing even though those days are well behind him. That boy Giggsy has become a man and in the process he’s become the most decorated player in English football history. A reference in The Simpsons, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, a shaved chest, grey hair, even a Bridget Jones style yoga phase. All these things have come to define the ageing wizard. We sing: ‘Giggsy twelve, Gerrard nil’ but sometimes forget just what a remarkable achievement that actually is.
On the final day of the 2007/08 season, Giggs came off the bench and equalled Charlton’s record for United appearances. He scored, wrapped up the game and another title along with it. Ten days later he broke the record in Moscow. Again off the bench, he marked this occasion by converting United’s final penalty. Giggs hasn’t just been a loyal once club player for a team that could afford a passenger – he has made the difference in the very biggest games even at the tail end of his career.
This is no place to pick apart the lurid details of the man’s private life but it is telling that, upon learning of his various sexual indiscretions, most people’s response (reds or otherwise) seemed to simply be disappointment. Football fans just felt it was a shame. Even as the nation has come to despise United and their success, Giggs remains a popular figure. That said, it’s important to separate the artist from the art and Giggs’s private life ought to be exactly that. It’s not as though he’s the first great man to slip up in such a manner, nor will he be the last.
At some point very soon Ryan Giggs will make his one-thousandth appearance for Manchester United. He’ll probably engage in his almost imperceptible nervous habit of touching the studs of both his boots in turn before taking a set piece. He’ll likely remain composed under pressure and find the right man. Enjoy all the small things. He won’t be playing for much longer and we should enjoy it whilst we still can.
George Graham tells a story of how he met Ferguson in his office in the late 1980s before Giggs had adopted his mother’s surname. Fergie pointed out at the training pitch behind him and said: ‘That lad, Ryan Wilson, is going to be one of the all-time greats.’ Many years later Graham asked Ferguson: ‘Whatever happened to that Ryan Wilson anyway?’
He did alright for himself, George. Here’s to the next thousand games…