After Ryan Giggs scored against Everton in January, to record the unique distinction of having found the net in every Premier League season, a Manchester United fan rang one of the radio phone-ins with an incredible story.
He had been taken by his dad as a six-year-old to his first game at Old Trafford in 1991 and had seen Giggs score his first goal for Manchester United. That very afternoon, 22 years later, he had taken his own young son along to his first United game and he too had been witness to a Giggs goal. That is what you call longevity.
In a game growing quicker, harder and sharper, in which the average length of time spent playing in the Premier League is shrinking, not elongating, Giggs’s generation-spanning, 1,000-match career is a pinnacle never likely to be matched, never mind surpassed. His is the most brutally Darwinian of professions: only the good survive, there is no sentiment in his continuing selection.
That he remains at the top, through the quiet insistence of his performance still forcing his way into the United first XI, astonishes even those who work closest to him.
“He is a fantastic human being,” says Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson has been astonished by the player’s physicality from the day he first saw him play as a 13-year-old, and likened him to a gazelle, flitting across the turf apparently in defiance of all known rules of gravity. The United manager could not stop eulogising the young player’s balance, pace and poise.
But Giggs’s achievement is not merely the result of extraordinary physique. Few players have worked as hard at maintaining their athleticism.
Renowned for his yoga sessions, for his embrace of alternative medical treatment like osteopathy and acupuncture, there is, too, a streak of asceticism about the way he prepares for games. He follows a diet which deliberately excludes things he likes to eat or drink. He has not touched chocolate or beer for years. Not because they are necessarily bad for him, but because he believes his body stays more alert if it is denied reward.
This is a man who, has spent his entire career fighting any hint of complacency. While some of his contemporaries seized all the opportunity of their position, he has long embraced ruthless self-denial. Well, in most things.
When he first emerged at United, feted as the new George Best, the club used the fallen Irishman as a sort of reverse role model. If you want to get on, do not do it like him was the implicit instruction.
But Giggs never showed any inclination to become the second Best. Largely because he already had an example in his personal life of those who squander their natural talent in the pursuit of hedonism. His father, Danny Wilson, was a gifted but wayward rugby player, who abandoned his young family.
As a teenager, Giggs sided with his mother in the bitter marital breakdown to the degree he even changed his surname from Wilson to her maiden name.
Like Bradley Wiggins, whose own wastrel father served as a template in his career of what not to do, Giggs was determined not to throw away his chance in the way his dad had. Every opening he would exploit.
He has been like that all his life. His ability to marry application to talent has come to define him. He was widely admired throughout the game for his utter dedication to his craft. So much so, for years it kept prying eyes off his extra-curricular activity. Because he would never be seen misbehaving outside a nightclub, it was assumed he never misbehaved. In his autobiography, Roy Keane complained bitterly that whereas he was castigated for every public misdemeanour, Giggs “gets away with murder”.
We found out, eventually, what Keane meant. But even when exposure came, Giggs’s Stakhanovite work ethic made him immune from wider derision. Unlike Chelsea's John Terry or Ashley Cole, he is not barracked by rival supporters for his personal weaknesses, despite the fact that they are far less morally defensible. Admiration for his application has long served as a shield.
And we are not wrong to admire. Giggs continues to astonish, playing as well as a central midfield schemer nearing his 40th birthday as he did as a flying teenage winger.
Still there is no sign of slow down, no sign of let up, no sign of giving himself the rest he has so long earned. When he turned 30, he decided he was not going to give anyone the opportunity to criticise him for letting his game drop due to his age. Nearly 10 years on, he is still at it. Ferguson said when Giggs emerged that he had “never seen anyone so determined to realise the genius within him”. The fact that 22 years on from his debut he still embodies that observation is what makes him truly remarkable.