Saturday, March 2, 2013

Ryan Giggs reaches a thousand games

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Source: guardian

Ryan Giggs

The tearaway teen who gave defenders 'twisted blood' has become Old Trafford's elder statesman but he's still some player

It began on a lifeless pitch one spring afternoon back in the days when Liverpool were still on their perch, the "keep off the grass" signs were in one language, not the six there are now, and the entire Manchester United team, including substitutes, was made up of players from Britain and Ireland. It was the "Madchester" era, even if Do The Bartman was No1, and, if anyone wants evidence of what a different place Old Trafford was back then, just look at the attendance, 45,656, for a game that left Alex Ferguson's team eight without a win, level on points with Wimbledon, almost a quarter of a century since their last championship.

By his own admission there was not a great deal to get worked up about in Ryan Giggs's first senior appearance back in March 1991, coinciding with a United performance the Observer described the following day as "depleted, disjointed, shapeless". They lost 2-0 against 12th-placed Everton, falling 17 points behind Arsenal at the top of Division One. "Nor was it an auspicious entry from Giggs," the newspaper continues. "He was pushed off the bench when [Denis] Irwin left and, unsurprisingly, failed to find his feet until well into the second half."

Giggs, in fairness, has never tried to butter up the occasion too much himself. His abiding memory after replacing the injured Irwin, 35 minutes in, is Dave Watson scything through him with a challenge that split open his knee and felt, to the 17-year-old recipient, like a coded welcome to the big time. That apart, Giggs remembers Ferguson shouting at everyone in the dressing room. "The gaffer said we were second to the ball and lacked imagination. And he did so pretty forcibly. I can only say he was spot on. We were terrible. It should have been a celebration but it felt more like a wake."

The 22nd anniversary is on Saturday when, courtesy of one of the nice little twists that have accompanied his career (not least overtaking Sir Bobby Charlton's appearance record on the night United won the Champions League in Moscow), Giggs should mark the occasion by clocking up his 1,000th game. Sixty-four were for Wales, four with the Great Britain Olympics team and the other 932 for the club that know enough about Giggs by now to realise he will not want any fussy pre-match presentations before the home game against Norwich City. A polite smile, maybe a wave to the crowd and that will probably be enough when his real focus is the three points on offer. Very soon, one suspects, the swagmen on Sir Matt Busby Way will have to update their "Giggsy 12 Gerrard 0" T-shirts paying homage to his unprecedented collection of title wins.

Eventually, the press release from Old Trafford will carry tributes rather than news but, for now, the announcement that he has extended his contract has become an annual fixture in the football calendar around this stage of the season (10 February last year) and there is no surprise that he is carrying on. As Gary Neville said earlier in the week: "He's been influencing matches since he was 17 and he's still contributing now. I'd be absolutely stunned if he didn't play for another season."

The next deal will take Giggs beyond 40 and, to put it into context, if George Best had had the same kind of longevity he would have played for Ron Atkinson in the 1985 FA Cup final and, best of all, still been at the club when Ferguson took over the following year. Phil Jones was nine when Giggs had his testimonial match against Celtic in 2001 and not even born when he made his debut. David de Gea, Danny Welbeck and Rafael da Silva were all in nappies, aged between three to eight months. Giggs's hair, once raven, now has flecks of grey above the ears and is thinning on the crown. For United there have been 147 different team-mates; for Wales 84. Just don't even try to tot up the number of opponents he has left behind him.

"We played them two days before Christmas in 2000," the former Ipswich Town striker James Scowcroft remembers. "We were fifth in the league but it was the only time in my professional career I've played a match that has felt like schools football because one side was so much better than the other. They beat us 2-0, God knows how it wasn't more, and Giggs was absolutely devastating.

"He was playing up front with [Ole Gunnar] Solskjaer and every time the ball came into Giggs's feet he'd flick it between his legs then run round the other side of the defender with that blistering pace. I can remember at half-time our assistant manager, Dale Roberts, going mad at the centre-halves: 'Any fucking chance you can get tighter on Giggs?' and Mark Venus shouting back: 'You try getting fucking near him.' We were in shock."

"Twisted blood," Ferguson put it in the quote that now adorns the back cover of Giggs's autobiography. Gary Pallister was the first to use that line, going back to their days together on the training pitches of The Cliff. Viv Anderson will vouch for it, too, after the first time Giggs, at 14 and known then as Ryan Wilson, was pushed into a senior practice match. Ferguson loves this story: "Viv was shouting: 'You can't play him, he's far too small.' Ryan gets the ball and boom-boom-boom he's round three of them. Viv can hardly breathe, he's chasing after him and he's going: 'Who the hell is that?'" Apocryphal or not, there is a great story about George Graham apparently inquiring of Ferguson some time in the mid-1990s: "Whatever happened to that Ryan Wilson you used to rave about?"

Neville believes his former team-mate will never be emulated – "there won't be another player like him ever again" – and for a long time Ferguson would happily tell anyone who cared to listen that Giggs should get a knighthood, emboldened enough to say it should happen while he was still playing and "how I would love to adorn my team-sheet with the words 'Sir Ryan Giggs'."

Sadly for him, what has happened since means the idea should probably be shelved and, though it would be nice to gloss over it, there is no point pretending the tabloid scrutiny on Giggs's private life has not caused substantial damage to his public reputation. At one point masked men attacked the photographers' cars outside Giggs's house. Ned Kelly, who ran United's security for over a decade, offers his own slant on Giggs in his 2003 book, Manchester United – The Untold Story. Giggs, he says, "is under the (unsolicited) protection of the 'Salford mob' and affiliated gangs in Manchester. He is quite simply untouchable and viewed as the original local-boy-done-good."

Neville remembers that boy at 14 as "ridiculously special, an incredible player, off another planet" to the point "you were almost embarrassed to turn up at the training ground because you'd think: 'Are they all like him?'" Now he looks at him with a mix of awe and near disbelief. "To think, he came into the team as a flying left-winger and he's now playing as a holding midfielder. He's still got that little bit of pace. But think about what he's doing now, that adaptation in him ... he's now a passer."

As for Ferguson, the Giggs we see now, oozing sophistication and football intelligence, ranks as "the most precious, skill-based player I've ever had". There are three footballers who can make Ferguson's eyes sparkle just by mentioning their names. One is Cristiano Ronaldo, another Eric Cantona. The third is the serial champion who, quietly and diligently behind the scenes, has combined being the doyen of United's dressing room with being the first footballer to reach the mandatory coaching qualification for Premier League and Champions League managers, the elite-standard Uefa Pro Licence level, while still playing.

It has taken Giggs six years in total. Even getting his 'A' and 'B' badges is an example of dedication given the number of hours it takes, never mind for someone already in the business of trying to win football matches. Not too many people recognise Giggs as a realistic contender to manage United whenever Ferguson retires. It should not be discounted.

Ryan Giggs was never going to be the 'new George Best' at Manchester United

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Fresh faced: A young Giggs poses alongside Eric Cantona in 1994

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.

I delivered young Giggs to City, only for United to snatch him

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Source: Daily Mail
Diamond: Dennis Schofield (right) found Ryan Giggs (left) and still coaches kids in Salford today

There is a line in Ryan Giggs's autobiography: 'The manager was a guy called Dennis Schofield, a great bloke, a real football man... Dennis was a milkman, but how he ever got his round done is a mystery. He couldn't pass any sort of game without stopping to watch.'

In the index, Schofield's surname is sandwiched between those of Peter Schmeichel and Paul Scholes.

While far from as famous, Schofield's influence on Giggs and the modern Manchester United is due recognition. There is always someone who first sees a magical natural talent and in Giggs's case it was a Swinton milkman who doubled as a Manchester City scout.

Stars of the future: Giggs with coach Eric Harrison (left) Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Terry Cooke in 1995

At 82, Schofield is still going strong. He remains president of Deans Youth Club, the team he persuaded an eight-year-old Giggs to join some 30 years ago.

Giggs has not forgotten this; he is the club's patron and opened their new facility. Amid Schofield's obvious pride in Giggs's development into a phenomenon of 1,000 games, however, is a whiff of regret that, in the beginning, the boy-wonder left-winger did not join Schofield's club, City.

How different Manchester football history might have been.

Schofield thinks that Giggs 'can play for as long as Stanley Matthews', but it is his memory of a small boy that counts for so much.

'I was a milkman then, and I worked for Man City as well,' Schofield recalled of the first sighting of Giggs.

'One day I saw these lads walking out of a local school with their boots. They were about eight, nine and I asked if they were going to play a game. 'I went along to watch and saw this boy on the left wing who was like a gazelle, dynamite. He was Ryan Wilson then, not long moved up to Swinton from Wales.

'I asked one of the teachers if his parents were at the game. They said his mother was. I went over and asked her: "Is that your lad on the left wing?" She said yes and I asked if he'd like to come to our club, Deans.

'I was thinking to myself: "I'm not missing out on this one."

'She agreed and I told them I'd pick Ryan up on the Thursday to go training. He joined in and right away everyone could see how good he was, that balance. His attitude was great. Everybody liked him.

'He asked if his brother Rhodri could come along and he did. Everybody liked him too. 'Ryan joined our nine-year-olds and he was brilliant. His control, his pace - remember that goal he scored at Tottenham all those years ago - that's what he had.' Schofield had had trials for Bolton and once played against John Charles in the British Army Cup final. He knew a talented Welshman.

As he became a scout he said that he could see 'a little bit of something in a boy that others might not. I can tell a player but I can also discard a player. Ryan was never going to be a discard.'

From Deans Youth Club, Schofield took Ryan Wilson to Manchester City. He had big hopes of City signing the young Giggs, even if in his book Giggs said that he always favoured United.

'For years we used to go to the Isle of Wight for a weekend tournament,' Schofield added.

'When we first took Ryan everybody asked: "Who's that?!" The next year we took him people actually left the games they were watching to come and see Ryan.

'That's a fact, that. Scholesy and the Neville brothers were there with a team from Oldham but nobody shone like Ryan. He was out of this world.

'At nine I had him down at City. They rolled out the red carpet for him, those comedians Little and Large, big City fans, they put down a red carpet for him too. For many years there was a photo on the wall at City of Ryan playing for them. They used to say that when he signs at 14, "We'll have a big do."

'I said to Ken Barnes (City's chief scout) at the time: 'On Ryan's 14th birthday make sure you are in his house because United are tapping him.'

He said that City had already spoken to Ryan's mum and dad and that 'it's sorted'. On the morning of Ryan's 14th birthday Alex Ferguson and his chief scout Joe Brown were in his house and signed him.

City's men were in their office. 'For that calibre of boy you need to be first, there, sitting on them. Ryan was a United fan but I was very disappointed with City. I left them as a result.'

Via Blackburn Rovers, with Brian Kidd, and a season at United, Schofield is back at City. He is a City man, understands the pull of club ties in Manchester and there was some weariness when he said: 'Ferguson's pinched another one, a boy of 12, 13 who's a really nice player.

'I recommended him to City but United got there first - you have to get there first, though the lad's from a United family.'

Even at his grand age, Schofield shares the competitive edge of Ferguson and the boy he parked his milk float to watch 30 years ago.

'I've stayed in touch with Ryan the whole time, he still comes down the club the odd time,' he said. 'I've watched him grow into a superstar.'

Ryan Giggs: The greatest player to ever wear our shirt

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by Darren Richman, follow him on Twitter

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…