It’s hard to justifiably sum up 23 years in one article. But in the most simplistic form: Ryan Giggs is Manchester United.
Forget the record appearances, the trophies, the medals – Giggs ‘gets’ United.
Early on, Giggs knew, when he first burst onto the scene, that in order to have a successful career at one of the biggest clubs in the world, he would have to give up the playboy lifestyle fellow youngster Lee Sharpe had embraced.
Late on, right near the very end, he knew the fans needed a lift and a return to the core values of the club in its final few games of an abysmal season in which our traditions had been compromised.
Giggs was a major factor in me becoming a United fan, being a Welshman, but Sharpe was my favourite United player as a kid. I remember being devastated when, as a 12-year-old, he was sold to Leeds. He was talented, effervescent, a showman, and as a young player to a young fan watching the game, he was magnetic.
But, after he went, and as I got older, I realised that he probably didn’t have the right attitude. Maybe he didn’t really want to be a footballer. He certainly didn’t want to be a Manchester United player as much as Giggs and the likes of Scholes, Beckham, Butt and the Nevilles did. After all, Sharpe was from Halesowen, West Midlands, he wasn’t a United fan or Manchester lad like the class of ’92.
Over the years, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Paul Scholes and Giggs have become my favourite United players, both because of their talents on the pitch and their affiliation to and for United. We all love a United player to be talented and technically brilliant, to score goals, provide assists and help bring success to the club. But, for die hard United fans, and as I’ve grown older, especially with the beautiful game becoming an ever increasing money hungry machine, it’s a real pleasure to see United players understanding and embracing ‘the United way’. You don’t have to be a local lad to get it either. Players like Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra are either from another country or come from as far away as you can be from Manchester, but they know what it is to be a real Manchester United player.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Giggs is United’s greatest ever player. That is a debate that cannot easily be won. What about Charlton, Law, Best, Edwards, Robson, Keane, Scholes, Ronaldo et el?
To me and my generation though, we have arguably not seen a player greater than Giggs. I’m not just talking about in terms of talent, but the whole package.
I was asked recently to pick out the standout moment from Giggs’ entire Reds career, and even though I plumped for 1999 at Villa Park, in reality I honestly can’t, because for me his whole playing career has been a highlight.
Giggs has always been referred to in recent years as the ‘most decorated player in English football’, people forget that he was and is a supremely gifted footballer.
He’s praised for his longevity, the fact that he scored in every Premier League season bar the most recent, and is United’s record appearance maker, but it’s often overlooked that he was a truly brilliant player too.
In his young days he was a flying winger, who in today’s terms would be likened to Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. He was as good as these two when he played out wide. United fans know how special he was, but let’s also not forget that he totally transformed himself in his 30s and became a midfielder, to a more than adequate standard too. He didn’t make up the numbers in there, he could actually do it, and do it well.
When pundits talk about the greatest ever Premier League players, I never really hear Giggs mentioned in the same breath as Zola, Henry, Cantona, Bergkamp, Shearer, Gerrard, Lampard, Ronaldo, Bale and Scholes – but he was definitely on par with them. He had speed, could dribble, tackle, pass, shoot, head, assist, score. Giggsy had it all…and more.
While it was obvious that Scholesy’s legs had gone in his twilight years, we never feared the same for Giggsy. It’s amazing to think that he had his testimonial 13 years ago. Since then, like when he realised he could not intertwine the hedonistic, normal life of a teenager, with playing for Manchester United, Giggs realised a change was needed to prolong his career still further, and he left no stone unturned in the relentless pursuit for success.
Giggs bought a new car when he was young due to early hamstring problems. He later bought a new bed, started a new diet which included eating butterless toast, and began a new fitness regime, adopting an open mind to anything that might improve his game, including, famously, yoga.
Giggs’ place in club history was established by the time he celebrated 10 years of playing, but the single biggest attribute that has stayed with him through the course of his career has been his refusal to settle.
Behind United (20) and Liverpool (18) in the all-time haul of English league titles, Giggs is tied third with Arsenal on 13. As the Premier League medals mounted, Sir Alex Ferguson, when asked to reflect on any triumph as United manager, spoke only a few sentences on the most recent glory, but never really allowed himself to reflect, only to move forward onto the next, and that steely determination was shared by Giggs, the on the field embodiment of the Scot.
It was sad to hear Giggs announce his retirement just after Louis van Gaal was confirmed as David Moyes’ replacement. I’m not sure how he was feeling, but presumably as he didn’t announce his retirement when he gave a heartfelt speech on the pitch after United’s last home game of the season against Hull City, before Van Gaal came along he wanted to prolong his playing career into a 24th year. I desperately wanted him to get to the astounding milestone of 1,000 games for United but it was not to be.
While Giggs’ retirement has been the final act of a truly era defining season at Old Trafford, I’m filled with excitement, for while the greatest ever actor to grace the Old Trafford stage has finally heard his swansong, he has far from left the building. Giggs, silently defiantly in his desire to be part of Van Gaal’s coaching staff, will now learn next season from a man with a big enough personality to carry the club forward in the wake of Sir Alex’s departure. He will have more than his fair share to offer the new man too.
Will Giggs eventually end up being a future United manager? Who knows, but his long association with his beloved Reds is far from over. Let’s hope for one hell of an encore.
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