Exactly 22 years ago today, a lithe 17-year-old wearing a baggy shirt and hitched-up shorts ran on as a substitute at Old Trafford to make his Manchester United debut.
Having excelled at youth team level, the kid was already being spoken about in glowing terms. English football was expecting big things.
He has been worth all the hype.
Ryan Giggs will pass another milestone in his extraordinary career if he appears for United in today’s Premier League match against Norwich, back at Old Trafford.
It will be his 1,000th senior competitive match – and the superlatives for the 39-year-old Welshman have long run out.
Managers, players and teammates have been effusive in their praise all week. Swansea manager Michael Laudrup labelled him “pure class.” United colleague Rafael da Silva went as far as saying Giggs “is such a good player it is getting boring.”
Perhaps Giggs can be best summed up by his manager and mentor Sir Alex Ferguson, who has carefully nurtured his protégé into arguably the greatest player in the Premier League’s 21-year history.
“He is a marvellous player and an exceptional human being,” Ferguson said yesterday, moments after United rewarded Giggs for his continued outstanding displays with a new one-year deal. “Ryan is an example to us all, the way in which he has, and continues to, look after himself. He seems to reach a new milestone every week. It’s unique in the modern game, but I think it’s more than that – I don’t think it will ever be achieved again by anyone.” Ferguson once said Giggs, as a 13-year-old, seemed to float across the ground “like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind,” and it is still true to this day – even at the relatively venerable age of 39. He no longer has the energy to produce lung-busting performances every week. Instead, his games are carefully selected by Ferguson and the end product remains the same. Take Queens Park Rangers last week, for example. Giggs started in central midfield, lasted the whole game and popped up with a match-clinching second goal in the 80th minute in a 2-0 win. His displays in the ultra-physical Premier League and Champions League are age-defying and simply incredible. “He just loves to play the game,” Rafael said. “He gives us experience, confidence, and when you are feeling bad, he comes and helps you, especially young players.”
Manchester City must really be kicking themselves. United’s big rivals signed up Giggs to their centre of excellence but he somehow slipped from the club’s grasp after being watched in matches by scouts from United, who offered him schoolboy terms in 1987. He was 14 at the time. “I told him this morning I expect a bill from his mother for all the sandwiches and teas she used to make for us when we went to his house every week when we were trying to get him to sign schoolboy forms,” Ferguson said yesterday. “It seems a long time ago.”
Giggs has gone on to become the most decorated player in British football history, winning 12 Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, three League Cups, two Champions Leagues, one Uefa Super Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and a Fifa Club World Cup. He has played 931 matches for United – scoring 168 goals, including five this season – 64 times for Wales and made four appearances for Britain at last year’s London Olympics, his first major international football tournament. And still he retains that hunger that can leave some players by the end of their teens, even with patches of grey hair forming above his ears.
“I am feeling good, enjoying my football more than ever and, most importantly, I feel I am making a contribution to the team,” said Giggs yesterday after signing the deal that will keep him playing into his 40s. It means he is likely to pass 1,000 matches just for United.
Starting out as a fast and tricky winger, Giggs has had to refine his game to last. He now plays more often than not as a playmaker in midfield or as a more conservative wideman, relying on technique and a reading of the game more than his raw pace. Former England international John Barnes did the same at Liverpool, but not to such devastating effect.
Giggs still has that aura when he is on the pitch, often transforming games when he comes on as a substitute. “His talent is God-given,” former United assistant coach Brian Kidd has said. “He will have wonderful skill even when he’s got his bus pass, because that sort of ability never deserts you.”
Such is Giggs’ enduring value and importance to United that Ferguson may yet choose to rest him this weekend and keep him fresh for the second leg on Tuesday of the Champions League last-16 match against Real Madrid, which is delicately poised at 1-1.
Don’t expect to see any more strikes like the one that settled the 1999 FA Cup semi-final, when he slalomed through Arsenal’s defence from the halfway line to score one of English football’s great goals. But Giggs is sure to create more special memories in his unique career.