RYAN Giggs celebrates his 40th birthday today, the latest milestone in a spectacular career which will be the prelude to him joining a select band of players who have appeared in the Premier League after entering their fifth decade.
Gordon Strachan did it at Coventry City, Teddy Sheringham at West Ham United and Kevin Phillips at Crystal Palace, but none had enjoyed the glittering career that Giggs has. And none of them was still mixing it at the highest level at 40, starring in the Champions League as Giggs did the other night with a vintage display for Manchester United in Leverkusen.
This latest landmark goes alongside Giggs’ 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups and two Champions Leagues, the stand-out moments from a career that, following his spellbinding appearance in Germany on Wednesday, now also extends to 953 United games. The figures are mind-boggling.
Denis Irwin, for one, does not believe that the records of the birthday boy will ever be beaten.
“That volume of medals will never be broken,” said Irwin, who spent 12 years as a team-mate of Giggs at Old Trafford. “The number of games? That would take some beating as well.
“What he has done is unbelievable, that kind of longevity at such a top club. This is no run-of-the-mill mid-table team or one in the Championship. You are talking the very highest level for the last 23 years. The number of games, the number of trophies, the dedication needed to go the distance and challenge yourself every year.
“To come back for pre-season training and keep going with the same intensity shows what type of player and person he is.”
As the man who limped off injured in the game against Everton at Old Trafford on 2 March, 1991 to herald Giggs’ introduction, Irwin played a unique role in the Welshman’s career.
For well over a decade, the pair patrolled the left-hand side of the field. Giggs was the flamboyant winger, full-back Irwin Sir Alex Ferguson’s Mr Dependable. But the Irishman has a secret. He doesn’t believe his own contribution could have been possible without Giggs’ assistance.
“I was a right-footed full-back,” added Irwin. “Throughout all the time we played together, Ryan was my left foot. He wasn’t afraid to do his defensive duties. He would always do the dirty side of things. I could always trust him to come back and mark the overlapping full-back.
“It was a pleasure to work with him. He made my job a hell of a lot easier.”
After sharing in so many triumphs, the actual volume of Giggs’ medal haul is not something that particularly startles Irwin. He is more impressed by his one-time colleague’s ability to keep going. As Irwin acknowledged, once players reach their mid-30s, they tend to get bracketed as veterans and their actual age is forgotten. Yet, in much the same way as they develop from 25 to 30, so the change continues from 35 to 40. Having reached the age of 38 before ending his own career, Irwin is acutely aware of the effort Giggs has put into the latter years of his career.
“At that age, all you need are two or three indifferent games and the end of the horizon starts to come into view,” said Irwin.
“To the media you are a veteran and they are ready to pension you off. Mentally, you have to deal with that, just as much as the physical side. I played a lot the year before but, in my final season at Wolves, I hardly figured over the last two or three months because I was finding it so tough. I know Ryan probably doesn’t play as many games as he would like but you still have to train the same way. You can’t lighten the workload. You need to do exactly the same to show that you can go the pace of the Premier League.
“For him to continue for the past six or seven years, play the amount of games he has and win all those trophies at the very top level, is unbelievable.”
Giggs himself admitted yesterday that his playing career would be over now had he ever elected to leave United.
“If I’d moved from club to club I’d be finished by now,” he said. “I’m lucky that I have been at one club, where I am surrounded by good players. I also have a good manager. I look after myself and try to train every day in order to make myself available for selection. I enjoy it as much as I can and, of course, try to contribute to the team.”
And it would be some understatement to say that Giggs has indeed contributed to the United cause since he made his debut more than 22 years ago.
MAY 4, 1991
Man United 1 Man City 0
Giggs’ first-ever United goal had more than an element of doubt about it. He’s not sure he got a touch on the ball before City defender Colin Hendry did. Look at the record books, however, and it says the then teenager settled this derby on his full United debut.
SEPTEMBER 19, 1992
Tottenham 1 Man United 1
The first sighting of Giggs’ mazy dribbling skills. He galloped past Jason Cundy and Dean Austin, then took the ball round goalkeeper Ian Walker before finding the net from the tightest of angles.
NOVEMBER 17, 1993
Wales 1 Romania 2
The nearest Giggs came to reaching a major tournament with his beloved Wales. Needing to win the game to qualify, Paul Bodin missed a penalty to put them in front and Giggs ultimately missed out.
FEBRUARY 5, 1994
QPR 2 Man United 3
Another from the scrapbook of great goals. After whipping the ball away from Ray Wilkins, Giggs embarked on a forward charge the QPR defence was unable to resist before he fired a left-footed shot past Jan Stejskal.
APRIL 14, 1999
Arsenal 1 Man United 2
The goal that defined Giggs’ career. Down to ten men following Roy Keane’s dismissal and kept in the match only by a late Peter Schmeichel penalty save, United earn their place in the FA Cup final when Giggs seized on a loose ball inside his own half and roared forward. Lee Dixon was the last man beaten before his shot flew past a startled David Seaman.
FEBRUARY 25, 2003
Juventus 0 Man United 3
After bearing the brunt of intense criticism earlier in the season, Giggs provided a reminder of his class on one of United’s great European nights. The pick of his brace was a right-footed effort beyond a helpless Gianluigi Buffon.
SEPTEMBER 20, 2009
Man United 4 Man City 3
By now less reliant on pace and more on ice-cold instinct. In the sixth minute of injury time in a frenetic derby, Giggs was presented with the ball on the edge of the box, and coolly provided Michael Owen with a perfectly weighted pass for the striker to claim the winner.
APRIL 26, 2011
Schalke 0 Man United 2
United were finding it difficult to turn their superiority into goals in this Champions League semi-final. Giggs managed it midway through the second half to set up an easy win.
AUGUST 4, 2012
Great Britain 1 South Korea 1 (S Korea won 5-4 on pens)
The night when Giggs tasted a rare moment of penalty shoot-out agony. Aaron Ramsey missed a penalty that would have put Team GB ahead and Daniel Sturridge missed one in a shoot-out as Giggs bowed out at the quarter-final stage of his only international tournament.
FEBRUARY 23, 2013
QPR 0 Man United 2
Destined to be overshadowed by Rafael’s blockbuster, Giggs set the seal on another win when he calmly beat Julio Cesar on United’s unstoppable march to title No 20.
NOVEMBER 28, 2013
B Leverkusen 0 Man United 5
Giggs proves that, even two days before he celebrates his 40th birthday, he can still mix it at the highest level. He strolled through the entire 90 minutes, helping David Moyes’ side record United’s biggest European away win since 1964. It was Bayer Leverkusen’s first home loss of the season and sealed United’s progress to the last 16 of the Champions League.