A master with the pass key

Close-up; Ryan Giggs; Manchester United's most coveted talent is at last fulfilling expectation. Simon O'Hagan charts the second coming
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The Independent Online
HE WAS supposed to come of age a year ago. That was what the calendar said, anyway. But by the time Ryan Giggs turned 21, the key of the door had gone missing, at any rate in a footballing sense. Now it is safely in his pocket, and Giggs is unlocking defences as never before.

Youthful promise can be a terrible thing. As for being a boy wonder like Giggs, dressed in the red of the most famous football club in the world - how could he fail to self-destruct? But the Giggs who celebrates his 22nd birthday on Wednesday, two days after United entertain Nottingham Forest in an attempt to close the gap on the Premiership leaders, Newcastle, is proof that delicate flowers can thrive in the pressurised environment of the modern game in general and Manchester United in particular.

Anyone who witnessed Giggs's masterful performance for United when they won 4-0 at Coventry last Wednesday would have been left in no doubt that this was an all too rare case of potential being gloriously fulfilled. Alex Ferguson, the United manager, believes Giggs is playing as well as ever. Gary Lineker thinks he is playing better than ever.

Either way, Giggs is having a great season, not just doing what he has always been good at - running with the ball and beating opponents - but developing a more rounded game which is demanding a redefinition of his role. With his speed, balance and caressing touch, Giggs will always be a supremely gifted individualist. But his increased awareness and improved distribution have prompted Ferguson to widen his responsibility by moving him in from the left flank and asking him to play midfield orchestrator as much as flying winger.

Gordon Strachan, Coventry's assistant manager and a former United man himself, had first-hand experience of the remodelled Giggs on Wednesday, spending much of the match vainly pursuing him around Highfield Road. "I think he's enjoying this role more," Strachan said. "It's easy to double up on a left winger, and whoever it is, it's hard for him to beat two players. But where Giggs is now, he's generally up against one, and he's got the ability to beat him. And whatever tactics you're using, if somebody can beat a player, it throws your tactics up in the air.

"Because of his new position he's showing the whole array of talent - passing and dribbling. He probably feels the shackles have been lifted a bit. He's got freedom. He's got the whole pitch to experiment."

This change in direction is another example of the attention Ferguson has paid to every aspect of Giggs's career since he first arrived at Old Trafford as a 14-year-old. "The last two games we've altered formation slightly," Ferguson said. "It suited us to have Ryan that little bit in from the wing. He's still got the licence to go wide, but the flexibility is helping him.

"We have been working on Ryan's passing ability for two or three years. We've always said to him that just having natural ability is not enough. You have to acquire other things: goalscoring, making goals, passing. His passing has improved an awful lot in the last year, his care in his passing. Young players sometimes don't realise the importance of it. It's only when they get to a big game, give the ball away and then don't get it back that they realise how important it is."

If there is relief as much as satisfaction in what Ferguson says, then that would be understandable. For Giggs began the season under some pressure to prove that his talent was not going to waste.

Those who, in 1991, viewed the 17-year-old Giggs's dazzling arrival through a veil of scepticism will have felt they were right to doubt his chances of living up to his extraordinary promise when, last season, the magic disappeared. Beset by fitness problems, Giggs was largely absent from the United team in October and November, and again in April and May. In between, his winter, if not a long dark night of the soul, was a time of concern. He was not waltzing through matches any more, not beating people like he used to. And he was not scoring goals - his season's total from 29 Premiership matches was just one.

"Injuries kept coming up and it got frustrating for him," Ferguson said. "Any player gets down when they're not playing, and Ryan's no different from anyone else. But he is a quiet lad, so you don't know exactly how he's taking it all."

Giggs's pop star image did not help, for it suggested that playing football was only a part of his life, and perhaps not even the most important part, when nothing could have been further from the truth. But once United, so protective during his teenage years, allowed him to be exposed to the media, it was almost inevitable what would follow.

Was Giggs doing too much on the commercial side? "The only thing that was difficult to handle was the World Cup last year, when he went over there with Reebok," Ferguson said. "That was fine, part of his contract. But then he got involved with a coaching video for Channel 4 and they milked it ridiculously. We were playing Wolves in a friendly and they had him coaching till two o'clock in the afternoon from nine o'clock in the morning. Enough's enough. That was a bad period.

"But the media's been an unhealthy situation for the last three or four years. I think it probably did affect him, as it would anyone getting that much attention. Now it's a part of life. It doesn't upset him at all. We just try to treat him the same as the rest. The players help, and Ryan is down to earth.

"His manners are marvellous. He's a quiet lad who's quite happy to get away to his own house or go and see his mother. He's got a few well-chosen friends. He doesn't have hangers-on and that gives him the biggest chance of all."

As far as external pressures were concerned, last season was not all bad news for Giggs. The Cantona affair left much less scope for stories about him or anyone else at United, and when the focus did shift to the youth of the club, the position once occupied by him was now being filled by the next generation - David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Phil and Gary Neville. Greater seniority came with the departure of Mark Hughes and Paul Ince. And Ferguson could see advantages in Giggs's enforced lay- offs. "You always worry whether they play too much football."

Giggs is barely older than the latest crop of young United players, yet according to Ferguson they regard him as a father figure - an indication of the extent to which he has embarked upon a new phase in his career. But then Giggs himself has examples to look up to. That is why it is impossible to separate the recovery of his own form from the return of Cantona, whose influence is increasingly apparent in the way Giggs plays the game. "Eric's presence is important," Ferguson said. "He has a composure that spreads throughout the team." How long before Ferguson will be saying the same about Giggs?

Ryan's followers

Paul Scholes Age: 21. Debut: 1994-95. Salford-born striker or attacking midfielder who has learnt at the feet of Eric Cantona. Busy, compact, with a scorer's instinct. Nine goals in 16 games this season.

David Beckham Age: 20. Debut: 1994-95. Londoner who plays right or centre midfield. His composure and creativity have already marked him out as future England material. Powerful striker of the ball.

Nicky Butt Age: 20. Debut: 1992-93. Stockport-born midfielder who tackles hard and keeps things ticking over while leaving the more creative work to others. A Pat Crerand in the making.

Gary Neville Age: 20. Debut: 1993-94. Another local boy (born in Bury) who with five caps to his name has already established himself as England's right-back.

Philip Neville Age: 18. Debut: 1994-95. Brother of Gary, also a defender, but perhaps with more scope to play either as a full-back or a centre-back. Still filling out.

Terry Cooke Age: 19. Debut: 1995-96. Midlander who burst on to Old Trafford stage in September when, coming on against Bolton, he gave a blistering performance on the right.