Football: Giggs seeks cutting edge: Foreign Fields: The European Cup sees United's clipped winger struggling under the weight of expectation - Ian Ridley feels that a free spirit can still flourish in the safe hands of Alex Ferguson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE apprehension was apparent on the face of Alex Ferguson as the Manchester United party checked in for the trip to Istanbul, though the morning headline declaring 'Fergie: I won't go back' seemed to be an over-reaction, like much of what was to follow in an hysterical week.

As it transpired, the Duchess of York and a less dangerous liaison provided the story in question and, as it transpired, the fear and loathing of United's rematch with Galatasaray had become relief and relaxation by the time the night flight touched down in the Mancunian dawn 21 2 days later.

So much so that Ferguson felt able finally to talk freely and frankly about United's current strengths and weaknesses, the injury worries that threaten to blunt their two-pronged prod at the European Cup and a third successive championship, and the need to augment the squad with an English signing or two.

One subject, above all, stirred the United manager as he sought to reassure those who have expresssed concern lately. The subject was Ryan Joseph Giggs.

In acquiring the goalless draw and accomplishing Ferguson's mission of 'get there, get a good result and get out,' United had given a disciplined display of the nerve necessary abroad if the gains from the verve exhibited at Old Trafford are to be consolidated.

It was not a match to be enjoyed, rather endured, as Galatasaray shrank beneath the burden of expectation on the home team. Rewarded well - Turkish football yields at least pounds 5,000 a week to its best exponents - they were a team unworthy of their magnificent, tolerant supporters.

Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister had proved themselves stalwarts anew; Paul Ince and Mark Hughes selfless competitors; Andrei Kanchelskis an intelligent easer of pressure on the defence. Roy Keane, meanwhile, was a formidable barrier, though his snarling spit at Kubilay Turkyilmaz and an off-the-ball kick that missed - not untypically - illustrated in terms of temperament alone how much he has yet to absorb. Ferguson, a firm adherent to in-house discipline, can be expected to remind him how fortunate he was to go unnoticed, bearing in mind last year's reaction of the riot police. 'We'll deal with that,' said the manager in his quiet but firm way.

That United were so comfortable can be attributed to the willingness of all to embrace the unglamorous; that they rarely looked like winning has much to do with Giggs, on whom the attention and creative onus falls in the absence of the suspended Eric Cantona. Even team-mates were looking for guidance from the bench at one point after Giggs, though always game, had surrendered possession once more.

Mitigation came from a calf strain that prompted Ferguson to withdraw him in response to the dark looks, but if not seriously injured, there is no doubt that Giggs is wounded. Omitting him from yesterday's match against Everton seemed a kindness. Ferguson had considered doing just such against Galatasaray but added, summing up the appeal of the youth icon to young and old spectator alike: 'I always feel with Ryan, though he's maybe going through a wee quiet spell right now, that he can produce out of nothing.'

There is no lack of glamour off the pitch. Giggs's photogenic appeal burgeons, as the magazine spreads, the attention of women and new tittle-tattle tabloid tales of his love life reveal. Perhaps the cropping of his hair, physical manifestation of the change, is an attempt to restablish his own personality in all this, no matter that he upset his sponsors.

Amid it all, digressions lie in wait in these difficult days of playing transition from vibrant youth unfettered by fear to more composed finished article as he comes to terms with how complex the simple game can be. He is only two months away from his 21st birthday, but this season he has looked less likely to be given the key to the Old Trafford kingdom.

Are we all expecting too much of him? 'Well, we probably do at times. We forget he's 20,' said Ferguson. 'But I think Ryan is trying to do at the moment what every other player does. When you're a striker, you start blasting at things, you just try to go at 100 miles an hour, instead of slowing down and saying: 'let's have a look at this.'

'Bobby (Charlton) and I were having a word with him tonight. Sometimes you're as well just passing it, to keep them thinking about what you're going to do. Pass it sometimes, hold it, next time pass it again, chip a few in. He's wanting to show everybody what a great player he is and he doesn't need to. We know he's a great player. He has nothing to prove to us.'

Ferguson uses his own experiences as a player with Rangers, and the advice he received from his own father - something which Giggs lacks, no longer communicating with him following his parents' divorce - to try and understand and to aid the maturing process. 'I went 17 games without a goal and my father said: 'You're trying too hard. You're running in the box no' even thinking, like a madman. Just calm down. Save your energy for the box.' Then, in a hard European tie against Dynamo Zagreb I scored two and ended up with 29 goals that season.

'He's just trying too hard, the kid. He wants to produce winners all the time. We're working on his passing all the time, because all the greatest players could pass it, and on improving his vision. Go back a few years when Paul Ince came to us. Incey was a head-down player. Anything happens, wee dribbles - fine, great. But he didn't have the big picture. He's got it now.

'In the second half Incey spread a ball wide to Kanchelskis and I thought he wouldn't have done that two years ago. So it's a matter of developing yourself and your scope of the game.' It was put to him that this was the last thing a British player learned. 'Exactly. Absolutely.' Ferguson said.

There is a theory that to work on such a free spirit as Giggs is to tinker with a natural talent and to risk damaging a fragile psyche but it is clear that Ferguson believes that once a precision has been added to the spontaneity, then the potential will be fulfilled. It is clear, too, that he is in sympathetic hands. Surely Ferguson is correct; surely we have not already seen the best of Giggs.

Perhaps the Turkish experience got to him. He was said to have received death threats, though seeing the Grand Bazaar vendors with a smile on their face when they said 'United, we will kill you tonight', it became obvious that it was simply an expression. More probably, he was alarmed by a banner at the airport, not the one saying 'Welcome to Hell Part II' but the one proclaiming 'Giggs: you play in a woman's league'. It probably wasn't: 'Mr Mehmet - please report to the Avis desk.'

Ferguson was generally pleased with the way his side coped. 'I said to the players before the game that's it's a pre-requisite for coming to this club. That's why you are here. If you don't do it in this atmosphere, you're not a Man United player.' Indeed, the atmosphere should have offered more inspiration than intimidation to those of sufficient stature.

He will use a similar approach when Barcelona come to Old Trafford - 'with a bit of edge to themselves' after the defeat in Gothenburg - as United's next opponents on 19 October: 'This team's won the European Cup a couple of years ago. It's got some big names. What are you doing to do about it?' he will say.

The relief for the boss by the Bosphorus came most in avoiding defeat without Cantona and with so many players, notably Keane and Hughes, carrying injuries. Hughes's long-standing groin injury requires an operation, which will take place in December when the Champions' League phase ends and will see him sidelined for six weeks.

It is then that Ferguson will take stock of his squad, the rules of the competition - assuming United progress - allowing clubs to sign players from 7 December to 15 January for the knock-out quarter-finals. Money is available with United announcing record profits of pounds 10.8m, so Ferguson is likely to be given some pounds 4m to spend.

In Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham, he believes he has forward players ready to play but 'the young defenders you cannot risk. You can risk forwards and midfield players. They'll not cost you the game. You need good experienced defenders, I feel. It's finding an English player who would improve us a bit. To win the European Cup.'

To win the European Cup. It is almost the mantra of Man United. These are times to eke out results and stay in touch until the wounds - emotionally with one, physically with the others - have healed.

Of the holders Milan, fitful and vulnerable currently, Ferguson said last week: 'I think they'll raise it when they need it.' You sensed that he also believed it of his own team. You want to believe it, too, of Ryan Giggs.

Comments