If Ryan Giggs were starting out all over again, beginning the same journey which takes him this evening to the eve of the 20th anniversary of the cold Stretford day when he pulled on his boots to make his debut for Manchester United, then you wonder whether he would have the characteristics to survive in a sporting world where we expect to know so much about our players that Rio Ferdinand tweets the content of his breakfast and his hopes for conflict resolution in north Africa.
All it took to make Giggs recoil from the public eye, he reveals as he sits down to reflect on his longevity, was a week-long exposé of his family life in the Today newspaper, in 1991, during his first full season. "It was a sort of feature, delving into my family, my dad's family, the rift between my mum and dad, that sort of thing, and it wakes you up quite quickly and toughens you up," Giggs recalls, explaining that from then on, he withdrew from the spotlight. "You get photographers following you, too. It was just... I just didn't like it. I was 18 or 19 at the time." So no plans for a Twitter account, then? "I don't get that. Personally, I don't get it."
But how, by the same score, are we to "get" the secret of this extraordinary longevity of Giggs, who can also surpass Sir Bobby Charlton's record of 605 league games for United, at Stamford Bridge tonight? It would be easy to comprehend this staying power if Giggs exuded the same intensity as Roy Keane, "probably" the best player he has shared a field with, he says. Or if he wore his heart on his sleeve like Mickey Thomas, the first United player he idolised.
Instead, as Giggs sits at Carrington, musing in such an unlaboured and unprepossessing way over the notion that "what you're born with – genetics" has perhaps helped him last so long, you wonder what does drive him on. Then the fire which burns inside him reveals itself so unexpectedly that it scalds you. Giggs is describing how it felt to lose the title by a point to this evening's opponents last May. "It winds you up," he says. "You don't want to feel like you did last summer. You want to feel like the year before when you won the League. It's not the fear of failure. It's just craving that feeling of winning the title. You go away on holiday, you're lying on the beach trying to enjoy yourself with the kids, and you do, but then you have a quiet moment, it comes back to you what happened and... I'll say it: You're pissed off. You're on holiday and you're just pissed off."
So there we have it; the 37-year-old does, after all, share the celtic fire exuded by his manager, who he believes will still be at Old Trafford in four or five years' time and whose departure from the managerial seat Giggs does not believe is entwined with his own retirement. Probe a little and you will find that losing the League to Leeds United in 1992, Giggs' first full season, and the 2009 Champions League final defeat to Barcelona are the events which gnaw away at him more than any others.
The memory of the day it all started – 2 March 1991, when Giggs came on for Denis Irwin as a second-half substitute in a United side struggling for form who lost 2-0 to Everton in an Old Trafford mudbath – are hazy. His memories of that occasion include Dave Watson "going through the back of me" and also a cross by himself which Danny Wallace headed wide. It was his full debut in the Manchester derby against City at Old Trafford two months later, in which Giggs was credited with a goal deflected in off Colin Hendry, that he recalls best.
Ferguson protected him from the start, of course. There were to be no media interviews until he was 20 and the night the manager hunted down Lee Sharpe at a house party but failed to find Giggs cowering in a cupboard still lives with him. "That famous incident at his house," Giggs calls it. He credits it with having had another lasting impression upon him. But Giggs believes it was significant that David Beckham's emergence, three years after his own, took the spotlight and enabled him to develop below the radar. "I was sort of trying to keep out of the limelight, then obviously Becks came into the team and everything that happened with that, so that was good timing for me I suppose."
His longevity also owes much to his decision, after a series of hamstring injuries, to reappraise every aspect of his life, prompting the use of yoga, for which he has become a flagbearer. Had he not played for a club which has been so consistently successful for so long, he would have retired two or three years ago, he declares. "It does help having good players around you. I've also played for Wales and playing for Wales and playing for United, I know the difference. It's a lot easier when you have quality around you, especially when you become older and rely on legs around you. If I didn't, I'm sure I would have finished two or three years ago."
The same might be said had Giggs joined Manchester City. His first youth club coach, Dennis Schofield, took him for training at their Platt Lane training ground, though he has always said as a United fan he hated it. Fatefully, that was a road not taken.
Giggs doesn't entirely take issue with the claim of the Marseilles manager, Didier Deschamps, last week that this United side lack the "fantasy" of earlier models. "I don't know," he says. "There's been a lot of talk about the Premier League not being as strong as in the past and I know since losing Cristiano [Ronaldo] and Carlos [Tevez] people might say that, but we're still in a really strong position."
The challenges continue to stretch out, including the notion of surpassing Liverpool's 18 titles, this spring. "I'm a United fan but you have got to detach yourself from the emotion of it, I think. It's brilliant for the fans, obviously. Like them, I grew up in the Eighties when Liverpool were winning everything."
He also reveals he will be in Cardiff during the next international break later this month, and will probably join Gary Speed's Wales squad as they prepare for the European Championships qualifier with England. "I played with Gary and I want what he wants – a successful Welsh team," Giggs says. "I won't be doing anything with a ball and I won't be taking my boots but I will probably go down a couple of days before."
But that is as far into the spotlight as he wants to venture. Giggs is obviously embarrassed by the suggestion, first put by Dimitar Berbatov, that a statue to him should sit beside the Old Trafford holy trinity. And as far those rather 21st-century rumours of him heading to play in Dubai when his Old Trafford days are done: "No. I'll be here," he says. "And that's it."
Giggs' garlanded career
Premier League 11 (1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009)
Champions League 2 (1999, 2008)
FA Cup 4 (1994, 1996, 1999, 2004)
League Cup 4 (1992, 2006, 2009, 2010)
Uefa Super Cup 1991
Intercontinental Cup 1999
Fifa World Club Championship 2008
PFA Young Player of the Year (1992, 1993)
PFA Player of the Year 2009
BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2009
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