James Lawton: Giggs must learn Stiles' lesson of cruel game

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The Independent Football

It seems that Ryan Giggs will not let the clock run down quietly. He is said to be angry that the best Manchester United believe they can offer him is a year's extension to a contract that runs out in 18 months. But what can you say except that the 31-year-old Giggs, a superb professional who has won 16 major trophies in 14 years at Old Trafford, has forgotten or maybe never fully grasped the essential cruelty of football?

The latter possibility is the stronger when you skim back over the outline of a truly distinguished career.

When you do that you see more clearly that Giggs has no reason to know about the ravaging of the spirit of so many of his less fortunate fellow tradesmen - and that this pain is as common amid today's often obscene largesse as it was when someone as great as Wilf Mannion was obliged to work as old tea boy in a Middlesbrough factory.

When Sir Alex Ferguson saw the potential of the teenager he wrapped him in a protective arm, shielding him from the kind of publicity which consumed George Best - to whom he was absurdly compared when he first emerged along United's left flank - and has recently blown David Beckham so far off course.

The United manager didn't do this out of the force of an avuncular surge. It was entirely practical. Ferguson's action, coupled with Giggs' own sturdy nature, ensured a magnificent journey through the game, and one hugely rewarded. Giggs, let's not forget, enjoyed a £1m benefit game before he was 30. His future after football has long been secured.

However, in the case of a Giggs there are other considerations: pride and the choking back of any sense that time is no longer on his side, is no doubt a major one. Giggs believes he can still rekindle some of the best of his youth. It is the necessary belief of the best pros. It is almost invariably misguided, but in football the benefit is that it doesn't involve the worst risks to health, as it did for the great fighter Sugar Ray Leonard when, in spite of the direst warnings, he insisted on going into the Madison Square Garden ring with Terry Norris to receive the beating of his life.

Put most simply, Giggs has to work through the most difficult days of his career. His past, in the hard calculation of his employers, no longer means much if anything. They move on, as, sooner or later, Giggs must.

However, if it should happen that Giggs eventually goes to Newcastle to wind down his career, as the latest reports suggest he might, there is a story by no means ancient that might just ease the worst of his angst on his way to the North-east.

It involves his club, United, and one of their most passionate servants, Norbert Stiles, MBE, and one of only two Englishmen - Sir Bobby Charlton is the other - to win both the European Cup and the World Cup.

This is how it went for the man who entranced the nation with his toothless smile as he danced a victory jig at Wembley in 1966...

It was the summer of 1971, a year after Sir Alf Ramsey had taken him to Mexico for the World Cup, when Stiles knew his time was up at Old Trafford. His knees were virtually ruined and he realised that it was over as he approached his 30th birthday. After 14 years of service, and 397 first-team appearances, his United career was numbered in days. It was confirmed when he saw the bus taking the first team and young prospects on a pre-season tour pull away from the ground without him.

He had no savings, no promise of a testimonial, and, in real terms, no knees, which was quite a handicap for a professional footballer.

Middlesbrough's manager, Stan Anderson, decided that he would take a chance on the World Cup hero and offered United £25,000. What followed was maybe the most embarrassing few days in the life of an extremely proud football player. Stiles told Anderson that he was not overjoyed at the thought of moving away from his home town, Manchester, but he was a pro, he had a young family and needed to go on making a living from football as long as he could, and, not to make a meal of it, was there anything in it for him? Perhaps there might be a signing-on bonus.

Anderson told Stiles that Middlesbrough were stretching themselves at £25,000. What he suggested was that if United would take less than the agreed fee, the balance could go to Stiles.

Heartened by the knowledge that Dave Mackay had been given a free transfer by Tottenham Hotspur, and had been able to make an extremely favourable deal with Brian Clough's Derby County, Stiles, although feeling more than a little like Oliver Twist, put the proposition to Sir Matt Busby.

Stiles was also emboldened by the fact that United had not paid a penny for his signing - his parents had turned down a £3,000 offer from Bolton Wanderers because they knew their boy would be inconsolable if he didn't join his beloved United - and that at the peak of his World Cup and European Cup-winning success his weekly salary had been a mere £130 a week.

The broken hero was dreaming. Stiles reports that he was "gutted" when Busby said to him: "Norrie [he always called him Norrie], I'm sorry I can't even put this proposal to the board. It would not be considered. You know, Middlesbrough are getting you for next to nothing, and you have to remember you have always been paid well here."

None of this is likely to take all the sting out of Giggs' hurt when he studies the latest offer of the club he has served so brilliantly. But maybe it will soften his feelings a little. Maybe he might just reflect that in the end ingratitude has to be seen as a relative term.