Ryan Giggs as national treasure is a hard bubble to prick. The eulogies rained down on Friday on the occasion of his 40th birthday. The celebration of such a landmark, uncommon for an active footballer, is no place for the dissenting voice. But what about the day after? Is this the time to reflect more critically on the career of a Manchester United great?
None can quibble with the nuts and bolts of a career that might yet notch 1,000 games for his club, a period of plunder that has returned two European Cups, 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups and four League Cups. The question is not what Giggs has done but how much higher he might have risen.
Longevity has become part of the Giggs legend, shifting appreciation from his innate ability to respect for his condition and the way he has looked after himself. It is rare in the game for a player to evoke a sense of nostalgia while still on the pitch. And undeniably, fostered by the years of service, there is in the movement of Giggs something deeply iconic.
His performance this week at the BayArena in Leverkusen, where he was arguably United’s most influential player despite weighty contributions from Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa and Chris Smalling, married vision and experience in a masterclass of footballing productivity. There is no fat on the Giggs bone, no wastage. Every sinewy contribution fed the whole, yielding a profit that stood statistical comparison with any in United’s history.
Yet with his deployment in deep midfield we perhaps forget what an arresting sight he was darting down the wing as a 17-year-old. Careful husbandry of resources was not part of the model then. It was raw excitement; a conjurer of rare vintage was among us, a game-changer, an era-defining player who might stand at the shoulder of the all-time greats.
Giggs scored important goals; as an 18-year-old at Spurs in September 1992 to earn a draw, the winner at QPR, in the Manchester derby and at Leeds, three huge away victories the following season when United won the inaugural Premier League title, their first championship for 26 years. Here was a teenage boy delivering a level of performance and excitement not seen at Old Trafford since George Best a generation before.
But by the time he was 25 Giggs, unlike Best, had not grown into the towering world figure that his talent suggested he must become. He had not colonised the global imagination in the manner of Best or today’s poster boys Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. There is no Ballon d’Or in Giggs’ locker, no European Footballer of the Year award, as it was in Best’s day.
Sir Alex Ferguson perceptively spoke about the introvert in Giggs. There have been troubling moments in his private life, an affair with his brother’s wife and other indiscretions that appeared out of character but which might have been manifestations of a deeper, personal unease.
From tee to green Giggs was peerless, arguably the equal of Messi in terms of natural balance and poise, and with the ball at his feet quicker across the ground than Ronaldo. But when he advanced into the final third, the hardest part of the pitch in which to work, what was automatic in his first flowering became laboured as if a switch had tripped.
Inexplicably, Giggs appeared unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for his gifts or the ball, choosing to offload with a cross that was often hopeful rather than risk the judgement that comes with failure. This curious shrinking from the challenge was intuited by the crowd and there was a period at Old Trafford when Giggs met with boos.
He will end his career with a goal ratio of one in six. Apologists will argue that his principal role was to create from wide positions, not score goals. But this won’t do. You are either a special player or you are not. On talent alone Giggs had the tools to leave a global imprint remembered for the matches he took away from the opposition. Yes, there have been some of those in the domestic setting, but not enough for one so blessed. It has taken a retreat from the front line into midfield in his mature years to restore his reputation. Yet he was so much more than a fit bloke who could pick a pass.