Everyone should take their hats off to Ryan Giggs, 40 on Friday. I have watched him this season and if anything he has become even more the complete player. Some people might think his having his contract extended was out of loyalty, but that is rubbish when you see the way he is playing. He not only warrants a new contract, but I see him being instrumental in everything Manchester United do this season. Well done, Ryan, long may you continue.
It is incredible how long he has been at the top. In 1991, when I took Notts County into the top flight, we played United and I decided our only chance was to man-mark every player. Our best man-marker, Chris Short, I told to follow Giggs everywhere. He was like a rash, all over him. If we had a corner Chris would be next to Giggs on the halfway line, holding his shirt. After 20 minutes Giggs came over and said, “Can you get this thing off me?” or words to that effect. We laughed. We also drew 1-1, United getting a controversial late penalty. Not much changed there, then.
Over the years I have had to deal with quite a few players in the latter stages of their career. When I first started in management, because there were no fitness regimes, no masseuses, nutritionists and so on, as a manager you used to think a player was approaching the end when he got to 30 and you had to treat them differently.
With all the improvements now it is not unusual for players to go well beyond that, as Ryan has, and the problem is not so much their age, as age-related wear-and-tear injuries. I remember at Sheffield United Keith Curle, who has been my assistant since, had a problem with his right knee. He’d had an operation on it at 16 and the years of playing on it had taken their toll. He couldn’t train until the Thursday after a Saturday game.
When we had Tuesday night games he did nothing but play the game, then come out on a Friday just to walk through set-pieces. I remember Kevin Blackwell, my coach, saying to me it was no good as he needed to work on the shape on the Thursday and it used to annoy him that he could not have all the back four together. Kevin was so diligent in wanting to cover every angle. I had to remind him that when that whistle went on Saturday Curly was one of the best players on the pitch, often the best, week-in, week-out, and for people like that you have to make an exception.
There would be banter from the players when Keith would appear at the side of the pitch watching them train. It didn’t help, those times, when he had a cigarette in his mouth! But because he played with a cigar in most of the time on a Saturday, everyone came on board. If you are doing it on the pitch, players will turn a blind eye.
Another player who comes to mind is one I signed for Crystal Palace from Stoke in 2007. It was around his 29th birthday and he’d started four games in nine months. In his four years at Stoke he’d missed many more matches than he’d played and I was told, “It’s no good taking Clint Hill as he won’t play more than three games before he’s injured.”
That was like a red rag to a bull to me. I wanted to sign him. However, there was no way he would pass a medical. Simon Jordan, Palace’s chairman, met him, realised how determined Clint was to play, and agreed to sign him. It was a risk, as a medical protects a club’s insurance pay-out if a player gets injured.
Clint didn’t let either of us down. The physio, Nigel Cox, devised a training regime and I sat him down and told him he had to follow it. Every morning he would come in an hour early and do a weights routine to strengthen his knees and ankles. Then he would have a jog before finishing in the physio’s room with ice all round his ankles. On Tuesdays, if there was no midweek game, he would do half-an-hour’s training. Then I would tell him, “Off you go, time to get the ice bucket”. If we had let him, Clint would have trained every day, but he trained like he played, so you could not allow him to train. Players like that want to be in every five-a-side, every running session. They don’t want other players to think they are getting away with something. It is that attitude that drives them on.
I can honestly say I don’t think I have met anyone else as dedicated as Clint, and it paid off. He played almost every game for Palace for two-and-a-half years, then I took him to QPR and he played 44 matches as we got promoted. Once again, Clint was religious in his preparation and rehab.
He got himself sent off in his first Premier League game and I sent him on loan to Nottingham Forest, but we had injuries so I recalled him; he started when we beat Chelsea, and he has never looked back. I picked him, my successor Mark Hughes picked him, and his replacement Harry Redknapp made Clint captain. I tried to sign him again, for Leeds, but the chairman said he wouldn’t pay good wages for a player well into his 30s. Leeds’ loss was QPR’s gain; Clint’s 35 now, but still their captain and looks like winning another promotion. The lesson is “Don’t look at the age, look at what’s under the shirt”.
Wages or success count for nothing with depression
I hope Jonathan Trott makes a quick recovery from the illness that forced him to leave the Ashes. I have to say I was not completely taken by surprise. I was watching with William when Trott was hit by a bouncer and the camera zoomed into his face. He had a cold, unusual look. I said to William, “There’s something up with him.”
When Stan Collymore missed games for depression I was one of those who thought, “How can you be depressed when on £30,000-40,000 a week? No one can be depressed earning that sort of money.” Since then, talking to medical people and others, I have realised the issue is far more complex.
My eyes were really opened when I experienced such a situation as manager. It was at Sheffield United and we went on a two-week, long-haul, pre-season tour. After a couple of days the medical people came to me and said I had to let a player go home as he was having mental health issues and they feared he might do something he should not.
I spoke to the player and he missed his family and couldn’t get a grip of where he was. He felt by staying there he would affect his fitness as he couldn’t sleep or eat, and that would affect his pre-season, and that could damage his career. He was worrying himself sick. I let him go home. It was the only decision I could make.