Sam Wallace: Ryan Giggs touched George Best’s peaks but he also knew how to stay at the top

One of the first officially sanctioned interviews in the early 1990s with the teenage sensation Ryan Giggs was a Manchester United-approved video, in which he and George Best appeared alongside one another discussing their careers and lives. Given how protective Sir Alex Ferguson was of Giggs in the early years it was telling that the club had no issue with their prodigy being placed in such exalted company.

The Very Best: Ryan and George stands the test of time. What makes it interesting now is not so much charting the differences from Best’s era to that of the United of the early 1990s – as was intended – but the changes from the club that won their first league title in 26 years in 1993 to the post-Ferguson behemoth of the present day. In the video, Best wanders around United’s then training ground, the Cliff, marvelling at the improvements from his playing days. Yet viewed in the modern context, the place looks like a local authority sports centre compared to where United train now.

If the late Best had stayed in United’s first team as long as Giggs has done, the Irishman would have played under Ferguson – at least in that first season, 1986-87, during which the Scot took over the club. It is that which strikes you first about the retirement of the most successful individual player in the history of English football: he stayed at the top longer than anyone thought possible.

As he walks around the Cliff, Best encounters Ferguson in a corridor and the two fall into conversation about Giggs, discussing a moment of trickery by the player that had flummoxed Nigel Winterburn in the previous weekend’s game against Arsenal. “That was worth the admission money itself,” Ferguson says. Best responds: “If you asked him how he did it he wouldn’t be able to tell you,” Ferguson fires back: “More so, why he did it!”

That was Giggs in his early days, the extravagantly skilful, lightning-fast winger who scored spectacular goals in which he ripped through the heart of opposition defences, like those against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in 1992 or away at Queen’s Park Rangers two years later. As he got towards his thirties he did that much less often, but there was still the occasional one, like those against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final replay of 1999 or Juventus in Turin four years later.

George Best left Manchester United when he was 27 – Ryan Giggs played on till he was 40 (Getty) George Best left Manchester United when he was 27 – Ryan Giggs played on till he was 40 (Getty)

The question that hung over Giggs, even in his younger days, was how would he change and develop over his career? There was one school of thought that he would mature from a winger into a centre-forward, in the same way that Thierry Henry later did, but that never happened and it led some to ask whether he had fulfilled his potential. But Giggs changed in different ways and that was part of what has made him such an enduring success.

When he scored twice against Juventus in February 2003 at the Stadio delle Alpi he celebrated by pointing to the name on his shirt, a message to those among the United support who had become disenchanted with him. It was around the end of his twenties that his relationship with United fans was at its rockiest. They cheered his substitution against Blackburn in the then Worthington Cup that season. But he turned it around.

In fact, few players are able to say that the success they have had on the pitch in their thirties was comparable to that they enjoyed in their twenties. Giggs won eight of his 13 Premier League titles, and three of his four FA Cups before he turned 30 in November 2003. But he won his two Champions League titles either side of that milestone and his only PFA Player of the Year award came when he was 35.

Best will always be regarded as United’s most talented player but there is no question who made the most of his considerable ability, and hands back the No 11 shirt after all these years without cause for regret.

 

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