The Nick Townsend Column: Giggs still looks over his shoulder for the man who shaped his generation

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The spectacle of a gold Mercedes parked outside his house was sufficient to hasten the stride of a young man then known as Ryan Wilson, who had been idling home. He was late for an appointment. A hugely significant one in the history of Manchester United, as it was to transpire.

Fortunately, the then plain Mr Alex Ferguson was prepared to display patience as he waited for the player we now know as Ryan Giggs, a United follower who for the previous two years had been training with Manchester City. "I forgot he was coming round that day and I'd just been out with my mates," recalls Giggs with a mischievous grin. "I came round the corner and thought, 'Oh, no'."

That was in November 1987, on Giggs's 14th birthday. Ferguson had arrived to position schoolboy forms under the gaze of the fledgling midfielder. That moment, and everything that ensued in the life of the Welsh international, said everything about the Scot, even then, in the early days of his career at Old Trafford. It demonstrated not merely appreciation of young talent, but a determination to snare his quarry in the face of competition.

In time, Ferguson would display finely honed judgement as to when to dispose of his stock. Or in Giggs's case, when not to do so. "He doesn't want the team to stand still. He wants it to go on and on. If he feels a player needs to leave to strengthen the team, that'll happen," says Ferguson's longest-serving player on the eve of his manager's 20th anniversary at Old Trafford.

On how many occasions have we witnessed Ferguson clear his utensil drawer of blades he no longer deems suitable for his kitchen? A couple of years ago, Giggs was reportedly ready to join the iconic names that Ferguson has discarded; from Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe and Paul Ince in his first decade to David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy in his second. Yet Ferguson's faith in his midfielder is undiminished, and that belief, which resulted in an extended contract for the player, has been vindicated since.

Perhaps Ferguson's principal failing has been not to recognise his own footballing mortality. Hence the folly of announcing a retirement date 16 months in advance of the event, an error many believe was compounded by that volte-face - a subject to which we will return.

That arrival at the home of a teenaged Giggs would not be the last occasion when there would be awkwardness when Ferguson came knocking on his door. The second came when the United manager was tipped off that Giggs and Lee Sharpe were partying rather than resting for a crucial match. "That was probably my worst memory of the manager: when he appeared at Sharpey's door. I was standing there with a bottle of Becks. There was no escape."

Meanwhile, Sir Alex's door has always remained open to him. "When I signed those schoolboy forms it was a tricky time for me personally," says Giggs. "Mum and dad were splitting up. He knew that. He told me to come to him if I needed help. You couldn't believe that someone like that could care so much. He always made a point of knowing your parents' names. Little things like that made you want to play for him. People on the outside always see that fierce competitor, but from an early age I saw the other side as well.

"In the early years, he shielded me and rested me. It was always going to be about me playing for 15 years at the top. It's about laying foundations. That's why now he's making sure that Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo will be the best in the world at 28, 29."

There were, however, times when Giggs experienced, at full blast, that scalding breath of Ferguson's wrath. "Probably the worst was at Juventus, the first time we played them away from home [in the European Cup group stage in 1996-97, when United lost 1-0]. He wasn't happy with the way I was playing. We had a little bit of an argument at half-time, and he took me off. On the big stage, that was disappointing for me. But I didn't perform, and he was probably right."

Giggs adds: "His strength is how to get the best out of players. Some players need an arm round them. I respond to someone having a go at me. I always have done. He's probably recognised that, and he's done it."

He pauses. "Maybe I should stop responding, and he'll put his arm round me..."

Although Giggs admits the Scot has mellowed in his treatment of players, there is no doubt that, initially at least, he was an all-pervasive presence in his players' lives. Not so much Big Brother as Big Daddy. "At times, when you'd go out on Saturday night with your mates, [the following Monday] he'd tell you where you were; what you had and who you were with. You'd think, 'How does he know all that?' But he just knows everyone. You just couldn't get away from it." Giggs still has a habit of glancing over his shoulder, lest the irascible one might be lurking. "But really his concern was that we should be professional; that we should look after ourselves."

The dividend for that personal investment in his players' welfare has been 17 trophies; the zenith, above eight Premiership titles, being that Champions' League final triumph at the Nou Camp in 1999. After his 60th birthday came and went, on New Years' Eve 2001, Ferguson announced his retirement. Like all the best acts, he had apparently timed it with precision. Leave them demanding more. Only for him to undergo a Whittingtonesque change of heart. As Giggs recalls: "I think at the time, he realised he was going to miss the game. He's proved over the next couple of years that he wasn't ready. He'd still got that fight."

Well, no and yes. That his desire remains, there can be no doubt. That his welder's torch is still fiercely aflame, attempting to fashion the maximum from diverse talents, few would dispute. The capture and nurture of Rooney and Ronaldo are testimony to that. And yet...

It would be a very cheap shot to suggest that in this, of all weeks, the defeat by Copenhagen pinpoints his relative lack of success since divesting himself of his demob suit. But the biggest club in the world, as United relish being perceived, cannot be satisfied by a record of one Premiership title (2003), one FA Cup (2005) and one League Cup (2006) since that resignation announcement, while in Europe a Champions' League semi-final appearance (2002) is as close as they have come to emulating 1999.

Of course, when he turned again, he was not to know that Roman Abramovich's ability to take his Chelsea Blues seriously into the red in pursuit of swift gratification would imperil his Premiership ambitions. But, for all the homage which will rightly be paid to Ferguson this week, the past five years (as it will be in February) have not been anything like as productive as he, or anyone at Old Trafford, would have anticipated.

The belief persists that Ferguson is desperate that his final curtain should drop on a Premiership pennant, or even better, another victory in a European final. Giggs rebuts that assumption. "I don't think that's in his mind," he says. "I think he just wants to see this team progress like it should do, with the potential it's got."

Don't you believe it. A driven character like Sir Alex Ferguson will want to bow out clasping another medal of distinction. Not simply a long-service award.