Giggs intent on avenging Maine Road humiliation

More than points at stake in derby for United player still smarting from defeat to City that proved last season's turning point
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The Independent Football

The First time Sir Alex Ferguson lost a Manchester derby, he went home, climbed the stairs to bed, almost without a word, and went to sleep with a pillow over his head. It must have worked because United did not lose another for the next 13 years.

On the next occasion United lost to City, in the final Manchester derby played at Maine Road, Ferguson did not go meekly to bed. The United manager exploded with rage, then stomped off to tell the nearest television camera that he would like to throw open the dressing-room door to allow the supporters to hear their team's explanation for an incompetent 3-1 defeat.

It must have worked because Manchester United, then fifth in the Premiership, below Everton and Chelsea, and seven points behind Arsenal and eight adrift of Liverpool, won the title with something to spare.

That recovery ensured Ryan Giggs his eighth championship medal, a record he shares with the three mainstays of the great Liverpool sides United supplanted: Phil Neal, Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish. Now, he thinks the débâcle at Maine Road was the moment the season turned.

"In hindsight it was a good thing, though perhaps not at the time," Giggs said. "It was the first time I'd been on the losing side in a derby and it was particularly disappointing. We didn't produce on the day. It was a strange game. In the first half we were in control, in the second half they were fully on top.

"It was a turning point because after that we couldn't afford to lose many more. Everything was very flat; there was no real fight in us and we just didn't perform. We will put that right on Saturday. Losing to Manchester City is as bad as it gets. I live in the middle of town and I'll be staying in if we lose."

Giggs is the only member of Manchester United's first-team squad who lives in the heart of the city; the rest are scattered around the wealthy Cheshire commuter belt that takes in Alderley Edge, Hale and Wilmslow. He trained with City until he was 14 and his departure to United marks one of the key moments in the shifting of the balance of power in Manchester. Ferguson was told by one of his scouts, a man called Harold Wood, that Giggs, who supported United, would be a potentially enormous loss. Ferguson invited him to The Cliff, the club's training ground, and when writing his autobiography in 1999, he vividly recaptured the moment. "A gold miner who has searched every part of a river or mountain and then suddenly finds himself staring at a nugget could not feel more exhilaration than I did watching Giggs that day. I shall always remember my first sight of him ... he looked as relaxed and natural on the park as a dog chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind."

Ferguson remarked that his signing of Giggs alone justified every penny he has picked up as the Manchester United manager. It was 1987, the year Manchester City were relegated. Giggs' first League start was against City at Old Trafford. He scored and United won. It was 1991, the last year Manchester City finished above Manchester United.

A significant reason for United's dominance in these games has been the number of locally bred players in Ferguson's sides. When these clubs last met at Old Trafford in February, eight of United's team, including those on the bench, had come through the ranks. Of Kevin Keegan's likely starting line-up, the only two who could claim to have played together as youngsters are Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman - and that was at Liverpool.

"It is important for the lads who have grown up in the area, who know exactly what it means," Giggs said. "The nucleus of the team, those who have come through together, know the club. And it's not just the Manchester lads, Roy Keane has been here 10 years. Cristiano Ronaldo and Kleberson have just come to the club. They will have played in derbies before but not this one. It is important that you have that nucleus in a team to take you there."

Giggs was speaking outside the United dressing-room at Old Trafford as all the detritus of a Champions' League fixture - the kit boxes, lighting rigs and advertising panels - was being cleared away following Tuesday night's victory over Stuttgart. Giggs had played sublimely, making one goal and scoring another, and the German coach, Felix Magath, thought he and Ruud van Nistelrooy could be the men to drive United to the European Cup final.

November last year, in the wake of defeat by Manchester City, was very different. Giggs' form was elusive and when he was substituted in the defeat by Blackburn the following month he was booed off by United's own fans. I asked him if, after those reverses, he really believed United would end up as champions.

"When you get defeats like that relatively early in the season you always have time to make it up," he said. "We were always confident if we were there or thereabouts at Christmas. I know we were a few points behind Arsenal but we also knew with the experience we had that anything could have happened. It will be the same this year. Out of the three of us [Arsenal, Chelsea and United], whoever puts on a good run after Christmas will win. We did it last season and Arsenal managed it the one before that.

"We're in good shape. We've hit form, with the defence playing really well," he said, when asked if United have found the spark they were capable of in seasons past. "That has given the forwards a platform to go on and take chances and that's what's been happening in the last few weeks. There were a lot of good things that came out of the first half against Aston Villa; we just didn't push on in the second half. It was equally so in the Blackburn game before that."

Giggs turned 30 a fortnight ago, the first of that spectacular class of 1992 which took the FA Youth Cup to do so. From regular yoga exercises to driving a Porsche with automatic transmission so as not to aggravate his temperamental hamstring, Giggs now takes more care of himself. Has age given him a new perspective? "No, not really, there are still a few lads older than me. Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] for instance, although he doesn't look it. I'm not a veteran yet."