Giggs offers Ferguson new incentive

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The Independent Football

There is, we have had it gloriously re-affirmed by Ryan Giggs, a time in the life of every great performer when he defines both his talent and his nature. He says: "This is me, this is where I'm coming from, and this is what I bring."

It is becoming increasingly clear that this is such a time for Giggs. He has brought back to the last two weeks of Manchester United's tumultuous season some of the vital qualities which over the years so profoundly separated them from the rest of the pack: certainty, hunger, and a wonderful competitive nerve. If ever a football team needed a sense of renewal, as a result of a serious overhaul of its instincts, it was surely United, and no one could have elected himself to the task with more vibrant force than Giggs.

But this is maybe to narrow the meaning of the player's extraordinary impact at a time when not just United but all of English football is in need not of mere personalities but figures of genuine inspiration.

If Giggs' re-appearance has been such a crucial element in United's powerful revival, and given him a solid base on which to re-open the debate about the wisdom, and the need, for Sir Alex Ferguson's early abdication at Old Trafford, it also offers a glowing alternative to the ever more bedraggled picture of football super-stardom.

Here, after all, is a player who at 28 years old has resisted for more than a decade the worst of the character-warping bestowed by cheap celebrity. He was the New George Best, a heavy burden for any young player, a hideous one for a reserved teenager dealing not only with the onset of instant fame but the wounds of a difficult boyhood who also just happened to be wearing the colours of Manchester United in which Best had invested so many elements of brilliance and fantasy. Giggs has carried huge pressure all his professional life, a weight of expectation complicated no doubt by the gross over-stating of his gifts which came when he was compared to arguably the most naturally talented footballer ever bred in these islands.

Now, though, Giggs is earning himself a special place indeed in a game drenched in materialism and values so distorted there is no guarantee than even the salutary lessons of the Bowyer-Woodgate affair will be learned and acted upon.

The niche Giggs has found for himself so surely is that of the mature and enviably gifted professional determined to make the most of all his advantages. One or two false steps could have so easily destroyed his image, not least at the time when his award of a £1m testimonial match seemed to many a grotesque gratuity handed to a youthful millionaire. Giggs handled his good fortune sensibly and without arrogance, and his obviously strong relationship with reality was further confirmed in his reaction to the postponement of a Champions' League game in Athens in the wake of 11 September. Giggs said it was a bad, inappropriate day to play football.

Last Sunday, however, it was as though there had never been such a day made for the game and the celebration of one player's conviction that his team must win. His goals were unanswerable in their confidence. His cross for Ruud van Nistelrooy's strike was functionalism made into art.

Of all his team-mates, perhaps Roy Keane has most welcomed the return of Giggs. At times Keane fought almost single-handedly to wrestle United from the edge of dissolution, and there were signs even before Giggs finally shook off injury that the Irishman was dragging United back into the Premiership race. But the signals of recovery were not unequivocal. Keane could do only so much, as could the immensely able striker Van Nistelrooy. There had to be something more, something implicit in the demeanour a player took on to the field, something so sharp and confident that belief sprang up around him, feeding on his authority, his sheer need to get the job done.

When United's fifth successive win was achieved, Giggs said: "The players who have played under him [Ferguson] would love him to stay on and I would definitely count myself as one of those."

As the United board prepares to officially launch its pursuit of Ferguson's successor, it is hard to imagine a more compelling piece of advice from the battle front. Who better to report the mood of the dressing-room than someone whose recent impact upon it has been so strong and beneficial? And who could better represent the meaning of Ferguson's success than a player who has delivered so brilliantly at a time of such desperate need?

There was never any logic to Ferguson's premature announcement that he would be gone by the end of this season. It was without precedent. The Shanklys and the Revies and the Steins folded their tents like bedouin. Ferguson turned himself into a lame duck, but now there is this extraordinary stirring of the old furies of Ferguson ambition. Some have suggested that Bobby Robson, powering along as obsessively as ever at the age of 68, has been a catalyst of the re-awakening. Others speculate that Ferguson's plutocrat Irish friends, J P McManus and John Magnier, have, with their increased shareholding in United and rumoured ambition to further extend it, offered him a sense of personal security he never felt when battling the board for seed money for the team and a proper reward for his own contribution to the transformation of the club.

Whatever the reason, Ferguson is on the record. He might just be talked into staying in command, and almost as the words came out of his mouth Giggs was delivering an endorsement as emphatic as his recent play.

At the very least it provides an agony of doubt for the United board. At its best, it suddenly presents the chance to avoid a gamble which has surely become more oppressive with risk since the decision of Arsène Wenger to re-sign with Arsenal and Sven Goran Eriksson's emphatic statement that he will honour his Football Association contract.

Both men would have brought some instant re-assurance to the first phase of life without Ferguson. Intelligent, vastly experienced, high-achieving, unintimidated men of the world, Wenger and Eriksson would have offered enough ballast and judgement to ride the heaviest of storms. In their absence, the field narrows sharply. Martin O'Neill is no doubt the outstanding candidate, though his good work at Leicester and his impressive crusade at Celtic remains a long way short of the extraordinary portfolio Ferguson compiled at Aberdeen before moving to Old Trafford.

David O'Leary, who so mysteriously appeared almost simultaneously as a runner and a non-runner last week, said he would not be overawed by the challenge of following Ferguson, but with his first trophy still in the possible category and with serious doubts about his judgement as fresh as the covers of his Leeds United on Trial book it seemed like one of his less immediate challenges.

Meanwhile, a smile is back on Ferguson's face, along with some hauteur in his soul, and the idea that he should walk away from his life's work at 60 is once again an oddity.

It is one hugely increased by the sight of Giggs, of the gunfighter's six o'clock shadow and the perfect aim, decimating defences. When he was still a shy youth blinking in the first glare of fame, Ferguson swore to protect him. He told the boy what he had to do. Now the roles appear to be reversed.

Whether the manager responds to the prompting of the player is a question of some complexity, but he can only be warmed by an awareness of its source. It springs, after all, from the best and most enduring of his own work.