Ryan Giggs: 'The likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo get away with murder now'

As he approaches his 32nd birthday, Ryan Giggs talks to Sam Wallace about the mellowing of Sir Alex Ferguson, his difficult relationship with his father, and adjusting to life as a squad player at Manchester United
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When they come to write the definitive history of Nineties football, of the birth of the Premiership, of the rise of the footballer as modern icon, there will be a chapter that belongs to Giggs alone. With Manchester United he has won eight Premiership titles, four FA Cups and a European Cup, and an automatic place in the greatest side of the past 12 years has been his for the asking. Then there are the fabulous goals he has scored, his part in the treble season of 1999, his occasional famous girlfriend - never mind his power to draw record crowds to shopping centres in unremarkable provincial towns.

But most of all there is the longevity - over the past decade he has come to symbolise a club reborn in a city rebuilt. Now a couple of months short of his 32nd birthday, Giggs was playing when a United victory could still be celebrated on Saturday night in Manchester's late lamented Haçienda night-club, when the last League title at Old Trafford was still 26 years ago. The black hair is now just touched with grey above his ears but there is a part of English football's subconscious that will forever remember Giggs as 17 years old, head down, skimming along Old Trafford's left wing.

That he has recently released an autobiography may mark the passing of time, a testament to 14 brilliant years in the game, but Giggs is vehement that it is not intended as an elegy to his career. Not yet. He has a contract at United until 2008 that he intends to see to its conclusion and an international career with Wales that he still hopes will see him play at the European Championships in the summer of that year. But more immediately he has a battle closer to home.

It is a change that has taken place by stealth, and it seems like some kind of football heresy to admit it, but Giggs is no longer a natural first choice in Sir Alex Ferguson's United team. Should he start against Liverpool at Anfield tomorrow it will be his first of the Premiership and only his second of the season - a reality that Old Trafford's No 11 accepts with grace, and the promise that he will not be edged easily from the stage.

"I think I realised at the start of the season," Giggs says. "The manager didn't say it in so many ways but he said that the way we played I would be playing in different positions. But for the first time this season I don't know if I'll be in the first XI. Last season the FA Cup final [for which he was on the bench] was the first sign that I wouldn't be in. I always maintain that if I have been in the team for two or three games, and I am playing well, I will stay in the team.

"I've always looked after myself - especially in the last five or six years. I am lucky that I can play in two or three positions. I can still play on the wing, left midfield and maybe in the hole where I have played for United. They are the sort of positions in which you can go on and on. When I was younger I looked up to John Barnes and I always felt that I could move, like he did, into the midfield."

The story of Giggs's career has also been the story of United's rise and in his autobiography the early years of his life were dominated by two men. One caused a stir when he turned up on the humble Swinton street of Giggs's childhood in a gold Mercedes to sign the teenager for United on his 14th birthday. He, of course, was Ferguson and their fortunes have not diverged since. The other man was Giggs's father, Danny Wilson, a former rugby league player for Swinton, who walked out on the family when his older son was 13 and whose painful contribution to the difficult life of that young family is addressed by Giggs with searing honesty.

The image of their relationship that lingers is Giggs's description of himself, as a child, carrying his father's bag for him to the bus stop on the day that he left for good. It feels like an intrusion into a moment of family grief but the circumstances of his parents' violent relationship was something, Giggs says, that when he decided to embark upon an autobiography, he resolved to report as "truthfully as I could".

"Everyone's childhood shapes who they are and what they do and it was two sides of the story with my dad," he says. "I didn't like the relationship he had with my mum. But there was another side where I looked up to him. I never had heroes when I was younger - not really, not footballers. My dad was my first hero. He was the one I went to watch every Sunday and he was a brilliant player. So it was a weird relationship really. Sometimes I was so proud of him because people would come up to me and say, 'Oh your dad played brilliant'.

"I think I was mature for my age - although sometimes I do act like I'm 19 again. I think I was lucky in the respect that I had football and rugby when I was 13, when he was leaving. I had something to fall back on. I was quite good at school until I was 13 and then schoolwork went like that [he motions a downward curve] so I was lucky because I was training twice a week and I was playing rugby and football on Saturday and Sunday. I was lost in that and my younger brother [Rhodri] didn't really have that luxury.

"I think it [his parents' split] may contribute to that inner steel where I block things out. Subconsciously I can block things out. When I was playing football I never thought that my mum and dad had just argued last night or this morning. I never thought about it, I was just concentrating on football. So I think, yes, that is something that happens. I can't speak for anyone else but that has probably made me stronger, more determined. When I was going away to trials and didn't know anyone. I didn't feel out of place, I felt quite comfortable."

There was the promise from Ferguson that his office door was "always open" - even, Giggs says, "if it was nothing to do with football - and I felt comfortable going to talk about things". The influence of Ferguson looms large throughout his life even if he admits that the old godfather of English football has "mellowed in certain respects". Their relationship has changed as Giggs has grown older but it is still informed by what he was taught by Ferguson as a young man and the very earliest experiences of his manager's notorious temper. He pauses for a second at the memories. "When you see them you think flippin' heck - and you know it can still come out.

"The likes of Wayne [Rooney] and Cristiano Ronaldo get away with murder now that they wouldn't have got away with when we were 19," he says. "Football's changed. They've been bought as men. They've paid a lot of money for those players and they are different to those who come through as youngsters."

In what way?

"It's just jokes. Wazza [Rooney] will say things like, 'I want to be captain'. The kind of thing you wouldn't dream of saying when you were that age. Just that sort of confidence that two individuals like Wayne and Ronaldo have, but it is certainly not the sort of thing we would have said when we were younger."

In the Old Trafford changing-room of the early Nineties there was little point approaching Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister for advice on how to handle life as a teenage icon so instead Giggs watched the cult that developed around his team-mate Lee Sharpe - "he had fan clubs at Discotheque Royale, Sunday night, 200 people and he loved it" - and decided that life was not for him. His relationship with the television presenter Dani Behr ended and he moved out of Manchester to the obscure Lancashire village of Blackrod where the nearest they usually get to football celebrities is the odd roar from Bolton's Reebok Stadium that gusts in on the wind from across the M61.

"When I was 19, 20 I was going out with Dani Behr and it sort of doubled the exposure," Giggs says. "I was down in London, photographers were chasing us in cars and I just didn't like it. The relationship ended anyway. It was nothing to do with that, but I didn't like it full stop. I probably made a conscious effort not to do it. And I am lucky in the respect that I lived in the area that I grew up and I have the same friends.

"Sharpey was a completely different person, similar to Becks [David Beckham] in a way, but they felt comfortable with it. I never did and I felt it would affect my football. I just never took that road really. I've been in magazines and done photo-shoots, that's part and parcel of it, but I have always tried to keep my private life private."

He tries to judge his relationship with United fans by the individual responses he encounters in the city and they are, he says, almost exclusively positive. There have been difficult times, however, none worse than when his substitution against Blackburn in the Worthington Cup semi-final first leg in December 2002 was cheered by United fans. Two months later the uncertainty over his future reached a pitch and was memorably headed off by Giggs in Italy (where some of the biggest clubs have courted him over the years) when he scored twice in a 3-0 win over Juventus.

"When I was younger in a bar or club I may have got a little bit of stick if I hadn't played well in one game, that's about it," he says. "I do feel that sometimes if I am not doing well the fans still think of me as 17 or 18 dribbling past players and knocking it out for a dead ball - which I used to do. A bit of a headless chicken. I would never want to play like that now.

"The closest I probably ever came [to leaving] was last season with my contract [negotiations] and I was going through a bad spell. There was three years ago with the Blackburn game, and after I missed a chance against Arsenal [FA Cup, 15 February 2003]. Apart from winning the League the first time that title [2003] was probably the most enjoyable. We were so far behind Arsenal and they had won it the previous season. That was the toughest time I had experienced as a player and I probably ended up playing my best."

There was a time when Internazionale's president, Massimo Moratti, had, it seemed, reached a point of obsession when it came to signing Giggs - "I hope he's still interested when I'm 35," he says - but he is now set to be that rarity in football: a one-club player for his entire career. A father to two-year-old Liberty: there is a big house being built for her, Giggs and his partner Stacey, out in the west Manchester suburb of Worsley and it is from there that he will have to plot out a life beyond professional football.

Not easy for a player who still looks as lean as the day he made his debut as a substitute for Denis Irwin against Everton on 2 March 1991, and who admits he can only sleep five or six hours a night in pre-season because he never feels tired if he is not playing. Every year he starts fretting two weeks into his summer holidays when the novelty of being away from United evaporates and Giggs, in his own words, wants "to get back for the banter, I want the training, I want the games, I want to use up the energy."

In the past three summers Ferguson has begun selling his golden generation one by one: first Beckham, then Nicky Butt and, most recently, Phil Neville. A trend that Giggs can smile about in mock horror but not one that has gone unnoticed by him and the two other survivors, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes. All six stay in touch: Butt remains Giggs's "best friend in football", and they are bonded, he says, by "not only the success but the failures as well".

Not much appears to have radically changed him as he has lived through both. Not his parents' separation, the fickle nature of Old Trafford's affections, the occasional rasping admonishment from the 63-year-old Scot in the office up the corridor, nor even the immense success of his career. He remains, you suspect, as unaffected as when Ferguson discovered him when he parked that gold Mercedes outside the family home 18 years ago.

Intelligent and thoughtful, too, but the question of what lies beyond football for him invokes a silence. He leans back and looks up at the atrium in United's training ground, Carlos Queiroz, Ferguson's assistant, wanders by and asks, with perfect timing, whether this is "a job interview".

"I just don't know," Giggs says. "Recently I have seriously thought about whether I could be a manager. I think I could be a manager. I'm not sure but I think it could change again. I haven't got a clue but it is something that I need to start thinking about - definitely. More people remind me about it.

"We've been doing the Uefa B licence [coaching badge] here, it's worked out quite well. I just feel that I need to be burning energy - in what capacity I don't know. It would definitely be something in football I imagine but what I don't know - manager, coach. I wouldn't like to think but I don't know. I don't know."

If he stopped three years from now and never stepped foot on another football pitch, Giggs would already have given great service. A trail-blazing modern footballer who had the ability, and the profile to go with it, to stop traffic but realised at a young age that there was more to enduring success than that. A link between the ages - to a time without the Premiership, a witness to the empire built by Ferguson. He has played a great part in a major production. You can only hope that there will be a sequel, too.

Giggs: The Autobiography. Ryan Giggs with Joe Lovejoy. Michael Joseph (an imprint of Penguin Books). £18.99.

My fabulous four Ryan Giggs picks the greatest goals of his glorious career

* v TOTTENHAM, 1993

(Premiership, 19 September at White Hart Lane. After 45 minutes. Match drawn 1-1)

The goal Giggs took advantage of a mistake by Dean Austin, slipped the ball through the legs of Jason Cundy and went wide of the goalkeeper Ian Walker before finishing from a narrow angle on the left.

Giggs I like the goal against Spurs. I didn't think once about what I was going to do. Goalscorers are probably better like that, when we don't have to think.

* v QUEEN'S PARK RANGERS, 1994

(Premiership, 5 February at Loftus Road. After 59 minutes. United go on to win 3-2)

The goal: Went on a characteristically mazy run, beating five players in the process before finishing emphatically.

Giggs The QPR goal is probably the one I like to watch the most - especially because I am putting a few people on their arse.

* v ARSENAL, 1999

(FA Cup semi-final replay, 14 April at Villa Park. After 109 minutes (in extra-time). United go on to win 2-1)

The goal Giggs seized on a loose pass from Patrick Vieira, ran 70 yards, evading five tackles before scoring with a rising shot at the near post.

Giggs There's only probably five or six goals where I have scored where it was, 'What happened then?' This one was sort of like in full flow and it was all a blur, it was all anticipation.'

* v JUVENTUS, 2003

(Champions' League, 25 February at the Stadio Delle Alpi. After 41 minutes. United won 3-0)

The goal Giggs glided past two challenges and slid the ball with his right foot across Gianluigi Buffon.

Giggs I scored a couple against Juventus. That was the time I was getting some stick. I had missed a chance against Arsenal 10 days before [in the FA Cup]. To do it in Italy as well against Juventus... I was only on for 40 minutes - it was weird.

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