Giggs still the boy next door

Glenn Moore meets a man enjoying his status as one of Manchester United's more experienced performers
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The Independent Online
Celebrity is a dangerous condition - sought by some, evaded by others - as it has an increasing capacity to destroy the stars it creates.

Imagine a life in which lovers from the recent or distant past describe your sexual prowess (or, worse, lack of it) to the News of the World; in which strangers accost you in the supermarket, not always in a friendly manner; in which media inventions become common lore. As Elton John once said: "You read something about yourself and think 'Surely no one will believe that'. Then you turn the page and it says Elizabeth Taylor is having sex with a monkey, and you call up your friends and say: 'Did you see that? Liz Taylor has sex with monkeys'."

No one has yet accused Ryan Giggs of that, but his relationships have become the stuff of tabloid front pages as much as his skills are the talk of the back. The combination of his personal attractiveness, Manchester United's glamour and football's current popularity have made him famous outside his sport and wealthy beyond the conception of most 22-year-olds. Another FA Cup on Saturday, his third already, will only increase the glare.

While many boys dream of such achievements, once gained they are not that easy to handle. The rise and fall of a former Manchester United winger is evidence enough of that and, while it is hard not to be envious, how would you really handle being talented, young and rich - but always in the spotlight?

Although two decades separate them, George Best's decline was still fresh in Old Trafford memory when Giggs emerged. It helped that Giggs was local, and thus equipped with a support network of friends and family, but Alex Ferguson was careful to protect his starlet.

"The manager took a lot of stick for that, but it helped," said Giggs, whose maturation into a personable, level-headed young adult tends to justify Ferguson. Sitting in front of a posse of journalists during Manchester United's media day this week, he was relaxed and thoughtful, showing the football intelligence and common sense Ferguson has noted.

"Being 'Ryan Giggs' did not happen overnight," he said. "It has gradually grown over the last few years, so I have not had to cope with it suddenly. It is not a problem, but it has got more intensive off the pitch.

"You have got to be careful where you go and what you do outside football, but I still live where I was brought up. They all know me and I do not get hassled if I go out around there. I go around with my family and friends - a group of six or seven of us who I was at school with, or played football with. They bring me down to earth; if I've had a bad game they don't mind telling me."

Giggs still spends much of his time at his mother's, and does little to court publicity - girlfriends have noted that life with him is not as glamourous as might be imagined. Publicity arrives regardless, partly through his club's remorseless self-promotion. So common is Giggs' face in Man- chester that even his mother has complained to him about it (though probably with a sense of pride). The player himself said: "I've become immune to it."

One outside thing he has done is some modelling work. "I enjoy it, but I realise football is my career," he said. To that end he has been working hard on his game, especially, he said, "my final ball, crossing in particular. My strength is running with the ball, but too often I was beating players but not getting the final ball over.

"This has probably been my most consistent season yet. There are so many young players in the team the older ones - me, Roy Keane, Lee Sharpe - had to mature. Last year I had a lot of niggling injuries and often played when not fit. This season my main aim was to stay injury-free. I hoped everything else would come from that, and so it has."

Giggs was only substitute in last year's final against Everton and, though he almost pulled United back into the game, was not really fit enough for that. This time he is fit, in form and looking for a second double.

Giggs noted that, for him, Keane and, probably, Eric Cantona, the club season was their sole interest. "None of us look like appearing in the European Championship, so we have been even more determined to do well."

While keen to play for Wales, Giggs has accepted that, by playing for the Principality, he may never play in a major championships. "To be a world-class player you need to be recognised at a World Cup or European Championship," he admitted ruefully.

It was then suggested to him that the world footballer of the year, George Weah, has played in neither, winning his accolade for his performances with Milan rather than Liberia. "Mmm, good point," Giggs said.

Possibilities, then, on Satur- day and in next year's Champions' League, to achieve the kind of fame Giggs craves: professional recognition by his peers across the world.