Profile: Ryan Giggs: New age of the boy wonder

After seven years now is prime time for the maturing Ryan Giggs to convert the dazzle into deliverance; Norman Fox suggests a new role might lead to fulfilment for a sublime talent
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ALEX FERGUSON said recently that Manchester United had plans for Ryan Giggs. It sounded more like a cautious comment on one of the club's new signings than on someone who has won enough medals and put on enough dazzling performances to be among only seven current Premiership players named in the "100 League Legends". Ferguson knows that Giggs faces a season which could justify that "legendary" status but just as easily turn him into a famous substitute.

What Ferguson meant was that with the arrival of the naturally left-footed Swede Jesper Blomqvist, Giggs will be seen less often dashing down the touchline and more frequently in a free role, symbolically searching for the fulfilment of a fine talent that, unlike the spell-binding gifts of George Best, has not been dependable enough on the big occasions to merit being high among the greats. If the new role should fail, the arrival of Blomqvist will mean Giggs will no longer be able to escape to the left wing, as he did last season when his midfield work sometimes made no progress.

The move from winger to potential playmaker has come sooner than he expected, especially as for years his passing let him down. Ferguson told him to study how John Barnes changed from a flying, dribbling winger to one of the game's most accurate passers. "I worked on that until I was not giving the ball away so stupidly," Giggs said.

Giggs is also aware of the need for a "playmaker" to take a full share in stopping opponents from counter-attacking. He noted that the most successful midfield players in the World Cup this summer were those who were not only creative but went deep into their own half to re-build directly from the goalkeeper. However, he says that he still takes his inspiration on that score from the very English Peter Beardsley.

Blomqvist, formerly of Milan and Parma and bought by United for pounds 4.4m, said Giggs "was" one his inspirations, as if the Welshman was some boyhood hero now in decline. In fact he and Giggs are both only 24. It is just that Giggs has been in the United first team for seven years while seven years ago Blomqvist admits he was "learning to tie my laces in the Swedish third division". In the meantime Giggs has won the small matter of four Premiership titles and two FA Cup winners' medals.

Whether these two similar players will become compatible or fail to link - presumably leaving Giggs fighting to retain his place - is for the coming season to reveal, but there is little doubt that this is a crucial period in the career of the normally darting Giggs who, at the back of last season was too often appearing with remnants of injuries, costing him his vivid pace.

Diplomatically, he said: "This is a big season for all of us. We were all very disappointed by what happened last season and just want to bounce back." Having missed out on the World Cup experience and never having won a European Cup medal, he still lacks complete international recognition of his ability. That is something which clearly hurts. "You've got to play in one of the big ones, like the World Cup or a European final before you get recognised as a world-class player," he said.

For several reasons there is cause to think that this season should be his best, though there is always the lurking danger of it becoming his most frustrating. Inevitably he is going to be compared with Blomqvist, but he says he has lived with the comparison with Best for so long he no longer feels challenged by anyone, past or present. Yet in truth he has not achieved the great Irishman's consistency. It is a modern fallacy that Best was an overnight wonder, an early victim of an over-indulgent lifestyle. In fact, for seven years he played not only superbly but reliably.

Giggs says he is ready for the new challenge. While most other members of the United squad sweated in France he had had time to recover from his injuries, but more importantly, he saw the media spotlight switch to Michael Owen. For that he should be grateful. Unlike the majority of British club players who had no part in the World Cup (several have almost proudly declared that they never even saw a game on television), Giggs made the effort to visit France (albeit mainly because his sponsors made it worth his while) and said he "enjoyed it more than I thought I would". He had anticipated being frustrated but returned "more determined than ever to play in the next finals".

Ferguson says that too much has been read into the fact that Giggs will operate in a more central, prompting position, with the emphasis on coming from behind the attack to score the important goals that have too often eluded the strikers, especially since the departure of Eric Cantona. "Whenever we had the opportunity last season, Ryan was used in midfield, but he was also the only left-footed player we had, so often he had to play on the wing because we needed the width. But the thing about him is that he's now got the experience to go with his talent. We can play him in a number of different roles."

Ferguson admits that Giggs has been criticised for not always playing at his best in European competition "but you can judge his value to us when we lose him". He was thinking particularly of last season when United were knocked out of the Champions' League at the quarter-final stage by Monaco. Giggs was absent. Ferguson said it was that disappointment that made him realise how much United depended on one left-side player. In fact, it made everyone realise that the squad was not deep enough - hence this summer's spending spree and the rejected attempt to sign Patrick Kluivert. Meanwhile, Giggs himself is still regularly linked with Italian clubs, and regularly goes to sleep when watching them on television.