When Manchester United completed their historic treble in 1999, it was Ryan Giggs's miscued shot in the Champions' League final that set up Teddy Sheringham for the dramatic saving equaliser. When Sir Alex Ferguson kicked a stray boot across the Old Trafford dressing room in a fury, drawing blood from David Beckham's face, it was Giggs standing rather anxiously next to his friend, then helping to drag him away from the manager. When Rio Ferdinand missed his drugs test, who else was chosen to provide a specimen and could have saved a lot of trouble – and saved the League title from slipping away that season, he believes – by reminding his team-mate of their appointment? It is not only since moving into centre midfield that Giggs has been at the heart of United's footballing fortunes and everything connected with them.
Only Ferguson has more intimate experience of the eventful past two decades at the club than the Welsh winger he first watched when he was 13 in Christmas 1986, "floating over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind" (and scoring a hat-trick as captain of Salford Boys). The manager, having joined from Aberdeen the previous month and been shocked by what he found, had far more pressing matters on his mind but still made sure he was at the Giggs household on the boy's 14th birthday with apprenticeship forms in his hand, needing no confirmation from the club's youth staff that here was a special talent. Twenty-two years on, Ryan Joseph Giggs is the most decorated player in English football history.
It was a single-parent family the manager was visiting – Ryan's dad, the rugby union and league player Danny Wilson, had left home by then – and from that day they have been bound together. If a psychologist might be tempted to portray Ferguson as a father figure, he seemed a formidable one at the time. "He's changed a lot from when I first met him at 13, very scary," Giggs said at the club's Carrington training centre last Thursday. "He's mellowed, which comes with success and experience, but he's still got the hunger and desire he had back then. A great person to learn off. As soon as match day comes or the build-up to a big game, that's when the gaffer comes alive and when he's at his best."
Not that anyone, however talented, plays under Ferguson for all those years without having his hair verbally dried from time to time. With the wisdom of age – he will be 36 four weeks today – Giggs is able to appreciate that it was not the best idea to have an evening out in Blackpool with Lee Sharpe in between two crucial games just as the possibility of a first championship in 25 years was slipping away; and then to party chez Sharpe the night after the second defeat of the week. The verbal blast has gone down in United legend, and was almost matched when a young Giggs was encouraged by two senior rascals (Messrs Bruce and Robson, he claims) to suggest to Ferguson that after 25 first-team games he wanted a club car.
So what winds the manager up most, apart from party-going and presumptuous young players? "Just if you let yourself down on the pitch," Giggs says. "He's always worked hard and preached about working hard and however much ability you've got, you've got to still work hard for the team. If he sees a team working harder than you then he's not happy."
Perhaps a slight mellowing was evident in Ferguson's admission that Liverpool deserved to beat his team last weekend. The result added to a sense Giggs has that this year's race will be the most open in memory. "With the addition of City, Tottenham strengthening and everyone beating everyone, I think it will be closer. We went to Anfield as favourites because of the run Liverpool were on, but when a team doesn't turn up, like we didn't, they [Liverpool] can beat anybody in Europe.
"City supporters are excited and they've got reason to be with the money they've spent and the money they've been promised again. There's a buzz around the city. There was certainly the biggest buzz I've known around a derby game, because they feel they're genuine title contenders."
Were United to win for an unprecedented fourth successive season, Giggs feels the current team could reasonably claim to be the best that Ferguson has created: "I think so, for achieving something that's never been done before. To win four Leagues in a row would be an unbelievable achievement. To win three is unbelievable but because we'd done it before I don't think it was noticed as much as it should have been."
Every season, it seems, there is still something new to achieve. Take European competition, in which CSKA Moscow this week visit a United side already boasting three wins from three games in their Champions' League group. A year or so before scoring the crucial penalty against Chelsea in the Moscow final, Giggs spoke of a "burning desire" to win a second European Cup. Once burning desire is doused, what then? "For Man United to be up there with the teams that have won it five or six times," is the immediate response. "Liverpool come to mind, they won it five times, then Milan and Madrid. To be up there with the great teams."
No shortage of motivation then, but surely there are days when it all feels like hard work? "You've got to want to get out of bed and want to go and train, and once that dies you should pack it in." That, he says, is what happened to Eric Cantona: "He was 31 and I think the challenges and the motivation for training and playing had just gone. But I still get the buzz going out at Old Trafford, and at Anfield with the atmosphere and the challenge.
"For me personally it's just about enjoying it, and the last couple of years I've enjoyed more than at any time in my career."
From an enviably talented field, Giggs picks Cantona as the best he has played with: "I'd say Eric just because of the effect he had on me overall, training-wise, and as a young player seeing someone prepare like he did. I probably played with people who were just as good, like Cristiano [Ronaldo], Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Bryan Robson, but Eric for the effect he had on me at the time."
For his own best performance, a little unexpectedly, he chooses the 4-0 demolition of Porto in March 1997 ("Probably the first time I'd really played centre midfield") and as his best goal, less surprisingly, that slalom through Arsenal's defence to win the FA Cup semi-final two years later, followed by hairy-chested celebration ("I didn't realise I'd run so far or beat so many men until I got home and watched it on TV, it was just purely instinctive").
Of course, there have been disappointments along the way: two losing FA Cup finals and one in the Champions' League final last season to set alongside the victorious ones; plus at least a couple of League titles missed that could by now have given him an extraordinary 13 or 14, instead of the set honoured in the United banner at Anfield last week reading "Giggs 11, Gerrard 0". His greatest regret, however, is for his country.
Despite captaining England Schoolboys because he went to an English school, he only ever wanted to play for Wales, and was therefore condemned to share the nation's heartbreak at successive failures to qualify for a final tournament. "If we hadn't come so close it wouldn't have been such a disappointment, but we came very close twice – my first campaign for the 1994 World Cup in America and then against Russia [losing the 2003 play-off]. So it's a major disappointment that I've never enjoyed that tournament atmosphere, the build-up to it and everything that goes around it. The build-up gets you excited as a fan and I can only imagine what it's like as a player, and I'll never experience that."
Like Paul Scholes, Giggs has extended his club career both in length and quality by controversially retiring from international football, and he would like at some stage to make up for it by putting something back (see page 1). Coaching and management are currently on the back-burner, however, the "massive emphasis I put on rest, which I think is really important" hindering the time he can devote to obtaining further qualifications.
As United grant only one-year contracts to players who are aged over 30, Giggs's current deal runs out at the end of the season. "Nothing's happening at the moment, we're fairly relaxed on both sides and I'm just concentrating on the football," he said. "If I decide to carry on, then we'll talk." It does not sound a very big "if"; there's life in the old cocker spaniel yet.
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