Over the past couple of weeks us United fans have been invited to take a trip down memory lane and look back at Sir Alex’s glorious tenure at the helm of the world’s most famous football club with the unveiling of a statue of the great man outside Old Trafford. I’m trying to ignore the fact it looks more like Bruce Rioch dressed as a sexual predator; it’s a lovely sentiment. With a stand also named after him, it hopefully re-affirms the affection Manchester United’s fans have towards the most successful manager British football has ever seen. The man is a phenomenon, absolutely unique.
It also saw the return of several legendary ex-players for the occasion, not least Eric Cantona. Apparently it’s now 20 years since he arrived at the club and shaped the early glory days of Ferguson’s tenure. He is another unique character who quite simply changed the team and moulded the character of the club for many years to come. He was more than a player, he was a presence. Who wouldn’t want to be on the same team as King Eric? Collar up, chest puffed out. He made that very good team a winning team, introducing a swagger and a belief that they belonged at the top of English and eventually European football. The players I typically love and admire are the workhorses, the fearless competitors. My personal favourites moved from Robson to Keane and most recently to Fletcher. However, even I realise their work ethic and endeavour only gets you so far. Cantona didn’t have to cover every blade of grass on the pitch. He didn’t tackle, he didn’t track back, and I didn’t hold it against him one bit. He was a joy to watch, when he got the ball, time stood still. He was a genius and a winner, and he left us all wanting more. I have never enjoyed watching football more than the 5 seasons Cantona invigorated the team.
We’ve also had the privilege of watching other players who will undoubtedly go down in history alongside the likes of Best, Law and Charlton. Peter Schmeichel is still the goalkeeper others aspire to be. Jaap Stam was a destroyer who took years to even come close to replacing. Paul Scholes has arguably been the very best midfield player of his generation. Someone called Zinedine Zidane said in 2010 “You rarely come across the complete footballer, but Scholes is as close to it as you can get”. David Beckham further enhanced the global notoriety of the club by being first a great player, and secondly a mainstream worldwide celebrity. Cristiano Ronaldo is probably the greatest talent English football has ever cultivated, and despite leaving for Real Madrid aged just 24, he is comfortably one of the best players to ever play for the club. I personally never really grew to like him, but that’s for another day’s debate.
I could go on for quite some time about the giants of the game that have come and gone over the years, but surely the greatest of them all must be Ryan Giggs? The most decorated player in English football history with 33 major trophies to his name; 919 career appearances for his one and only club, giving him by some distance the all-time appearance record; the only player to have scored in every season since the Premier League began; PFA Young Player of the Year 1991-92 and 1992-93; PFA Player’s Player of the Year 2008-09 aged 36; most goals by a British player in Champions League history. It can be said with virtual certainty that these feats will never be repeated. Giggs has evolved from a flying winger into a creative central midfielder. His level of performance over his entire career has been the definition of consistency. He has been a permanent fixture in the side since Fergie won his first league title, and he is still going to this day.
The peculiar thing is, he doesn’t top my list of favourite United players. Being honest, he doesn’t even make my top ten.
I’ve just gone back to re-read his list of accomplishments. He is a phenomenal player, a part of the furniture at a club that generally spares no thought for sentiment when you are past your best. Why is he not my all-time favourite?
I’ve had to think about the answer to that. I’d like to say it’s a moral stand in light of the revelations about his sexually promiscuous private life, but it’s not. Truthfully, as long as he did the business on the pitch I wouldn’t really care if he shagged as many sheep as his Welsh ancestors. If I only liked players who had a strong moral backbone, I’d probably have fallen out of love with the game the day Gavin Peacock retired.
I’m not the only fan who apparently undervalues Giggs. I only know one fan that actually has an active dislike for Giggs and I still don’t understand why – just an irrational hatred since childhood. Fans in general hold him in high esteem, I’m just not convinced he’s revered in the way Raul is at Madrid, or Del Piero is at Juventus.
A period of self-confessed patchy form around the 2002-03 season didn’t help. He is quoted as saying “I remember back in 2003 I was getting a bit of stick and that wasn’t enjoyable. It was the first time I’d experienced it, so to win the league and end the season so strong was pleasing for me. It meant I’d got through it”. I remember he was strongly linked with a move to Inter Milan around that time, and maybe some sections of the fan base thought his head had been turned and his heart wasn’t in it, as he also picked up his share of injuries. Maybe it was a defence mechanism because the thought of one of our own wanting to leave hurt so deeply. The Old Trafford crowd are generally supportive of their own players, but the one sure-fire way to get them on your back is to give them a whiff of a lack of loyalty and respect for the club. There is no question now that this was not the case, but sometimes these impressions can stick in the fan’s collective mind.
He certainly recovered his form after that brief spell, and evolved into a more rounded player, as he acknowledges himself: “Since I turned 30 I’ve been more consistent. During my 20s the odd game I played probably better than I do now but consistently, over the season, I’ve got better the older I’ve got”. In the last few seasons he has provided the maturity and composure in central midfield that some of the young pretenders have lacked. The experience he brought to the team was crucial, and has caused Ferguson to continue to use the ageing limbs of Giggs and Scholes in the games where he really needs players he can trust on the big occasions. The temperament of Giggs has made him a leader and a talisman.
I would suggest that a large part of the reason Ryan Giggs is not quite revered the way that he perhaps should be is because we take him for granted. We are just so used to him being there it’s hard to imagine anything different. Personally, I’ve never known Manchester United without Ryan Giggs. He’s like my mother – I know I can always rely on her, no matter how I treat her she will always be there for me. She also does a spot of yoga.
Maybe we’ll only appreciate just how good a player Ryan Giggs is and was once he’s gone. A significant amount of fans are calling for him to retire straight away due to a perceived drop in his level of performance this season. A quick trawl of a United fan’s forum and I found this entry: ‘All Giggs does now is pick up his pay check. Basically, he is being selfish by continuing to play and be awful. Retire Giggsy. I’m starting to resent the guy, I’ll be honest’. Shamefully, I must admit that I feared the worst when I saw him lining up alongside Michael Carrick to face Norwich at Carrow Road. Understandably at 39 years of age, his opportunities for starting in the first team are becoming more limited, but calling for his retirement is out of line. His worth to the squad is, in my opinion, still unquestionably there. He has had a couple of bad games this season, mainly when employed in an immobile central midfield pairing. In my humble opinion, he still has the ability to read a game and unlock defences when played in a formation that accommodates him, or making an impact from the bench.
Football fans can have remarkably short memories. It is unlikely we will ever have a player like Ryan Giggs again. A genuine fan playing for his local team, in an age when players are increasingly mercenaries who play for the highest bidder. They don’t make them like Ryan Giggs any more, and we need to enjoy and revere him while we still can – he’ll be a long time retired.
Hopefully there’s space beside the statue of Sir Alex, because there will never be a more deserving player to stand alongside him. I think I may have talked Ryan Giggs into my all-time top ten. Give us one more year Giggsy!