Giggs: An incredible 20 years at the top

Head of Sport PAUL ABBANDONATO reflects on an incredible 20-year anniversary in the top flight for Wales and Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs...

SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS first hit the big screen as the infamous Hannibal Lecter, Queen were No.1 with Bohemian Rhapsody, Nelson Mandela had just got out of jail.

The internet didn’t exist, virtually no-one owned a mobile phone... and Ryan Giggs made his debut for Manchester United.

Yes, it really was that far into the distant past,

But on Wednesday, appropriately just 24 hours after St David’s Day, Giggs will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of his bow on the big football stage.

You have to go way back to Saturday March 2, 1991, for the afternoon a scrawny-looking Giggs first came to public attention – as a second-half substitute for Denis Irwin in a 2-0 defeat to Everton at Old Trafford in the old Division One.

Fully two decades on, carrying only a modicum more weight, Giggs still looks fresh as a daisy, continuing to display football of the very highest quality as he helps drive United’s quest for a Premier League-UEFA Champions League double in 2011.

To put Giggs’ 20-year service into football context, perhaps it should be pointed out that on the day he made his debut there were only two substitutes permitted, goalkeepers could pick up back passes and United had not won the League for 24 years.

Oh, and Gareth Bale, who Giggs went on to play next to with Wales, was a mere one-year-old.

Giggs was 17 years and 93 days old when he was sent into the fray by plain old Alex Ferguson, as he was back then, to try to rescue a two-goal deficit against Everton.

The Welsh wing wizard didn’t manage to weave his magic that day. But what followed speaks for itself.

A record 11 Premier League titles, four FA Cup winners’ medals, three League Cup and two UEFA Champions League titles.

Throw in the odd European Super Cup triumph. the World Club Cup, Intercontinental Cup, Charity Shields and runners-up gongs, and Giggs has won an astonishing 48 top medals, a figure no-one else remotely comes near.

Also lob in the OBE, a record number of appearances for the world’s biggest club and places in the PFA Team of the Century, FA Cup Team of the Century and Premier League X1 of the decade and you can see we’re not talking about any ordinary footballer here.

Shortly after that United debut, Giggs played for Wales youth versus England at Yeovil.

He was being dubbed the new George Best at the time and although Wales lost 3-0, the English players to a man were asking afterwards: “Who the heck was that Wales No.11?”

It was as close to one man versus the rest as I’ve seen in my years of covering football. Perhaps that embryonic moment proved a foretaste of what was to come for Giggs at senior international level.

Anyway, back to March 2, 1991. For the record, the United team that spring day read as follows: Les Sealey; Denis Irwin, Mal Donaghy, Gary Pallister, Lee Martin; Clayton Blackmore, Darren Ferguson, Paul Ince, Lee Sharpe; Brian McClair, Danny Wallace. Subs: Ryan Giggs, Russell Beardsmore.

Anyone who saw a young Giggs knew there was a very special Welsh talent emerging, but few could have forecast he would have had such an impact over such an incredible period of time.

Yet despite the fame and the millions, Giggs remains as down to earth today as he was as a shy teenager back then.

Just listen to this tale from the other day.

“I was clearing out a drawer at home and found my 2008 Champions League medal and a couple of Premier League winners’ medals. I had no idea they were even there. I had forgotten about them,” he smiles.

“I’m obviously very proud of everything I have achieved and, I guess, when I’m older I will look back upon it with more of a sense of perspective.

“But for the time being the only thing that matters is the next trophy, not any I’ve won in the past.

“In fact, if you walked into my house you wouldn’t even know I’m a footballer. There’s nothing like that on display.

“I give most of my medals to the club to put in the museum at Old Trafford. Better for them to be seen, I suppose, than tucked away at the bottom of a drawer.

“As I say, I’ve got plenty of time when I’ve retired to go on about how much I’ve won. Looking at a medal, or talking about it, doesn’t do anything for me.”

That just about sums up Giggs to a tee. There has never been the slightest air of arrogance, aloofness or ‘I am’ about him.

He was given a great upbringing and remains humble, feet planted firmly on the ground.

“I was aware from an early age I could do a lot more. OK! magazine, go to parties etc,” said Giggs.

“But I’ve never been that sort of character. I always went out locally with my mates, the people I had grown up with.

“Footballers never used to be on the front page of newspapers, but these days it happens so much.

“I tended to be left alone back then, but there is so much money in the game today and there just seem to be stories sold the whole time.

“Poor Wayne Rooney has a photographer outside his house every day assigned just to him. Luckily that never happened to me.”

So, having just signed yet another new contract with United, how does Giggs himself believe he has lasted the test of time?

“Funnily enough, Wales’ failures to reach World Cups or European Championships may have helped me in that respect,” said Giggs.

“I’ve no regrets in my career, as such, but getting to one of those finals with my country is the one thing that I really do wish had happened.

“We were so close against Romania when Terry Yorath was in charge back in 1993 and then against Russia in the Euros in 2003, but I guess it just wasn’t to be.

“Were they the low points of my career? Yes. Without doubt.

“But I suppose resting my body every summer, just chilling out on a beach, when so many of my United team-mates were preparing for and playing in hard international football tournaments has helped me play on down the years.

“Likewise, quitting international football a few years back, which enabled me to focus fully on my club career. That was a really hard decision to make, but I can see the rewards of it.

“Resting during the 10-day international get-togethers helps me shake off any knocks and recover properly for the next United game.

“I also like to think I’ve looked after myself down the years, have eaten and done the right things, and that’s had an impact.

“What has also helped is that my hunger has never waned. I want to win trophies these days as much as I always did. I’ve been at my happiest in my thirties and played some of my best football.

“You are thought to be past it at 30. Have one bad game and people say ‘Well he’s over 30’. I never wanted to be judged like that. If anything, my game has changed for the better. It’s still based on instinct, but I make a lot less rash decisions than I used to. Perhaps the season after next I will finally call it a day. But for the time being I just want to carry on.

“People tell me I’ve got 11 Premier League medals.

“Well, if I’m going to be greedy, I’d like to get that figure into the teens before I hang up my boots.”

Knowing Giggs, you wouldn’t want to bet against it.

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