Giggs on sweetest title, Rooney comments and his first United session
As someone who has spent 29 of his 43 years immersed in one of the most relentlessly demanding environments any sport can have ever known at Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, Ryan Giggs happily admits he’s enjoying what is actually a rare period of his life without the intense pressure that became a way of that life.
He wants to get back into management, sure, but you can see why he’s willing to wait for the right circumstances having taken the personal decision to leave Old Trafford as assistant manager in 2016.
“It’s a totally different experience to what I’ve had previously, just relax, not putting yourself under pressure,” the United legend says with a smile as he sits in a London hotel. “I’ve really enjoyed this year, getting the chance to watch my son play football, which I’ve never done before working weekends, travelling the world, playing in a few exhibition games, taking in a little bit more interest in businesses I’ve got, so busy enough. The year’s gone quick.”
One of Ferguson’s main standard-setters is getting to set a new pace to things, but it doesn’t take too long to see those eyes illuminate, as Giggs recalls exactly what those standards meant. The former captain is naturally asked about Wayne Rooney’s recent comments about it being harder to maintain the same level at United due to some of the players signed. Rather than quite agreeing or disagreeing, though, Giggs can’t really help reminiscing.
“Speaking from my own experience, you had Sir Alex, then you had the coaches, then you had the group of players, even young players like I said Wayne when he first came to the club who, day in day out, set standards on the training pitch, and I’ve known nothing different, every day wanting to win every training session, making sure that your teammates are doing the same. If you weren’t, you would tell them.
“All the teams I played in that were successful had great team spirit, whether they be kicking each other off the pitch on the training ground and having to be dragged off by the manager because someone’s going to get injured, afterwards you’re always mates.”
These are just some of the reasons Giggs became the player to win more English titles than anyone in history, and that experience feels all the more relevant at such a volatile point in that football history.
If it remains so difficult to say who will claim the Premier League next season in an era that hasn’t even seen anyone retain it since United in 2009, it means Giggs is uniquely qualified to say what it takes, what really makes the difference between so many sides with so much money.
He actually starts to think back to one of his team's own more volatile periods towards the end of that 2008-09 campaign, when they had lost successive games to Liverpool and Fulham and it really looked like Rafa Benitez’s side would reel them in amidst the most tense of run-ins. It instead led to a supreme response, with United so resolutely fighting out seven wins in a row. The seemingly serene concentration of those victories, however, actually came from a lot of anger.
“We would often have had crisis talks,” Giggs says. “‘Listen, we’re not putting up with this, we need to get better.’ It would be confrontational. With the characters that you played with, Roy [Keane], Gary Neville, myself, [Nemanja] Vidic, [Rio] Ferdinand, players who set the standards and when their teammates dropped their standards, they wanted to know why.”
It is maybe the attitude behind why he actually sees one of the sweetest title victories as the one that involved the most vindication: his last, in 2012-13, when they finished far ahead of the Manchester City side that had so sensationally beaten them in the last minute of the previous season.
“Perhaps the last one was sweet because we lost in the last second… one more second and we’d won the league, then to come back the next season, we bought [Robin] Van Persie, after such a devastating loss the season before, that was the mark of a true great team to come back after such a big disappointment.
“I think it just hurt that summer, and there’s just that determination, very often when you’ve won the league in the summer you look forward to going away on holiday and actually having rest-time, the whole of June off, and you can enjoy it. The opposite of that is if you’ve just lost the league. You’ll unwind, you’ll relax, but then quite quickly you’re [saying] ‘I want to go get back to training now and do something about it, that feeling I had, and the feeling I’ve still got.’”
It must be why his time now feels so refreshing, because there are none of these reservations; nothing weighing on his mind. The wonder is whether he has quite seen the same fire in the modern game, with its very different trappings. How many times in his last few seasons did players get dragged away from each other in training?
“Yeah, the last couple of years when I was coaching, you didn’t see any of it, so maybe it is going out of the game, but if I lost a game on a Friday I would be in a mood for the rest of the day. Do I see that now? Perhaps. Perhaps not… I think football in general is changing. Players have become more powerful, but you still need those standards.”
That’s far from the only thing that has changed from Giggs’ peak. There’s actually a strong argument that the position where he made his name, from where he first dazzled the game, doesn’t even really exist in the same way. There are very few traditional flying wingers any more.
“Yeah, I mean, I see the emergence of more attacking full-backs, obviously Chelsea last year,” Giggs says. “Also, if you see sort of the best players now, [Gareth] Bale, [Leo] Messi, [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Eden] Hazard, they all started out as wingers. Now, they’re playing more centrally, they’re searching for where the space is, and they’re very often the players that make the difference. Coaches want them to get on the ball as much as possible, whereas for a winger very often you’re waiting for the ball, for supply.
“It has gone out of the game… but it is something you always like to see, players getting to the byline, and creating crosses, because very often that’s where the space is outside.”
Given Giggs adapted to move inside himself, does he think initially playing wide was crucial to the evolution of those stars?
“When you naturally can beat players, I found it when I moved into midfield, when I took on players, I would. It’s similar to [Paul] Gascoigne, really, he was a midfielder who could take players on willingly, you don’t really get that with midfielders, and you’re up against midfielders who try to take you on in the middle of the pitch, it’s actually easier if you’ve got two ways to go, rather than if you’re stuck out on the wing.
“It’s very limited, the space, so yeah, it probably does [help], because I think you always appreciate your position if you’ve played a different position. So a centre-forward out wide or a wide man at centre-forward, you can appreciate what crosses you want, you can appreciate where the centre-forward wants the ball, so yeah, it probably has helped them.”
It leads to a little question he enjoys. If the flying 17-year-old Giggs were coming through now, in modern systems, where would he actually play?
“It’s a good question. I think it would be more in-field, I think it would be if it’s two 10s, or a number 10, or maybe it just depends on the balance of the team, do you play with someone on the right who tucks in, then you can hold the wing, it all depends on how the team plays, but say the Chelsea team, you would play in that Hazard, Pedro role, just in behind [Diego] Costa. You wouldn’t play wing-back.”
Given Giggs’ specific background, and the specific club and culture he came through, the idea of development and youth is all the more important to him. He’s actually speaking to promote the nomination stage of the People’s Awards in the McDonald’s Community Awards, whereby you can vote for figures in their community especially important to the running of clubs and just allowing kids to play - and even has his own nomination, someone he’ll always be grateful to, someone he describes as “the fabric of the game”.
“My first Sunday League team manager was a man called Dennis Schofield, who was a milkman. He was on the way home from his milk round, stopped off, seen me playing football for my primary school, watched me play, approached my mum, and said ‘I understand you’re the mum of Ryan, does he play for a team?’ ‘No, he doesn’t. ‘Can he come down for a game on Sunday? ‘Yeah he’d love to’, then my mum introduced me to Dennis, picked me up, went to the game, dropped me off, and he did that for the next two-three years, looked after me, and someone that still works to this day at Deans [Youth and Ladies FC]. He very often volunteers, not getting paid, and just my best mate, I met that Sunday. My best mate to this day, so it’s not only learning about football, you’re meeting friends as well.”
On eventually moving on to United, there was another key figure who has also done so much work at grassroots: Eric Harrison, the man who brought through the Class of 92. The former coach is sadly suffering with dementia now, but all of his old boys have been back to see him.
“I went with Scholesy, Eric was a huge influence on my career... tough,” Giggs now laughs, “like Sir Alex where he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he got that sort of miles in your legs regarding training, and playing football in the right way, and not letting you get away with anything, and also testing you every day, testing your character and that sort of kept you in good stead, the challenges for when you got into the first team. That’s what it was. It was standard.
“Coming into the first team at 15, I didn’t care for reputations, my first training session was against Viv Anderson who at the time was England right-back, and I nutmegged him. He told me in no uncertain times, 'do that again and I’ll take you out'. And I did it again. Because it’s a sort of cockiness but also a belief in your own ability, but you have to take your chance. You would see Scholesy coming into the first-team training, this little lad, booting everyone, because that’s what he did in the youth team. Sir Alex would say that, ‘listen, don’t be doing anything different, you’re in this training session because of what you did in the youth team.’”
It does beg an interesting question, especially amidst so much debate surrounding clubs like Chelsea bringing players through, and how you train young players up; how you get them ready. You ultimately have to allow a little bit of faith, a little bit of breathing space - something, ironically, the expectations of the modern game don't necessarily allow.
“Sir Alex would look at you in training, can you fit in, how do you handle the experience of playing in the first team, sort of the atmosphere of training, can you raise your level, and then you have to make mistakes, I missed… when I first came into the team, very often my crosses would hit the first man, I’d miss chances, and you would be given time, but over time you would learn from those mistakes. You have to be given the chance but, also when you are given the chance, you have to take it.”
You have to have those standards. They’re also why it feels Giggs won’t be able to keep himself out of the game too long.
Ryan Giggs is encouraging the public to nominate their grassroots football champion in the People’s Award for the 2017 McDonald’s Community Awards. To cast your vote please visit www.mcdonalds.co.uk/awards #15yearsofgrassroots