Ryan Giggs: Mentor for youth and custodian of the Manchester United way
At 37, he remains a match-winner, yet the positive influences of this sensitive father figure are also evident well away from the pitch.
Unlike Roy Keane, who behaved like the de facto manager, Ryan Giggs brings a quiet paternal touch to the job of buttressing Sir Alex Ferguson's authority. Giggs is Ferguson by other means: a model and mentor for all the young men who part the doors of the club's Carrington academy wondering what the Manchester United culture is all about.
With another year on the clock, Giggs could be Javier Hernández's dad. It was with a clear familial sense that the 37-year-old looked after the new boy of 22 years by spearing through Chelsea's defence and providing the pass for Chicharito to score United's first against Chelsea in Tuesday's Champions League quarter-final second leg. This is Giggs' second, unofficial role: taking care of less experienced players, helping them to see possibilities that might be obscured by the blinding tide of events.
The game changed because Giggs decided it needed to. He sliced into the Chelsea penalty area and hit a sharp pass to the back post, where Hernández was waiting. This talent is undiminished by age. Even now he is a match-turning figure. Spatial awareness and a deep knowledge of a game's ebbs and flows allow him to calculate the right moment to strike. As Ferguson said later: "It's a great contribution. His experience and composure were vital. He's lucky in the sense that he's got the physique – he's never carried any weight – and he's got fantastic balance. That's always been his asset. And he looks after himself. To play at 37 requires tremendous sacrifice."
Revered by his team-mates (even the 1992-93 golden generation consider him their leader) Giggs is the thread that connects United's most successful teams and their best years in Champions League combat. The young Giggs danced through games. The one who turns 38 in November deconstructs them in his head and steps through the gaps with masterly precision. Loss of speed has slowed his thinking to beneficial effect. Pace has given way to poise. Longevity is wearing thin as a term to describe his Old Trafford reign.
Against Liverpool in March he surpassed Sir Bobby Charlton's club record of 606 league appearances and in the first leg against Chelsea he became the oldest United player, at 37 years and 128 days, to lace up in the Champions League, beating the elegantly immobile Laurent Blanc.
In Europe the vein of wisdom running back to 1999 is apparent in this year's quest to repeat the treble of 12 years ago. At the Camp Nou for the mother of all comebacks Giggs started on the right while Jesper Blomqvist took the slot on the left. Nine years on, in Moscow, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez presented an insurmountable barrier to selection but Giggs came on for Paul Scholes after 87 minutes and scored his spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out at the end of extra time.
While Scholes has weighed his future more than once in the last three seasons, Giggs seldom agonises. Yoga, and a light frame, still carry him over the turf without apparent effort. He never appears exhausted, perhaps because he and Ferguson have worked out a perfect schedule to conserve his energy and enable him to use it in the most productive bursts. A Giggs pass was instrumental in both United's goals on Tuesday and after the first he trotted over to the rejoicing group to remind them to return to the task and not fall prey to presumption.
"It's easier in centre midfield than on the wing, where you have to get up and down," he said after the Chelsea game, with characteristic modesty.
"Confidence is high, we're getting players back and that's what you want for the run-in. We've got games every three days now but the manager will chop and change and I'm sure he'll do it again on Saturday [against Manchester City in the FA Cup]. We've got 20 players competing for 11 places."
With a less truculent and impatient personality Keane may have exerted the kind of influence Giggs now brings to bear on recruits. Politically he sees himself as a custodian of the values the most senior players have honed in concert with Ferguson, who relies on Scholes, Giggs and Gary Neville (now retired) to teach by example and keep the trophy factory smoking.
In 20 years as a first-team pro Giggs has won 23 trophies and played in all 11 title‑winning teams. But his presence now is felt not just in posterity but through the assimilation (call it indoctrination, if you prefer) of the young colleagues who have to learn what it means to wear the United shirt.
This secondary role is carried out with sensitivity and intelligence. But without his lock-picking talents in the game itself he would be watching all this from a bench. Damage is still the main priority.