Ryan Giggs still seeks perfection as he prepares for Cardiff return ahead of 40th
Welsh icon enters his fifth decade determined to improve his game and set the standard at Old Trafford
The man who has won 13 Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, fourLeague Cups and two Champions Leagues, who has scored 168 goals in 951 games for Manchester United, is busy working out how he can deal with his mother’s text requesting “five tickets for Sunday”. It’sCardiff City, the place of his birth. “It’s emotional," Giggs admits. And next Friday, he turns 40. “It’s just another day," Giggs says.
It’s a remarkable landmark but it’s still all about the next game for Giggs. “It’s sad because as a footballer you don’t really take a lot of it in with birthdays and Christmas. Usually you’re in training. Christmas Day I’ll be in a hotel in Hull. It’s what I’m used to. I’ve been doing it for 22 years."
He’s still driven. “I’m always trying to improve myself, never settling for playing just well. Constantly, every season, I’m questioning the sports scientists and coaches so I can get better. I know the feeling of letting myself down and not producing on a Saturday and I always want to prepare myself to play well.
“I’ve never been one to think ‘that was good’. I’m always looking forward. We finish a game, and it’s ‘right, great result, who’ve we got Wednesday? Get yourself ready for Wednesday’. I probably don’t get to enjoy football as much as I could. I enjoy it for a split second, then I’m on to the next game.
“I still get angry in the dressing-room. I’ll shout. I’m a moaner. If someone’s made a mistake, I’ll let them know – ‘what were you thinking?’ - because I feel that’s my job. I hope they learn from that. It made me stronger when Bryan Robson and the others did it to me when I was starting out. I remember sitting on the coach, thinking ‘this is the end of the world, the Gaffer [Alex Ferguson] has had a go at me, we’ve just got beaten and I’ve missed a chance and he’s not going to play me next week’. Robbo would come up and say: ‘Don’t listen to him, you’re young, you’ll make mistakes, just come back the next game’.
“This has been the perfect club for me, the perfect manager, giving young players a chance. He recognised the history of the club and could foresee young players playing in the first team from seeing them in the youth team. ‘Just do what you’ve been doing in the youth team,’ he told me."
Now a player-coach, Giggs is sitting in a side-room at Carrington, still lean, still defying time. He has only really noticed the passing years through watching his children, Libby and Zach, “growing up really quick, physically and with their personalities”. He continues: “Zach plays football. I try to do as much as I can with him, get in the garden, play with him. It’s hard work! Thank God for granddad! He takes over the coaching! Zach’s at a United Academy, goes once a week on a Friday, plays with school on a Saturday.
“I don’t want him playing matches at the moment. I just want him to enjoy it. He’s seven. I was playing with my mates until 13-14 at Salford Boys. I said to some of the lads [coaches] here at the Academy: ‘I don’t want him playing in games until he’s 10’. They said: ‘The problem with that is he’ll be playing catch-up with lads who’ve done it since five or six.’ I got that. It’s a balance. They do great stuff at all the club Academies now.
“I played every sport which I’m encouraging my kids to do. Zach plays football, tennis. My daughter does horse riding, dancing, netball, lacrosse, cross-country. I loved every sport and that helped me with my football. I was a stand-off at rugby league playing against props physically bigger than me. That helped make me able to take the battering. When I started out, a defender would want to put his marker down early on. They’d be allowed a free hit by the refs. My first game [in 1991] I came on up front against Everton and Dave Watson went right through the back of me. I wasn’t intimidated physically even though I wasn’t a Wayne Rooney at 18 where he was built strong.
“This Sheffield United right-back was kicking me in one game, giving me a few verbals and it affected me a little bit. I said to Robbo: ‘That right-back’s just said he’s going to break my legs.’ Robbo said: ‘Did he? You come and play centre-midfield. I’m going to play left wing for 10 minutes.’ We swapped positions. Robbo soon came back: ‘Aye, you’re all right now, go back over’. Problem solved! I had this mentality that if Robson was playing we’d never lose. We usually won. He had that authority. He’d tell me when I was not passing enough or dribbling too much. Him and Brucey [Steve Bruce] were brilliant for me.
“I’ve just been in Dubai and saw Brucey. That ‘94 side had characters, men. It had power and pace. We’d football you to death, we’d fight you to death, it didn’t really matter to us, we’d beat you. We had players like Incey [Paul Ince] who’d drag the team over the finishing line, just immense. There are definitely fewer leaders now. I’m doing my Pro-licence and we talk about the game missing characters like Tony Adams, Robbo, Brucey, Keane - leaders. There are still those sort of players like Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and John Terry." But not enough.
That '94 team had Eric Cantona. “Because Eric had that aura, and obviously with what he did on the pitch, everyone from the outside looked at him as completely different but within the dressing-room, he was one of the lads. Brucey, Keany, Incey would all take the mick out of him just like any other team-mate."
Cantona helped develop a United generation. “If you’re an apprentice coming off the pitch, and you see Cantona practising his volleys and shooting, you think ‘he’s a top player, he wants to stay at the top, so you still practise’. But the likes of Beckham, Neville, Scholes, Butt were already doing that. It wasn’t a case where everyone went home and didn’t train until they saw Eric. It was built in us from Eric Harrison that you practise, practise, practise. My crossing was crap when I was younger. I wanted to improve my crossing."
Crosses rained in from Giggs on the left, soon from David Beckham on the right. “Beckham was mentally strong as well as a great player. In ‘98, ‘99, 2000, he was definitely top three in the world. How many players tried to keep him on his left foot? Still he would get a yard and whip it in on to the head of Yorkey, Coley or Teddy."
For all the spotlight on Beckham, his United team-mates kept him grounded. “It was probably similar to Eric. Becks was in the right place. We’d take the mick out of him. We’d go to grounds where there would be banners with ‘I Love You David’ and we’d say ‘Becks, we can’t go anywhere’. After the ‘98 World Cup [dismissal], we’d say: ‘I’m not sitting next to you on the coach, I’m not walking out with you from the coach. You go out and then we’ll come after!’ For him, it was relaxing. ‘I’m with my mates’." Giggs had a close-up of the decline of Beckham’s relationship with Ferguson, particularly the flying boot. “I was right next to him! It whizzed past me."
Giggs talks of others he has played with and against. “We’d have shooting sessions with Wales. Neville Southall was like Peter Schmeichel. He’d be laughing as he punched shots away from the top corner - ‘You’re not going to beat me today!’ Ian Rush impressed me with the little diagonal runs and the finishing. He was like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, right foot, left foot, bottom corner. Gareth Bale’s similar toCristiano Ronaldo: power, physique, exciting.
“Paolo Montero and Ciro Ferrara of Juventus were the toughest defenders I played against. It was: ‘The ball might go past us but you’re not’. It was old school. I remember at Old Trafford once, starting out on the right, cutting in, beating two Juventus players and I could see Montero. I cut inside him and he just lifted his leg up and I went flying. I looked up and he was just jogging back. It was nothing to him. I don’t think he even got booked.
“That Juventus side of Alen Boksic and Alessandro Del Piero were like us, powerful and quick. I loved going toe to toe with them. They weren’t into a slow build-up. They were such a ‘British’ side really, and you’re probably seeing an emergence of that now with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund - power and skill as well.
“But the Barcelona team who beat us at Wembley were the best I played against. They had Lionel Messi, the best I’ve seen. Diego Maradona is my favourite because I’ve great memories of him growing up: left foot, great balance, getting kicked, doing it in World Cups. I have a special feeling for Maradona. With Messi, you can say ‘keep him on his right foot’, but he always seems to get on his left foot. He’s just brilliant. You can’t kick him. You can’t rattle him. He just gets on with it.
“You could probably wind Cristiano up. He’s been rattled a few times. I do feel for him being at the same time as Messi but in my eyes he’s still a phenomenon, a brilliant talent. He’s done it in Portugal, in England and now in Spain. He’s not a Clive Allen or Tony Cottee. He’s not a goal-hanger. He’s a dribbler, a talented player, powerful, and just scores so many goals. When I take free-kicks, I try to spin it so it curves away from the keeper. Ronaldo hits the ball head on with no spin so the ball moves from side to side and the keeper doesn’t know where it’s going.
“The top players – Messi, Ronaldo - ride the tackles. We are seeing it here with [Adnan] Januzaj. He’s slightly built, but he can ride tackles. He has that potential to be a top player. You don’t want to get too excited over him but he’s grounded and he’s at the right club."
He watches Januzaj float past tackles as he did. “I’ve never been caught with that many bad tackles. It’s instinct; you just ride the tackle." Giggs himself was a noted tackler, arriving at speed to nick the ball. “It was like a slide tackle from the side. I used to let them go past me, knowing I could catch them. The problem now is I can’t catch them!
“The art of tackling has changed. Players look for fouls now because they know they’re going to get them. You have to be careful. It’s still full on in training; we still clatter into each other, no shin-pads. Never! You get an eight-a-side, one team’s up and starting to take the p--- and the other team starts smashing them. It could be Wayne, it used to be Scholesy more often than not! Scholesy would just take someone out. In matches, he just wanted to let people know he was about. If you ask Scholesy he genuinely thinks he’s a good tackler. ‘I just mis-time it now and again.’ It wasn’t ‘I’ll dip my toe in.’ It was the way he would sprint up to it: sometimes he got the ball, sometimes he didn’t."
He needed watching. “Sometimes you go out at training, need the toilet, and just nip into the bushes but you have to think: ‘Where’s Scholesy? Has he got a ball?’ He’d try and hit you. Usually Gaz Neville got it." There was always the feeling that Scholes was not properly appreciated by England. “Well, here he was. We built a team around him; he had the ideal partners, Butt, Keane, next to him. They were brilliant for him.
“The running theme here is strong mentality. Robin [van Persie] is world-class. It gave us a lift when he came. From the first moment in training, when he got the ball, it was ‘yes, he’s a player’. He would sometimes not have great games last year but he’d score the winner. Similar to Eric. Give him the ball. I always used to think that at Arsenal ‘why is your centre-forward taking the corners?’ He came to us and we had our best return, scoring from corners last year.
“Wayne’s like Cristiano – a powerful, brilliant goalscorer, turning and running at players. He’s fit, hungry and happy. He’s phenomenal." When Rooney was unsettled in the summer, Giggs talked to him. “I’m the sort of person where I give people their space and respect them but I let him know I wanted him to stay: ‘This is the place for you. Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record is in your sights. That’s an unbelievable record. Do you really not want to take that chance?"
Rooney has stayed but the game continues to change. “The big problem I have is we’d get on the coach and talk about the game [in the past]. You rarely talk about the game now. You ask all the older pros. The younger players now are straight on the phone, Twitter, whatever. When I first started, Paul Parker was probably the only one with a mobile - a big brick! You’d talk about the game, good or bad. I wouldn’t say it’s had an effect on the team spirit. There’s always been a good team spirit here. Sometimes they’re all linked up on the coach, all playing computer games against each other, so there’s a bit of team spirit there. You get on the plane for European trips, and the lads are playing Call Of Duty, six v six. So there’s banter there, and they talk about it for the rest of the day.
“I could never see myself on Twitter. Players are human. If you’re going to get some stick it’s going to affect you. If it’s in the paper you don’t have to read it. If you’ve got to be on Twitter so many times a day you’ve got to look at the abuse which can’t be nice.
“In Europe for some reason I get a really good reception, no matter where I go. I get it in Italy. I’ve had it from Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid fans. I was in London the other week and a cabbie said: ‘I’m aWest Ham fan but you’re my favourite player.’ West Ham! Where any United team get abused! I’d love to point him out in the crowd and say ‘you’re abusing me now!’ I hear a lot more [remarks in matches] as I get older, taking corners, hearing the odd funny one and I chuckle to myself. ‘You’re finished’. ‘Too old’. ‘Get your walking stick out!’ Liverpool aren’t too bad actually. I hope they respect me. I respect Liverpool. I’ve always thought Anfield was the toughest game. United fans respect someone like Gerrard. Generally, footballing fans appreciate good players."
His style of play draws admiration. So does a good disciplinary record; he has been sent off only once, for Wales. “I got fined for [the dispute between] Martin Keown versus Van Nistelrooy. I was sticking up for Ruud! He got away with it!"
A one-word message comes through from David Moyes: “Bikes". It’s time for Giggs to return to training, to that fight against time. Surely, he will mark his 40th? “I celebrated it early. I went away last month with family and friends, 30 of us, to Gleneagles." And then? Back on with focusing on the next game.
That means Cardiff this Sunday. “I never thought it would happen that I’d play at Cardiff. For me to play in my home city, and hopefully start, it would be brilliant. It’s emotional. I’ve had texts all week. My mum texted me today: ‘I need five tickets for Sunday’. ‘Oh, all right! OK!’ It’s great." Another day, another challenge.