Ryan Giggs: The perfect athlete

Serial record-breaker Ryan Giggs has topped 900 appearances for United – so how does he do it, and just how long can he prolong his incredible career?

Four years have passed since journalists and statistical devotees were cautiously calculating whether or not Ryan Giggs would be able to pass Sir Bobby Charlton’s longstanding club record of 758 United appearances.  He did, of course, in Moscow, on  a gloriously romantic, rain-sodden night worthy of the sappiest sepia – and promptly used that landmark  as a launchpad, rather than a curtain call. A year on Giggs was named PFA Player of the Year and BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and Premier League titles in 2008/09 and 2010/11 have taken his personal haul of league winner’s medals to a round dozen.

Eight days after Giggs broke Sir Bobby’s record, the latter was immortalised in bronze as part of  the ‘United Trinity’ statue on the Old Trafford forecourt. This season,  Giggs has passed the combined 874 appearances racked up by the Trinity’s other members – Denis Law and George Best – with his influence showing no sign of waning over time.

The 38-year-old marked his 900th appearance for the Reds, at Carrow Road last month, in a fashion that showcased all his virtues. After an hour on the left wing, Giggs moved into a central, support-striker role and, when Norwich equalised, he snatched the baton. After creating two openings that were spurned, the Welshman anticipated Ashley Young’s stoppage-time cross perfectly, turning one point into three and fuelling United’s title charge.

Giggs’s longevity has allowed him time to master the founding principles of the game – intelligence, awareness, resilience, movement, touch and vision. Balancing mental and physical strength, he expresses himself with sophistication and incisiveness;  even approaching his fifth decade, the Welshman remains a key component in United’s armoury.

Tony Strudwick, the Reds’ head of fitness and conditioning, is in no doubt of the veteran’s standing: “In any sport you get individuals – like Michael Jordan in basketball, Lance Armstrong in cycling, even Steve Redgrave in rowing – who move their sport on to another level through the longevity of their career.

“They’re all great athletes and Ryan is just the perfect football athlete. He has a physical capacity that not many athletes possess. We look at running economy, which measures how efficient you are with your running, and his running economy is fantastic. He uses less energy per stride, so he’s a smoother, more efficient athlete. That allows him to get through the number of games he has.

“On top of that, undoubtedly,  what differentiates Ryan from a lot  of athletes is his mental strength.  Nothing fazes him. His mental strength, particularly at key moments of games, can be match-winning for us. And that makes him the go-to guy when we’re under pressure. That’s like Jordan or Redgrave. Under pressure, in a team environment, it’s ‘Give me the ball and I’ll do it’, like Ryan did against Norwich.”

The astuteness of Giggs on the field is matched by his wily management off it. While Sir Alex, Strudwick and the rest of the Carrington coaching staff painstakingly plan the 38-year-old’s best deployment, it’s a process galvanised by the player’s accord.

“You have to accept that, when  you hit a threshold like Ryan, it  takes you longer to recover from games,” says Strudwick. “Ryan spends longer in recovery than the average 21- or 22-year-old. That’s  just common sense. With the way  the coaching department and  medical department are set up,  we’re quite flexible in our individual requirements. You make it bespoke for Ryan, what works for him.

“Ryan is engaged and involved  in that process. There’s a little bit  of negotiating between coach and athlete and manager, and again I think because we’re all – the technical, physical and medical coaches – buying into the same process, it becomes more flexible and fluid. If  he needs to do a yoga session rather than go out and train, that’s fine.

“He doesn’t miss much training. We have the capacity for him to have  a lighter recovery day, but he still trains. What he has managed to do  is create an environment around himself that allows him to perform. With the appropriate diet and nutrition he ensures that he lives  well and eats well. He knows his requirements and what his body’s feeling. That’s how top athletes manage themselves appropriately.

“He’s also got such a synergistic relationship with the manager, where the manager knows when he should pull Ryan and give him a rest (which he does), and he knows when to keep playing him. There’s that level of trust between manager and athlete.”

That relationship has been fed by each man’s inherent drive over more than two decades at Manchester United. While Sir Alex is known for being the first man up the Carrington path each morning, Giggs is always among the last to traipse off the training field , with experience teaching the Welshman that small margins make big differences.

“You have players who come in  and train, and those – like Ryan –  who come in and practise,” says Strudwick. “I didn’t have the pleasure of working with Eric Cantona, but those who did, have said it was the same with him; he’d come in and practise. Those who do – Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Giggs – come in, grab a bag of balls, and they’ll work on their game.

“Practice is a bit more cerebral –even at his age, Ryan will still be there practising his free-kicks at the end of training… he’s still there working on his game. If he isn’t happy with his delivery or crosses after a game, he’ll come in the following week and work on them. The environment is there for him, but it’s that desire and hunger to still want to improve. He’s still in the performance phase of his career and  I don’t see any slowing of his game.”

Speculation surrounding Giggs’s future has soundtracked his stroll through his thirties but, with another year’s extension freshly tacked on to his rolling contract, the finishing line is still over the horizon. Perhaps, rather than strain to see an end point, it would be more prudent to simply sit back and savour Ryan Giggs’s enduring excellence. As he has been demonstrating for years, the boundaries of time have limited power when it comes to greatness.