Ryan Giggs has won 13 Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, four League Cups and two Champions Leagues. He has scored 168 goals in 951 games for Manchester United, and yet he was busy working out how he could deal with his mother’s text requesting “five tickets for Sunday”. It’s Cardiff City, the place of his birth. “It’s emotional,” he said.
Giggs turned 40 on Friday. “It’s just another day,” he said.
It is a remarkable landmark but it is still all about the next game for Giggs.
“It’s what I’m used to. I’ve been doing it for 22 years.”
“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.”
Now a player-coach, Giggs is sitting in a side room at Carrington, still lean, still defying time, still shaped by his schoolboy days. “I was a stand-off at rugby league playing against props physically bigger than me. That helped make me able to take the battering. 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.
“This Sheffield United right-back was kicking me 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. He had that authority. Him and Brucey [Steve Bruce] were brilliant for me.
“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 those sort of players still like Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and John Terry.”
But not enough. That ‘94 team had Eric Cantona. “Because Eric had that aura, and 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. 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 have 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.”
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 — ‘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 to Cristiano 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. That Juventus side of Boksic and Del Piero were like us, powerful and quick, but the Barcelona team who beat us at Wembley were the best I played against. They had Lionel Messi, the best I’ve seen. 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. “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. He’s grounded and he’s at the right club,” he says.
“The running theme here is strong mentality. Robin [van Persie] is world class. He would sometimes not have great games last year but he’d score the winner. Similar to Eric. Give him the ball. 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 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?’”
A one-word message comes through from David Moyes: “Bikes.” It is time for Giggs to return to training, to that fight against time. Asked about his birthday celebrations, he says: “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.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013
Factfile on Manchester United midfielder Ryan Giggs, who celebrated his 40th birthday on Friday:
Name: Ryan Joseph Giggs (born Ryan Joseph Wilson)
Date of birth: November 29, 1973
Place of birth: Cardiff, Wales
Position: Left-winger/central midfielder
Club: Manchester United (1990-date)
Debut: March 2, 1991 (v Everton, Manchester)
National team: Wales (1991-2007)
Debut: October 16, 1991 (v Germany, Nuremberg)
Last appearance: June 2, 2007 (v Czech Republic, Cardiff)
Olympic team: Great Britain (2012)
Premier League (13): 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2002-03, 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2012-13
FA Cup (4): 1993-94, 1995-96, 1998-99, 2003-04
League Cup (3): 1991-92, 2005-06, 2008-09
Community Shield (9): 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013
UEFA Champions League (2): 1998-99, 2007-08
UEFA Super Cup (1): 1991
Intercontinental Cup (1): 1999
FIFA Club World Cup (1): 2008
PFA Young Player of the Year: 1991-92, 1992-93
PFA Players’ Player of the Year: 2008-09
BBC Sports Personality of the Year: 2009