Former Deputy Editor of the Official United Magazine, Sam Pilger, has written an excellent book on United’s best ever XI. The eleven players are named and reviewed, looking at their qualities and revealing stories you probably haven’t heard before.
The left wing position in our best ever team obviously goes to Ryan Giggs. Here’s an excerpt from Best XI Manchester United:
DURING THE SUMMER of 2010, Ryan Giggs was clearing out some drawers at home when he found a Champions League winners medal, his OBE and a couple of Premier League title winners’ medals hidden in the back of one. “I had no idea they were there, I had forgotten about them,” he said.
When you are the most successful footballer in the history of the British game, it can be difficult to account for all your honours, and when I asked, Giggs wasn’t even sure how many he had won.
At the end of the 2010-11 season the correct answer was 24 winners medals from major competitions (12 Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, two Champions Leagues, one Intercontinental Cup, one FIFA Club World Cup and one European Super Cup), and when you throw in Charity Shields, and runners-up medals too, it expands to a staggering 45.
But you will find none of these medals on display at Giggs’ family house on the outskirts of Manchester; no pictures, framed shirts or mementoes either, nothing at all.
“If you walked in to my house you wouldn’t even know I was a footballer,” he said. While the Chelsea and England captain John Terry built an entire annex to his house to display his medals, including mannequins behind glass dressed in his old shirts, Giggs has never had any interest in creating such a shrine to himself, and instead donates most of his medals to be displayed at the Old Trafford museum.
“I’ve never seen the need for it really,” he told me. “I have got 50 years to go on about how much I’ve won. I’m not being blasé – I am proud of what I’ve achieved, but looking at a medal or talking about what I’ve won doesn’t do anything for me.”
For over two decades it is this lack of sentiment, combined with a fierce determination to keep on winning, that has seen Giggs enjoy a career of unprecedented success and become recognised as one of the game’s greatest ever players.
A naturally modest character, he has long been the popular face of Manchester United, which saw him, to his visible shock, become only the fifth footballer in over half a century to be voted by the public as the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year in 2009.
Giggs has the same universal appeal as Sir Bobby Charlton, who he overtook as United’s all-time appearance maker in 2008, which at the end of 2011 now stands at 889 games and counting. Earlier in 2011 Giggs was voted the greatest player in Manchester United’s history in a worldwide poll of the club’s fans.
As a testament to his longevity, he was voted the PFA Player of the Year in 2009 – at age 35, the oldest player to ever win it – a full seventeen years after he won the first of his two PFA Young Player of the Year awards in 1992.
In this time Giggs evolved from a youthful blur of energy on the left flank, beating defenders with sheer pace, into a wiser and more complete player, just as comfortable in the centre, while managing to keep most of the natural cut and thrust of his younger game.
Giggs is blessed with an extraordinary combination of pace, balance, close control, athleticism, and an instinctive and clinical finish. Ferguson has long talked about how he floated, not ran, along the wing, swaying and changing direction at speed, giving defenders, “twisted blood.”
Giggs always strived to play the game the right way. He is rarely booked, incredibly never sent off for United, and never took a dive; Ferguson has even joked he doesn’t go down enough.
It was in December 1986 that Sir Alex Ferguson first saw a 13 year-old Giggs float across a football pitch. After being tipped off by the United steward Harold Wood about a highly promising player at Deans Sports club who was training at Manchester City wearing his United shirt twice a week, he first sent his scout Joe Brown to watch
him before arranging a trial game at the Cliff training ground.
“A gold miner who has searched every part of a river or mountain and then suddenly finds himself staring at a nugget could not feel more exhilaration than I did watching Giggs that day,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. “My first sight was of him floating over the pitch so effortlessly you would have sworn his feet weren’t touching the ground. He carried his head high and looked as relaxed on the park as a dog chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.”
On Giggs’ 14th birthday, Ferguson appeared on the doorstep of his mother’s house to sign him. “I can honestly say whatever United have paid me… was justified at a stroke by securing Ryan.”
Sir Bobby Charlton was entranced the moment he saw Giggs in action, and would specially book days off work to come and watch him play for the youth teams at the Cliff.
Even though he was surrounded by the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville, it was Giggs who stood out. There were doubts about whether each of the youngsters would make it, except for Giggs. The evidence was too compelling; he was bound to be a star.
Ferguson handed Giggs a first team début at 17 as a substitute against Everton at Old Trafford in March 1991. He made his first start against Manchester City two months later, and scored the winner in a 1-0 victory, though he admits he probably didn’t get the last touch.
In his first full season, 1991-92, Giggs made an immediate impact on the left wing, dislodging the reigning PFA Young Player of the Year Lee Sharpe and winning the award himself. He retained the award in the following season as a part of the United side that became champions for the first time since 1967, providing a constant threat on the left wing and scoring 11 goals. During the summer of 1993, Ferguson turned down a bid of £10 million from AC Milan, then just short of a world record transfer fee.
His defining moment came against Arsenal on April 14 1999 in the FA Cup semifinal replay at Villa Park. On as a substitute, Giggs had been listless until the 110th minute of extra-time when he picked up a stray pass from Patrick Vieira and headed towards goal.
“It was all instinct, there was no one in front of me, so I just put my head down and went towards the goal,” Giggs told me. “There was no way I was going to pass it. I skipped past a challenge from Vieira, then Dixon and Vieira again. I was then in between Dixon and Keown, and I got past them to give me a shot at David Seaman. My thought was just to hit it as hard as I could.”
In the new millennium, with Rooney and Ronaldo the new stars of Old Trafford, Giggs held his own, scoring the decisive goal against Wigan to secure the 2008 Premier League title before scoring the winning penalty against Chelsea in the shootout in Moscow to win the Champions League.
“The purest serendipity” is how Giggs described winning the title on the day he equalled Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time appearance record in his 758th game, and then overtaking it in the very next match against Chelsea in Moscow. He has had that sort of career.
Amid the celebrations back at their hotel in the early hours of the morning after winning the Champions League, Charlton himself presented Giggs with a watch inscribed with the new record ‘759’, as his teammates sang his terrace anthems, ‘Giggs will tear you apart again’ and ‘Ryan Giggs running down the wing’.
Inside the Old Trafford dressing room, Giggs is revered by the younger players, who he hands out advice and discipline to in equal measure. “He is like a God [to them],” says Ferguson, while his teammate John O’Shea has observed, “He knows when to bring people down a peg or two with a quiet word.”
“Busby, Ferguson, Charlton and Giggs, that’s the quartet who sit at the top of this club,” Gary Neville once said. “You can separate them from everyone else with their longevity, games, and medals, and also the way they embody everything that’s great about United.”
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