For Manchester United fans of my generation, this week we experienced the end of an era. It was a day of conflicting emotions, with the appointment of Louis van Gaal, a man who clearly possesses the qualities demanded of the manager of this great club, a cause for celebration, but tainted with an enormous pang of sadness at the retirement of, arguably, the club’s greatest servant, Ryan Giggs, who finally called time on his most glittering of playing careers.
Giggs’ announcement reminded such as me that time waits for no man, that all good things must come to an end, and left me in reflective mood as the sun went down at the end of another day.
What is it that makes football so special? What is it that brings the hordes of people, from every class, creed and culture, back, week after week, come rain or shine, to the stadiums that house their heroes? That parts so many of us with our hard-earned cash and drives us to tears of rage, regret and unbridled joy? Why do so many of us fall in love with this beautiful, simple game?
There are many answers but, chief among them, surely, is the thrill of watching someone do what the vast majority of us can only dream of. To witness a fellow human excelling at the sport we love.
As a thirty-something Manchester United supporter, I have been truly spoiled during the Sir Alex Ferguson era. The Scot oversaw a quarter of a century of almost constant success. Yet success at Manchester United would mean little if the football on show was anything but thrilling, and Ferguson acquired the requisite players, whether through the transfer market or the youth academy, on the whole, to provide such thrills.
For a time, as a young boy, Lee Sharpe was my idol. He was fast, strong and full of youthful exuberance. I had the footballing equivalent of a crush on Sharpe, but it was only when a seventeen year old, floppy-haired Ryan Giggs burst onto the scene that I found true love.
Giggs was a revelation. He made everything seem possible. He was the player every United fan wanted to be in every playground and on every playing field and every street throughout the land. He was the name that rolled off the tongue when young boys like me were asked who their favourite footballer was. Just the mere mention of his shirt number when the teams were announced at Old Trafford was enough to send shivers down the spine. Twenty three years on, when he emerged from the Old Trafford tunnel as interim manager of the only club he’s ever truly known, those same shivers tingled once again.
Giggs has torn team after team apart during that time. Over the years, he has inevitably had to tweak his game to suit his years, a feat he succeeded in with incredible aplomb.
Yet it was that young, slight, slaloming snip of a teenager that remains one of the most enduring, exhilarating footballing sights in living memory. Manchester United fans have been blessed with some staggeringly talented players during the intervening years since the Welshman made his debut, but none had the ability to get the heart racing like him, except, perhaps, Cristiano Ronaldo in his pomp.
There are so many performances, so many goals, so many assists, so many memories but, of course, that goal in the 1998/99 FA Cup semi-final replay, against Arsenal, remains the stand-out moment in Ryan Giggs’ illustrious playing career. This is not only because the run and goal itself was a thing of outstanding beauty and technique; a few glorious moments of sheer, unadulterated footballing fantasy. It was also the absolute epitome of what made Giggs great; the perfect goal for him to score because it summed up everything that had made us fans fall in love with him from the beginning. Fearlessness; pace; balletic movement; and shoulder-dropping, defender-bamboozling brilliance. The ability to leave the opposition spinning dizzily in dismay and draw gasps of wonder from the crowd. In short, the very qualities that had led to comparisons with Manchester United’s most timeless legend: George Best.
Some people come to love football in later life, appreciating it for the teamwork, tactics and, indeed, beauty. Yet it is as a child, when your life is stretched out before you and anything still seems possible, when you witness a player bring, not just football, but poetry, art and music to life out on the lush, green turf; who makes your heart sing and your soul soar and your imagination run wild, so that football seeps into your sinews and begins to coarse through your veins; when you realise you are addicted to this maddening, life-affirming, at times infuriating but still beautiful game.
For me, that player was Ryan Giggs.