The interview: Ryan Giggs on his endless hunger... and milestone 900th game for United
JUST over 12 months ago, Ryan Giggs was considering the end of his career, with injuries and frustration leading him to arrange a meeting with Alex Ferguson in which he disclosed that he was contemplating the end of the road at Manchester United.
Giggs was persuaded to keep faith with his ageing limbs and the end result is a path that is now leading towards the remarkable milestone of 1,000 competitive appearances for club and country.
In Amsterdam on Thursday evening, against Ajax in the Europa League, the 38 year-old is set to play his 900th game for United. Throw in 64 appearances for Wales, and five Under-18 and Under-21 caps, and Giggs will then stand on 969 career games – so 1,000 is genuinely within reach.
“Yeah, I suppose it is,” Giggs said. “If I finish this season well and play a lot next season, I should do it, which would be great because not many have done that. Wingers certainly don’t do that very often! If I did it, it would be another thing to be proud of and to cherish.”
Last Christmas, beset by a hamstring injury, Giggs was beginning to think his time was up. But Saturday’s appearance in the 2-1 victory against Liverpool was his 23rd of this season and there is now no suggestion that he is crawling over the line to pass the 900-game barrier. Retirement is no longer on the agenda.
“When to retire is difficult. Do you quit too early or go that one too many games and let people see you on the slide? It’s hard for me, even with my experience, not to play or be involved and last season was difficult before Christmas.
“I didn’t play many games, I had a hamstring injury and had a chat with the gaffer, saying I was frustrated, but he said I would get my games. I was thinking maybe it could be my last season, but towards the end, I didn’t want the season to stop.
“Retirement is just a decision that I have to take my time with because I feel different after each game. After the 3-3 game at Chelsea recently, it was a really hard game, but I felt brilliant afterwards. Yet there have been other games when I haven’t felt so good. After the game at Arsenal, I didn’t feel so great, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
“You can’t decide after one game. It’s just something I really need to think about and take my time over.”
Giggs signed a new one-year contract last Friday and he admits that Paul Scholes’s decision to return from retirement last month proved the perils of misjudging the signs pointing to the exit.
“He [Scholes] was missing it and it’s no secret that me, Nev [Gary Neville] and a few other people felt that he had finished too early, but who were we to say?” Giggs said.
“We wanted him to carry him, but he’d made his decision quite early and it was probably too early, which I think he accepts now. Who knows? He might even carry on next year. I said to him this morning, 'You’ll be in for a busy summer with the Euros and the Olympics!’?”
It can be easy to overlook Giggs’s longevity. The grey flecks of hair are something of a giveaway, and he admits that reaching 900 appearances for United will be a huge achievement.
“Not many players get to 900 games, so to play at United for that amount of time and games is something to be proud of,” Giggs admits.
“I remember being on holiday about six years ago and somebody came up to me and said that I’d beat Sir Bobby [Charlton’s] appearance record. I was about 100 games away at the time, so I just said 'no chance!’ But I passed that, and, since then, I’ve gone past 800 and now I’m at 900, which is fantastic.
“Moving into central midfield has definitely helped me. I had a taste of what it was like on the wing against Liverpool on Saturday and it’s just completely different — it’s a different game because you are up and down all the time.
“When I played on the wing, I would feel absolutely knackered after games. I obviously come off tired after games now, but not as tired as I used to be when I was a winger.”
Despite 21 years in the game and a cabinet full of medals to show for it, there remain gaps in Giggs’s CV. None of his Wales caps were earned at a major tournament and it is a reality that generates real regret, so Giggs admits that the prospect of partially rectifying that by appearing for Great Britain at the Olympics is something he is ready to seriously consider.
“If I am asked, I will consider it,” Giggs said. “Obviously, I haven’t played in a major tournament, so that would be a major plus for me. Clearly, I retired from international football to concentrate on my club football, so it is something that I need to chat to the manager about and really think about.
“But there is an appeal. It’s in London too, so there are loads of things that appeal to you, but I have to consider that I retired from international football to prolong my career and it has worked.
“I haven’t thought about the Olympics too much, but nearer the time, I am obviously going to have to. First of all, I have to get picked. There are a lot of players vying for 20-odd spots.”
With the Football Association of Wales showing resistance to a British team in London, however, Giggs admits that Welsh misgivings could force the issue.
“That is another obstacle — will it affect Wales in the future?” Giggs said. “If it does, then it will be an easy decision for me to make. If it comes to the time when the likes of myself, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey are picked, it is something we will have to speak to the FAW about, but I hope [it doesn’t become an issue].
“The likes of Gareth and Aaron could have the experience of playing in a top tournament if they play in the Olympics, so I think it would be great for them.”
Following the tragic death of Gary Speed last November, the prospect of Giggs succeeding his friend as Wales manager was mooted prior to Chris Coleman being appointed by the FAW.
Giggs, a long-time friend of Speed, concedes that the possibility to manage Wales came too soon, but the revelation during the inquest into Speed’s death last month that he was feeling the strain of the demands of the Wales job highlighted the challenges of management. And Giggs, while aware of the demands, admits he was surprised by that disclosure.
Giggs said: “Everyone who has played and managed would say that playing is much, much easier. Players come in to train at 9 o’clock and they are at home at half twelve. Managers spend their time worrying about the team, so it is a completely different job and situation.
“I realise that, but that surprises me too [about Speed] because, when I was down there [in Wales] for his first games, he seemed happy and content. He was on the pitch, coaching and it was working.
“Succeeding Gary was never really an option for me, though. I spoke to the gaffer and United were ready to offer me a new deal. I wanted to play on.” Playing on, in the immediate term, means focusing on the Europa League and then aiming to overhaul Manchester City in the Premier League title race.
But while Giggs is aiming for 13th title medal, he has yet to win the Europa League, and despite the ignominy of Champions League elimination, it is a tournament he is desperate to win.
“There is definitely a sense that it would be great to win because it is something I have never won,” he said.
“It was disappointing to go out of the Champions League — you never want to go out of the Champions League — but we’re out of it and there is nothing we can do about it, so let’s go and win the Europa League now.
“I’ve played so many games in the Champions League and been fortunate to play in four finals, but the simple fact is that we weren’t good enough this time.
“In the past, we have been good enough, so we’re not going to moan about it. We just have to get on with it and try to win this competition.” And City?
“They are our local rivals and have never really competed with us until this season, so it has added a different dynamic to it,” Giggs said.
“It’s good that different teams are challenging for the league, but it will only be good for us if we beat them. It’s as simple as that.”