Sport Soccer

Friday 24 March 2017

They cannot deny his genius

Eamonn Sweeney

So what's the story with Ryan Giggs? Well, it goes a bit like this. Twenty years ago, on March 2, 1991, the 17-year-old Giggs made his debut for Manchester United when coming on as a sub against Everton at Old Trafford.

The home side lost 2-0. United were the ultimate sleeping giants back then. They hadn't won a league title since 1967. And their trophy count over the 20 years before Giggs made his bow was four FA Cups, one Cup Winners Cup and one League Cup.

In the same period Liverpool had won 11 league titles, four European Cups, three FA Cups, four League Cups and a UEFA Cup, a period of dominance the like of which English football had never before witnessed. The men from Anfield appeared to have conclusively exorcised the notion of the Red Devils as a great club.

The subsequent course of soccer history can best be summed up by enumerating the honours amassed by March 2, 1991's debut boy. Ryan Giggs has won, (deep breath), 12 league titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups and two Champions Leagues. Giggs' 12 league titles exceeds those won by all but three clubs in the history of the English game. Manchester United have 19, Liverpool 18 and Arsenal 13. This one player has won as many as Chelsea, Spurs, Newcastle United and Manchester City put together.

Alex Ferguson gets most of the credit for this revolution. But nobody has had anything approaching the same influence on the playing side as Giggs. Of his very greatest team-mates, Keane was there for seven titles, Beckham for six and Cantona for four. Only Paul Scholes, who has been there for ten, has approached Giggs' achievement. Yet, though Scholes is one of the greatest English footballers of all-time, he's never quite possessed the ability Giggs has always had to set the crowd buzzing when he gets possession.

Because Giggs enjoys a unique combination of genius and durability. He is the most exciting player United have had since the days of George Best, who openly admired his heir. Giggs, like Best, scored goals which nobody else could have managed. The most notable is that which comes into everyone's mind when Giggs' name is mentioned, the one which felled Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay, an epic conclusion to an epic battle.

Picking up a loose pass 20 yards inside his own half Giggs sets off towards the heart of the most fearsome defence in Premiership history. The expectation is that, with United down to ten men and penalties looming, the winger is hoping to eat up some valuable time and give his defence a respite. First he skips past Patrick Vieira, then he eludes Lee Dixon and heads towards the edge of the box. He is weaving now as Martin Keown and a recovering Dixon confront him there. A magical piece of sleight of foot brings him past the pair of them but the angle is now tight enough to make it look unlikely that he'll beat David Seaman.

And that's when Giggs unleashes a vicious shot which screams into the roof of the net and sets off one of the most famous celebratory runs in football history, pulling off his shirt, waving it over his head like he's a castaway frantically trying to attract the attention of a passing ship and ending it with a jump full of childish glee before his team-mates engulf him. You can look at this run, this shot, this goal thousands of times and never fail to be overwhelmed by its perfection, its drama, its beauty. If Maradona's solo goal for Argentina against England is better than it, it's the only one which is.

His haul of 159 goals from 875 games is more than respectable for a player who spent most of his career in wide positions but Giggs was a scorer of great goals rather than a great goalscorer. In his landmark first season there were the extraordinary efforts against Coventry City where he bends a shot into the top corner of the net while off balance and turning and the one-man unravelling of the Spurs defence which is so reminiscent of Best at his greatest it might have been construed as a personal tribute.

There is the wonderful strike against poor old Coventry again in 1997 where he launches into a sliding tackle like Spiderman swooping out of nowhere to dispense justice, wins the ball and is barely back on his feet before striking home a vicious shot from the edge of the box, his half the length of the pitch solo effort against Juventus in 2003, the goal against QPR in 1994 which is an eerie harbinger of his masterpiece against Arsenal five years later, a quartet of defenders similarly bamboozled by his pace and skill. There is God's plenty really. Like all the greatest players, Giggs was a kind of Shakespeare of flair, producing masterpieces at such a rate it became easy to take them for granted.

Yet he wasn't just the new Best. He was a Best with the consistency and attitude of Bobby Charlton whose appearance record for United he eventually surpassed. David Beckham enjoyed a fine career yet he disappeared into irrelevance with the LA Galaxy at the age of 32. Roy Keane was slumming it with Celtic

by the age of 33. Michael Owen, once a prodigy to rival Giggs, seems like a veteran now, honourably eking out the final days of his career. Yet he's six years younger than his team-mate. Steve McManaman, a year older than Giggs and once a prodigy of similar stripe, retired in 2005. Of Giggs' other one-time peers, Robbie Fowler's best stuff had been done by the age of 26, Jamie Redknapp's by the age of 28. Lee Sharpe, another new Best, was more or less finished by the age of 23 and had entered the hellish netherworld of Reality TV ten years later.

Yet Giggs abides. Two years ago he was PFA Player of the Year and he remains a crucial part of the United team. Last month he was sublime against Chelsea in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final, setting up both goals in United's 2-1 victory. Only the equally uncanny Paolo Maldini maintained such a high level of performance for so long. Giggs is the only player to have scored in every Premier League season. His achievement of scoring in 11 consecutive Champions League seasons is another record unlikely to be surpassed.

He also had the crucial knack of performing when United needed him the most. His greatest goal came at a crucial stage in a crucial game. His last-minute equaliser against Juventus in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final the same year was crucial to keeping United in the tie. And his was the penalty which gave United victory against Chelsea in the Champions League final three years ago.

Giggs worked his wonders with an exemplary attitude. Never sent off while playing for United, he almost always maintained an air of Zen-like coolness. When subjected to cruel treatment by defenders, there were no histrionics. Instead he would look at them quizzically as though surprised anyone would sully a football pitch with an act of such crassness. He refrained from trash talking either on the pitch or in the papers. In fact, he was the perfect role model for any kid who loved football.

Maybe Alessandro Del Piero said it best when observing, "I have cried twice in my life watching a football player; the first one was Roberto Baggio and the second one was Ryan Giggs."

That's the story with Ryan Giggs. Nothing else matters. And if you think it does you're reading the wrong column. Because looking at the carry-on over the past week is like watching the rituals of some strange cult devoted to smearing everything heroic in the world with shit in the hope that it will cure their own feelings of inferiority.

I take consolation in the words of the great Thomas Kinsella:

It's double foolishness to flatter

by attack what doesn't matter

for time heals all and will produce

the only answer, what's the use?

Ryan Giggs matters. That goal against Arsenal matters. Those memories matter. He has spent two decades illuminating our lives, creating timeless moments of magic and greatly adding to the store of human joy.

And they'll never be able to take that away from him.

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