Sunday 18 March 2018

Giggs has been great -- but not one of United's 10 best

Welshman's longevity has coloured public perception of his legacy

Ryan Giggs scores his most iconic goal for Manchester United in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal
Ryan Giggs scores his most iconic goal for Manchester United in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal
James Lawton

James Lawton

Ryan Giggs has become one of the great time travellers of football. However, as he marched on with another serene performance in Manchester United's majestic Champions League victory this week, we were still bound to ask one last intriguing question.

It concerns where we place him when all the running and the craft and the defiance of the years is over.

Two days before his 40th birthday, he was arguably United's best player, certainly a creative rival to the revived Wayne Rooney in the 5-0 undressing of Bundesliga high-fliers Bayer Leverkusen.

Yet the question still nags when we consider the career status of the player, who, in one recent poll, was voted the club's greatest of all time.

That was a football illiteracy provoked by Giggs' astonishing longevity, professional dedication and at times, most recently in Germany on Wednesday night, still daunting skills.

Yet, for some at least, there has to be an empathic response to the idea that if Giggs is patently not the best United player of all time, he certainly occupies a place in the top 10. And that response must again be in the negative.

It has to be thus, because otherwise we would surely have an open insult to some of the finest players who ever performed at the highest level of the game.

Giggs has been both a magnificent servant of United and a genius in the matter of reinventing himself.

From the youthful brilliance that led to his being bracketed -- to the horror of his patron Alex Ferguson -- with the incomparable George Best, to the slower-burning growth of his midfield contribution, Giggs has always been an important asset for his club.

In the course of 13 Premier League and two Champions League titles and four FA Cup wins, there have been quite extraordinary moments.

The most defining was the unstoppable run that broke Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final. A few years later, Inter Milan pursued him doggedly. But Giggs stayed at Old Trafford and his legend accumulated a little weight with each year.

Now some of his warmest admirers are speculating that he may be heading for still more glory as new manager David Moyes beds down at United after a less than convincing start.

However, there is another school of thought which argues that if Giggs' career is one of the great glories of the Ferguson years, it is also something of a reproach.



His shelf life, they say, has benefited hugely from the failure of the club to install a truly top-flight midfield, and if Giggs can still, from time to time, ransack his past for the kind of performance which illuminated the Bayer Arena this week, there cannot be too many left in his locker.

Certainly it means that it is hardly premature to place Giggs in his true position in the history of the club. This, clearly, is in a special place, one than extends beyond the mere sum of his consistently superb professionalism, but does it really carry him into United's top 10?

Certainly not if the measurement is of both individual talent and effect. Using these stringent criteria, you are bound to compile a list reaching back to the Busby Babes of the tragic year of 1958 that excludes the Welshman.

If this leaves too many of his fiercest advocates appalled and disbelieving, they should perhaps consider the fact that many other luminous names also have to be placed in a lower strata.

David Beckham is one such, for all his worldwide celebrity. Another is the folk hero Eric Cantona. Nor can there be places for the superb old-style centre-forward Tommy Taylor, who once reduced the great Brazilian team to rubble at Wembley; left-back Roger Byrne, the brilliant captain of United and England and the stunningly quick Irish full-back Tony Dunne.

Another legend who doesn't make it is Nobby Stiles, who, with Bobby Charlton, is one of only two Englishmen to win both the World and European Cups.

When we come to the Top 10, we find that the air has indeed become rarified.

From Best in first place to Wayne Rooney in 10th, there is at least one of two common denominators -- supreme individual talent and utterly outstanding competitive character, and in some cases both.

Rooney makes 10th place, just, because of a combination of that ability which persuaded such judges as Arsene Wenger and John Giles that he is by far the most outstandingly talented English player of his generation and also because of his current impressive efforts to restore his reputation at the highest level.

Here, in a generous sweep of football history, is one hard-headed, hard-hearted rating of the best 10 players to wear the United shirt.

After Best, there is Charlton, still the club's leading scorer and a player of ineffable and unbreakable grace.

Cristiano Ronaldo, for the moment, is third, but plainly poised for upward mobility in a surge of form that has finally put him within touching distance of finally being acknowledged as the world's No 1.

Duncan Edwards' election in fourth place is, at least to some extent, an act of faith because the Munich tragedy denied him the chance to prove how great he might have been.

Enough to say, perhaps, that anyone who saw him in his massive and majestic youth, including a young Charlton, believed him to be potentially without a peer.

Roy Keane claims fifth place as arguably the most influential player in the history of the Premier League. Denis Law, sixth, established his position with a show of pyrotechnics whenever he went on the field.

Bryan Robson had an indestructible will in midfield and a lust for hurting opponents around their own goal. Peter Schmeichel was both a Viking warrior goalkeeper and the foundation of Ferguson's empire.

Paul Scholes had a power to penetrate an opposing defence which persuaded Charlton to say: "His ability to pass the ball through the eye of a needle makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."

It is a club, all in all, of such astonishing standards that not the least honour of Ryan Giggs is that he has knocked on its door for quite so long.

Irish Independent

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