Alex Ferguson’s golden child Ryan Giggs prepares to face his ultimate bad boy Roy Keane in opposite dugouts
There is an anecdote about Ryan Giggs in Roy Keane’s autobiography The Second Half that tells you much about both men.
It was the summer of 2004. Arsenal had just gone a season unbeaten in the Premier League and, desperate to find an added edge, Keane agreed to join Giggs at a food detox clinic in Milan that his team-mate had previously found useful. Day one: No food. Day two: No food. Day three: Carrot juice. Giggs took the regime all in his stride; Keane became obsessed and secretly attempted to carry even some of the more extreme elements – no red meat, no sugar and no mixing carbohydrates and protein – into the season.
He duly became so weakened by an iron deficiency that he missed several matches, including the infamous 2-0 “Pizza-gate” victory over Arsenal. “I was gutted that I missed that game – and all the fighting that went on in the tunnel afterwards,” he later said.
Giggs of course did play, but it can be safely assumed that he was rather further from United’s front line for the off-field carnage than his captain would have been. Giggs and Keane will tomorrow night also be in opposite dugouts when Wales face the Republic of Ireland in their first Nations League match and, on a superficial level, that might seem in keeping with two such contrasting personalities.
Alex Ferguson’s golden child against his ultimate bad boy? The player for whom football came so effortlessly against the man whose volcanic midfield presence was perhaps the most intimidating in all Premier League history? Perhaps, but it is still a shared characteristic that is most important and, behind their remarkably intense dark eyes, that is a rare competitive desire.
It is why Giggs was so sure on Wednesday that Keane will return to the dugout as a managerial “No 1” himself following this current stint alongside Martin O’Neill with the Republic of Ireland. “I think he enjoys working as a No 2 under Martin, I know that for a fact, [but] eventually he will want to return to club management because he is a football man,” said Giggs.
That so many of Ferguson’s former players have gone not just into coaching but also front-line management has long been striking.
Phil Neville’s appointment to the position of England women’s manager this year has taken the tally of past United players to 32 but, even among Ferguson’s Aberdeen alumni, men like Alex McLeish and Mark McGhee have also had long careers in the dugout. Gordon Strachan, who played under Ferguson at both clubs and would himself manage with success, believes that there is no coincidence.
“I think it is significant that a number of those players have since become managers,” he said. “He had a clear idea of the sort of characters he was looking for.”
In one sense, says Strachan, they were people with similar characteristics to himself. That even meant players who might well stand up to him. Above all, though, they were players who willingly sought and accepted responsibility. Even after their relationship had broken down, Ferguson did acknowledge that, in Keane, “parts of my character went on to the pitch”.
Giggs is also a much steelier personality than often acknowledged. As two of the best and highest profile of Ferguson’s former players, it is also interesting to consider whether past stature has impacted upon future managerial careers. Leaving aside Laurent Blanc, who had only a relatively short spell under Ferguson, the more enduring and successful managers have been some of the very good players in Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes and Strachan, but perhaps not the absolute greats.
There is also not one former Ferguson player who has yet consistently broken into the very elite group of Champions League managers. The path taken over this next decade by men like Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Cristiano Ronaldo will certainly also be fascinating. Despite the many fallouts through Keane’s career, it was clear in Cardiff that the mutual respect with Giggs remains total.
When the subject of inflated transfer fees was recently raised, Keane suggested his old team-mate would have cost £2 billion in today’s market. Giggs returned the compliment by saying Keane was a better and more complete midfielder at his peak than N’Golo Kante. In 12 years together at United, Giggs also claimed that there had not been one significant fallout.
“Flying into tackles in training, yeah, you might fall out but in the dressing room you are laughing about it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him. I was part of a team at United that would kick lumps out of each other in training, so I stood on the left wing. Hughes, Schmeichel, Bruce, Ince, Keane, Cantona. We would want to win the five-a-side games in training, whether it was old versus young, Britain v foreigners, there was always something, an edge to it.”
There will of course also still be an edge tonight, especially given the personal importance for Giggs of his first home match as Wales manager. And yet it is a line in Ferguson’s autobiography that perhaps best sums up what is clearly an enduring bond between two of his greatest players. “Football teams go on forever,” he wrote.