Even aged 9, Ryan Giggs had the pace, control, skill – and a lovely left peg
A slap-up meal helped Manchester United capture Ryan Giggs – something the club have been happily dining out on for the past two decades.
Until Alex Ferguson and his youth team coach Brian Kidd entertained 13-year-old Giggs and his family in a Manchester restaurant the precocious Welsh teenager seemed bound for the sky blue half of the city.
As Giggs prepares to celebrate his 40th birthday on Friday, Eric Mullender can only reflect on what might have been. At the age of 80 Mullender can be found every Saturday and Sunday doing what he has always done – trying to unearth new young talent for Manchester City.
He reluctantly accepts nothing will match the thrill of his first sighting of a nine-year-old Giggs. “He was very similar to how he has played all his career. He was on the left wing. He was quick and had a lovely left foot.
“He really took my eye. He would just go past players,” he recalled. “He had pace, a lovely left peg. He had the skill, good control and he developed from there. I thought he had potential to play for City. He would come in on school holidays.”
Giggs – or Ryan Wilson as he was in those days, the son of Swinton rugby league star Danny – played for Dean’s, a Salford boys’ club. Mullender and a young Giggs quickly formed a bond, soon to be endorsed by the trust of his mother, Lynne.
He supplied playing kit and boots while often ferrying the football mad youngster to and from games.
“His mother was, and still is, a lovely lady,” he said. “She was a nurse and also worked in a pub in Swinton. I think she appreciated what I was doing for Ryan.”
That also entailed starting Giggs out on the road to international stardom – with England. “Ryan was a quiet boy but one day he asked me did I think he would be good enough to play for England schoolboys or would he have to play for Wales schoolboys?
“Our chief scout, Ken Barnes, found out that you play schoolboy football for the country you are educated in, so that meant England.
“After you leave school it’s the country of your birth – Wales. It was a case of recommending young Wilson, as he was then, for a trial.
“Ryan was invited to a trial at Preston’s ground, which was then AstroTurf. He didn’t have any suitable footwear so I told his mother to get some and I’d reimburse her, and City would then give me the money, which they did.
“I took him to Preston and he was soon called into the squad and the next season played every game for England schoolboys.”
City were growing more anxious over Giggs’ long-term future. In those days young players couldn’t be signed until they reached their 14th birthday. Today it’s nine.
“We were holding on to sign him at City when he was 14. We had to hold on and hold on. To be honest, I hadn’t seen a United scout watch him until that last season,” Mullender said.
“Then Alex Ferguson, and I think it was Brian Kidd, invited the family to a meal in Manchester. It was about a week before his 14th birthday.
“He went to United. I was gutted when he didn’t join us. I had got to like Ryan a lot and his mum and dad.”
There is not an ounce of bitterness in Mullender’s heart – the fact that for 23 years his discovery has broken records at all levels of the game.
It’s why Giggs recently invited him to the club’s training ground and offered Eric and his son-in-law VIP treatment at a game between Manchester United and Chelsea.
“I’ve seen Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Bert Trautmann, Frank Swift, Peter Doherty. Denis Law, Bobby Charlton. I would put Ryan up there with them,” said Mullender. “He is a passionate Welshman, but I wish he could have played for England – we could have done with him.”
United’s game today at Cardiff, Giggs’ birthplace, couldn’t have come at a better time as he reaches a remarkable milestone.
“What a birthday present to be playing in Cardiff. I think he will be touched by it,” said Mullender.