Ryan Giggs on 25 years of the Premier League
It was March in what remains one of the most relentlessly intense title races in the 25 years of the Premier League and things were getting unusually tense in the Manchester United dressing room, so Ryan Giggs was naturally one of the players leading the inquest as to why it had even got to this point. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had been in complete control in first place in the 2008-09 campaign, only to lose 4-1 to Liverpool and then 2-0 to Fulham, to see their great Merseyside rivals cut the lead to just four points with eight games left.
The momentum seemed to have definitively shifted, and it was all the more concerning for United because it could well have meant a historical shift too. This was the sole time that England’s two most successful ever clubs were directly competing for the title since the Premier League was founded, so Liverpool were going for 19, as United were trying to match them on 18. Action then needed to be taken, with some strong words.
“Listen, we’re not putting up with this,” would be the immediate demand, Giggs explains. “It would be confrontational. With the characters that you played with, Roy [Keane], Gary Neville, myself, [Nemanja] Vidic, [Rio] Ferdinand, players who set the standards and when their teammates dropped their standards, they wanted to know why.
“It’s that winning mentality, and sometimes having that tough chat amongst yourselves, whether it’s driven by the managers or driven by the players. Often, it would be driven by the most players.”
And, most frequently, by Giggs himself. That campaign didn’t just see United responding by winning seven games in a row to also win that record-equalling 18th title, but also saw their captain win his own sole PFA Player of the Year award. If there was a slight sense that was more a wrong from the past being righted, or that it was as much a career achievement recognition, there is still an argument that it actually appropriately reflected Giggs’s deeper influence on United - and thereby the Premier League.
He so often embodied and imposed his manager’s relentlessly competitive spirit, the perfect student and thereby the near perfect Premier League career, making him the perfect person to talk to as the competition celebrates its 25th anniversary.
There is no one who has played in more Premier League seasons at 22, no one who has played in more Premier League games at 632 and no one who has won it so many times with 13. There is no one then who knows more about the competition, and how to master it.
While there are similarly very few who had Giggs’ fine talent, and capacity to master so many different attacking positions, he still distils that mastery of the league down to core principles; down to maintaining the same standards for so long. He believes that was the real difference.
“I think, speaking from my own experience, you had obviously the boss, you had Sir Alex, then you had the coaches, then you had the group of players, whether the captain or not, experienced players, even young players, like I said Wayne [Rooney][ when he first came to the club who, day in day out, set standards on the training pitch, and I’ve known nothing different, every day wanting to win every training session, making sure that your teammates are doing the same. If you weren’t, you would tell them… all the teams I played in that were successful had great team spirit, whether they be kicking each other off the pitch on the training ground and having to be dragged off by the manager because someone’s going to get injured, afterwards you’re always mates.”
Was that something that really stayed consistent over 25 years, though, that capacity for confrontation in training? That is something else that Giggs is so well qualified to speak on, how the game changed. He was centrally involved in a competition that transformed from a traditional British school of hard knocks to an almost hermetically sealed modern international league and everything that entails.
“The last couple of years when I was coaching, you didn’t see any of it, so maybe it is going out of the game, but if I lost a game on a Friday I would be in a mood for the rest of the day. Do I see that now? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
“I think football in general is changing. Players have become more powerful, but you still need those standards.
“You have to have that stability, that nucleus of a team, that get added to each season, whether you’ve won a league or whether you’ve not, obviously good players but, when you see over the last 15 years, the money that Chelsea have got, the money that ‘Manchester] City have got, the money that generally has come into the game, it is getting more and more difficult for one team to dominate, and yeah, you probably see less and less of it, because if you don’t win the league, owners will want to know why, owners want instant success and with the money they can afford to sack the manager and get another superstar manager in.”
All of that is one reason why, of all the 13 Premier League titles that Giggs won, his favourite is perhaps somewhat surprising. It was the last one, in 2012-13, the season after Manchester City had so sensationally beaten United to it in the last second. It is surprising, however, because it wasn’t necessarily about just getting one over on the neighbours.
“Perhaps the last one was sweet because we lost in the last second… one more second and we’d won the league, then to come back the next season, we bought [Robin] Van Persie, and to come back after such a devastating loss the season before, that was the mark of a true great team to come back after such a big disappointment. I witnessed it in my first season. We lost out to Leeds [United], we should have won that, the last first division we came back the last year and won the league.
“It just hurts that summer, and there’s just that determination, very often when you’ve won the league in the summer you look forward to going away on holiday and actually rest-time the whole of June off, and you can enjoy it. The opposite of that is if you’ve just lost the league. You’ll unwind, you’ll relax, but then quite quickly you’re ‘I want to go get back to training now and do something about it, that feeling I had, and the feeling I’ve still got’.”
It was one big reason why Giggs enjoyed the feeling of actually winning the Premier League more than anyone, too. Right through its history, and in so many ways, he led the way.