Ryan Giggs discusses his past, present and future as 25th anniversary of debut approaches
It was 25 years ago this month that a 17-year-old Ryan Giggs made his Manchester United debut at Old Trafford in front of a crowd of 45,656 in a 2-0 home defeat by Everton, in a season in which his club would finish sixth, 24 points behind the champions, Arsenal.
You might say that Giggs’s career at the club, now as the assistant manager to Louis van Gaal, has encompassed more than just a generation and the 42-year-old is one of the few at United who can still remember what it was like not to be the country’s biggest club.
Ryan Giggs, aged 17, making his debut against Everton
As we talked this week at the hotel overlooking the modern Old Trafford that he and some of his former team-mates part-own, he is in no mood to panic about the current situation.
As the conversation comes to a close I ask him what if anything he remembers from those 23 remarkable years in which he became the most successful footballer in the history of the English game, and, after a long pause, it is one small regret that occurs to him. His son Zach is nine a schoolboy footballer himself, and one who remains unconvinced of his father’s career.
“The only thing that frustrates me sometimes is that my son never really got to see me play. So, as far as he’s concerned, I just played for United for a few years and that was that. Forget me – Neymar is his favourite player, then [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Lionel] Messi. So – and this is something I have never done – I have to big myself up.
“I have to say to him, ‘I used to be quicker than Messi’. He’s like, ‘No you didn’t, I’m quicker than you’. He just can’t get his head around it. I find myself saying, ‘Here’s daddy on TV, here’s one of his goals, watch this’. He just wanders out the room!”
Giggs' son can't believe how good his dad was
It is a story told with a smile but it is also a reminder that this game moves on fast. Giggs played 963 games for United and now finds himself in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson period as the man who sits alongside the manager in a new era, one in which United’s status as deposed kings of English football can be difficult for some of their younger fans to compute.
On Thursday against Liverpool in the second leg of their Europa League round-of-16 tie, United find themselves in familiar territory – a must-win game against an old enemy. When Giggs made his debut, Liverpool were the reigning champions and there is no one better placed than him to offer a perspective, historical and current, on United’s season.
“The consistency has been frustrating,” he says. “We would go on a good run and then have a disappointing result. Obviously there have been a lot of injuries. A lot of them have been freak injuries – shoulders and Luke Shaw’s leg. A lot of knocks, the kind of things you can’t do anything about. And then when the squad gets small you are asking a lot of players to play games when maybe they could be rested or rotated.
Ryan Giggs had a stellar career as a player at United
“So it seems to have a domino effect when you do get a few injuries and we have just never got out of that. We are nine, 10 weeks left of the season and we are still in the FA Cup, still in the Europa League and still trying to get that top-four spot. We are still fighting and we still have something to play for.
“There are clubs in worse positions. The FA Cup is a competition we have a massive history in and we haven’t won it for 12 years so that’s huge for us. Liverpool, then [Manchester] City: two big games in three days, if I was a player I would be looking forward to it.”
Giggs, though, will point out that sustaining the success of United, of trying to defend a position from the top of English football, has never been simple – even in the years when they made it look that way.
Giggs' final season as a player was 2013-14
“It’s never easy. It never was when we were winning things. We went three years without winning the league [2004-06] and there was a lot of pressure on us there. Then we won the Champions League [in 2008]. Obviously what is different is Sir Alex isn’t there anymore and there has been David Moyes and now Louis. A lot is different but the expectation is always there for Man United to win trophies and do well.
“As a player that’s what you want. You don’t want to be fighting relegation. You are put under pressure. You want to be going out on that pitch where you need to do well. You need to train all week and make sure your preparation is good. There is also the recognition that the season has been a bit strange in regards to the teams that have done so well … it has been a strange season where only Leicester, and maybe Tottenham, have been consistent.”
Giggs has been Louis van Gaal's assistant manager since the Dutchman joined the club
The consolation thus far for United has been the emergence of a group of young players, with Marcus Rashford’s four goals in his first two games the most explosive of the lot, as well as the further development of Jesse Lingard, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and a run of five debuts in three games last month.
Giggs watched Rashford play for United’s Under-21s against their Manchester City counterparts two weeks before his last-minute debut, in for the injured Anthony Martial in the Europa League against Midtjylland, and says the teenager stood out. “Butty [Nicky Butt] and I came back that game and Louis said, ‘who played well?’ so [when Rashford was mentioned] he was in the manager’s mind.
“The fundamentals don’t change. Sir Alex used to watch us in the youth team. In those days the squad wasn’t as big. If he had seen you play the week before, he had seen you train with the first team, it can have an effect.
“There is that single principle of playing well in the youth team, playing well in the reserves … if someone gets injured I always say to the young players, ‘If you get a chance or you get pulled in late, take your chance – it might be your last one. If you are training with the first team, make an impression. Do something. If you do that you will catch the manager’s eye and maybe if he is struggling for subs, anything can happen’. It’s crazy what can happen.”
Giggs celebrates his wonder-goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup 17 years ago
Giggs was training with the United first team regularly at the age of 16, and he knew there was a way into the first team – having seen Lee Sharpe make his debut as a 17-year-old in 1988. His own rise to stardom was famously protected by Ferguson, a very different proposition in those days, before the age of 24-hour news, Twitter, and the massive financial premium placed on the top teenage talent.
“It has changed in a lot of ways but it is the same in a lot of ways,” Giggs says. “It’s changed in regards to exposure. There’s a lot of pressure on them because after one or two games … everyone sees the goals, everyone sees highlights. That’s different. What still doesn’t change is that you have to go out on the training pitch or on match day and you have to do it.
“The great thing about United is there is always a pathway through to the first team. I don’t think it was easier to get there [in my teenage years] but it was easier to stay there, which is always the tough thing. Anyone can get a chance and do well but then you have to stay in the team.
Sir Alex Ferguson had a huge influence on Giggs
“Loss of form, the exposure, they [the public] want to find out everything about you, people noticing you in the street. All those things you can’t be prepared for … it is always hard to get into the first team as a young player but now to stay in it is probably more difficult.”
There has been no such problem for Martial, a £36 million signing in the summer who, along with David De Gea has been the season’s outstanding performer. United would like to have eased him in more slowly but necessity has meant the France international, who turned 20 in December, has already made 38 appearances, excluding international duty, and three games for Monaco in August.
“Anthony has been a breath of fresh air,” Giggs says. “He came in for big money and he had been so consistent this year. It puts pressure on other players who aren’t as consistent because it is not normal for a young player. They can be brilliant for two or three games and then it will dip, but it doesn’t happen very often.
Marcus Rashford has impressed Giggs this season
“You look at Cristiano. For 18 months he was indifferent. Now, phew, he scores every week. People just mature at different times. It’s up to the individual to work hard and the cream usually rises to the top if you work hard and you have got the quality.”
They are getting Old Trafford ready for Thursday's game when, as has often been the case in recent years, it will feel like another defining game for United, although one man has seen it all before. “As long as we are in the game after an hour, anything can happen,” Giggs says. “It won’t be easy because Liverpool are a good team and if they score that will make it really difficult for us. But at Old Trafford, on a European night, we always fancy ourselves.”
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