by Andrew Thomas
There are many reasons to admire the man. Those who assess their footballers by weight of silverware can point to the eleven Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues, the numerous cup wins and the individual awards. Those who prefer to judge a man by his character can point to his one-club loyalty, his exemplary disciplinary record, even his work for Unicef. Stats geeks can revel in his record number of appearances for Manchester United, or the quirk of having scored in every season of the Premier League.
It’s pretty inarguable that he is one of the finest players of what we probably have to start calling the Premier League era and, as a Welsh Manchester United fan, there’s the faint possibility that I’m not an entirely impartial judge. But, before any of the above, he became my favourite player for reasons smaller but personally more significant: as a child, on the school playground, down the rec, in my grandparents back garden, there was only one player I wanted to be. Ryan Giggs.
I was seven when he made his debut for Manchester United and, when you’re a child, the winning of trophies is relatively academic. What matters about football are the moments, the jaw-dropping, hair-raising, eye-widening flashes of skill. Which means strikers, of course, and some defenders too, but most of all it means wingers. For proper wingers, old-school fliers, such moments are their essence and, throughout my childhood, Giggs was the finest winger in the land.
He was blindingly quick, able to outpace all but the fastest full-backs even though he was the one in charge of the ball. Allied to the pace was almost preternatural balance and an elegance of movement and touch; in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, after watching him play for the first time, it was like he was gliding. For more than ten years, he terrorised defences across throughout England and across Europe, drawing glowing praise and admiration from greats past and present. He scored. He created. He astonished and he humiliated.
And, as you may recall, he did this:
But that was then. As Giggs turned 30 his hamstrings tightened, robbing him of his top speed and bursting acceleration – as well as one of the great privileges of any modern footballer: the joy of driving over-powered sports cars. Yet his stubborn refusal to accept that his newfound physical limitations meant an end to his place at Manchester United inspired him to remodel his game. He raised his head, improving his already excellent close control and dead-ball delivery and has now become a utility attacking midfielder of no mean vision or skill. It is testament to his ability that, while no longer an automatic first-team choice, he was an invaluable member of a Manchester United squad capable of winning three consecutive league titles, as well as his second European title.
Indeed, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that it is this very reinvention that is his most impressive achievement of all. To rage against the dying of the light so successfully is remarkable; to do it while remaining in the reckoning at the very highest level is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented. But, for me, that’s only a bonus. He is my favourite footballer because he was the reason I fell in love with football, back when the only point of the sport, so far as I knew or cared, was to tear the opposition apart, again and again and again. Nobody ever did it better.