The Day I Nearly Injured Man United Legend In Ill-Considered Jesus Stunt

Fans often said the Manchester United wizard could walk walk on water...well here's the proof.
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Fans often said the Manchester United wizard could walk walk on water...well here's the proof.

The Day I Nearly Injured Man United Legend In Ill-Considered Jesus Stunt

I love Ryan Giggs. Always have done since I first saw him slaloming through defences in the early Nineties. He was responsible for the greatest goal I’ve ever seen – his miracle goal against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park, a pivotal moment in Manchester United’s Treble-winning campaign. Giggs had come on as late substitute and had been having a bit of nightmare. Indeed, when he came into earshot close the halfway line, a United fan sitting in front of me screamed: “Oi, Giggs, do you want to join in?”. Which was a bit harsh.

Almost simultaneously, Vieira accidentally passed the ball to our number 11. A few seconds later Giggs was racing towards us, whirling his shirt above his head.

When the euphoria had subsided a little, I tapped Giggs’ former tormentor on the shoulder: “Good enough for you, mate?” The lad at least had the decency to look embarrassed.

Working for the club’s magazine in those early years, I got to interview Giggs a few times and found him to be unfailingly pleasant and friendly. Whereas some players could be evasive and uncooperative, and the odd one downright rude (naming no names... except for Fabien Barthez, who was a tosser), Giggs always could be relied upon to do his bit for the club mag without any fuss. Ironically, given the personal revelations of the last year, he was never one to court controversy, but he understood we needed a few good lines to hinge our articles on and would always give us plenty of time for both interview and photo shoot.

Ah yes, the photo shoots. To show off our ‘insider’ access to the players, we always liked to commission a nice photo shoot to go with our interviews. There were two in-depth player interviews per month, so that meant we’d normally call upon a superstar player once per season. In Giggs’ case, because he was so amiable, it was often twice. So by the time we were preparing the April 2000 issue, he’d already done a fair few shoots for us and I was keen to do something different (by this time, I was the magazine’s editor). And as it was my beloved Giggs, I wanted it to something that did justice to his genius.

Now you have to understand, United had just won the Treble, Giggsy had scored that goal and it is possible that my transcendent belief in him was akin to that of Harold Camping’s in rapture. Thus, after some brainstorming with my team, it was decided that we would photograph Ryan walking on water. Like Jesus. It was Ryan, so he could probably do it.

Just in case he couldn’t, we called a few photographers to try and find someone to make our dream come true. A guy who’d done a couple of good jobs for us before agreed to take up the challenge.I wasn’t sure how much she told Giggs about our plans, but our ever-persuasive editorial coordinator-cum-player liaison officer rang to say he was up for it. We wanted him wearing flowing white linen robes to up the ethereal ante, but she said she drew the line at even asking that, so we’d probably have to settle for a white tracksuit.

Okay. Game on. What could possibly go wrong?

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The chosen location for the ‘miracle’ was the swimming pool at United’s Carrington training centre. The photographer went down to work out how to shoot it, measure the depth of the water and then set about building a podium for Giggs to stand on in his garage.

On the morning of the shoot, I arrived to find him in a wet suit, in the shallow end of the pool, standing proudly by the fruit of his labours. A shoot this complicated would normally require a team of assistants to light it and style it, but he’d spent our woefully inadequate budget on making this rickety looking contraption so he was on his own.

Two problems soon became apparent. First, either the water level had changed or our man had got his measurements wrong because the top of the podium was a couple of inches beneath the water level. We were always going to photoshop out the podium, so if it had been a bit high, no problem, but too low and Giggsy was going to look like he was paddling.

Issue two: “Er, how are you going to get Ryan onto the podium without him getting wet?”

It was placed a distance of fully six feet from the edge of the pool.

“No problem, I’ve brought this,” said the photographer pointing to a little aluminium ladder, the type you’d buy down your local B&Q.

“Jesus Christ! He’s a £15 million pound player. What if he slips through the rungs?”

This was in the pre-yoga era when Giggsy was prone to the odd hamstring injury. But these usually were sustained on the pitch, not participating in some stupid-ass photo shoot.

Turns out the snapper had enlisted a member of United’s staff to get in the pool with him. The plan was for them to hold Giggs’ hands as he traversed the slippery, metal ladder. Oh, that’s alright then…

The divine dream was turning into a waking nightmare. Headlines flashed through my mind – ‘Giggsy injured in Jesus stunt!’ And the swimming pool could be seen through a window from a corridor above. If Fergie happened to pass by and witnessed this little scene… it didn’t simply bear thinking about.

But too late to stop now, because Giggs had arrived early, resplendent in a pristine white Reebok tracksuit. It was pretty obvious he hadn’t quite been fully briefed on the madness we had in mind for him. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d point blank refused to do it. There was a huge European game against Fiorentina in a couple of weeks time after all. Typically though, Giggs just laughed as I sheepishly explained the ‘concept’ and got on with it.

Minutes later, I watched, heart pounding, with half an eye on the window above, as Giggs, bent over like a hunchbacked pensioner, hanging on grimly to hands either side, tiptoed gingerly to the podium. I still get palpitations thinking about it.

Thankfully, Giggs made it there and back and Fergie never got wind of the shambles.

So what did we get for risking injury to one of the greatest United players of all time? Incredible pictures… by which I mean badly-lit pictures totally lacking in credibility of Giggs paddling ankle-deep in water. More comical than celestial. My publisher was not a happy bunny, but in my religious zeal/temporary insanity, I persuaded him to let us run with them anyway.

Almost twelve years later, having just witnessed yet another match-winning goal on his nine hundredth appearance, I’m still a believer.

Follow Justyn on Twitter, @justynbarnes