Ryan Giggs, the most decorated player in the history of English football, made his historic 1000th senior competitive appearance, for club and country, against Real Madrid, almost 22 years after his debut against Everton in 1991. Though the days of dizzying, breakneck runs down the left-wing are long behind him, the fact 39-year-old can still operate, and operate effectively, at the top level of the game is, in footballing terms, nothing short of astounding.
The achievement comes on the back of the news that Giggs has extended his contract with the club for another season, his 24th as a Manchester United player. He’ll be 40 by the end of the year, and is it realistic, despite his previous accolades and accomplishments to keep such a mature player in the squad?
Much was made of Giggs breaking Bobby Charlton’s long-standing appearance record (758) for Manchester United in the 2007/2008 season, but how many could have predicted he would then go on to be in contention for making his one thousandth appearance in a red shirt? Whatever happens, whether he passes that phenomenal mark or not, Ryan Giggs has already written his name into the annals of Manchester United legend.
Although collective trophies are a reflection of the team’s performance over a season or competition, they also go some way to identifying the individuals behind those accolades. To illustrate, Manchester United, as a club, have won the English Football League’s top flight on 19 separate occasions; Ryan Giggs has been a part of those victorious sides 12 times. In addition to holding the highest number of Premier League winners’ medals in history, he also won the FA and League Cups four times apiece; the Charity/Community Shield eight times; and is one of the elite footballers to have claimed a Champions League winners’ medal twice.
As if his inclusion in such of the most illustrious English championship-winning sides is not enough to propel Giggs into the folklore of football, then you also have to consider the astonishing record of goal-scoring in the Premier League he possesses; since its inception in the 1992/93 season, he is the only player to have scored in every season. Despite not quite being as prolific these days as he was in his youth, Giggs has a knack for scoring when it really matters: in the last five seasons alone, he scored against Wigan on the final day of thee 2007/08 season to clinch the title; his first ever penalty in the league against Tottenham in 2010; as well as a dramatic late winner at Carrow Road to keep the pressure up on Manchester City.
However, as with all footballers, there comes the point in their careers where they peak and began that sometimes slow, sometimes rapid decline towards their time of retirement.
Fortunately for Manchester United, Ryan Giggs seems to have postponed his physical decline for years, to the point where, even as a 39-year-old, he still seems to have the necessary appetite to compete effectively. Admittedly, and this is no slight against the talents and accomplishments of the Welshman, he isn’t perhaps cut out for the very top echelon of the footballing world at his advanced age.
For me, this enlightenment came against Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final; although the entire United side, save for Rooney, appeared outclassed, it was the gulf between the Barcelona players and Giggs that was the most apparent. Off the back of the incredibly successful 2007/08 season, Giggs seemed enthused and full of energy for the next season; he had a great domestic campaign, and pundits and fans alike commented on the ease with which he was playing the game at such a taxing level.
But, when faced with the terrific movement and pressing of a well-drilled Barcelona side, Giggs suddenly looked every day of his 36 years. Since then, although you could never accuse him of being anything other than a Premier League standard footballer, the truly top games move at such a frenetic pace, that the ageing limbs of Ryan Giggs seem just a little unable to keep up.
But then, who could ever begrudge the twilight years of his career? He is no longer the marauding winger of days gone by, using a sublime mix of pace and trickery to bamboozle even the most composed of full-backs, but rather he has reverted to a poised, elegant central midfielder with an astute eye for a pass and a level head even at the most volatile of moments. Still, this transition from winger to playmaker has come slowly over the past five or six years, and the old adage of ‘class is permanent’ is evident in abundance with Ryan Giggs.
He won’t dominate the centre of the park, nor will he burst from box to box in a flurry of energy, but he will give you reliability on the ball. In the biggest games, despite his obvious ability, the physical side of the game is beginning to pass him by. Some of the fondest memories of the United sides over the past two decades have centred around the gangly, whippet-like form of Ryan Giggs hurtling down the left-wing with the ball seemingly glued to his fast-moving feet. As Sir Alex Ferguson once said of his first ever viewing of what was to become the club’s most famous ‘number 11’, “He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.”
Even if he does look a little heavy-legged, and that electric pace that so moulded his game has dissipated, Giggs still retains an air of magnificence when he’s in possession of the ball. Like his long-time team-mate Paul Scholes, Giggs’ name is synonymous with class and dependability. Having played against Real Madrid an easy game wasn't expected, but it is these sorts of games that remain the arenas where Giggs can still prove to the fans and pundits why he hasn’t called time on his career - which, considering the longevity and success he has enjoyed, he is more than entitled to - and calm the game down with his unflustered style of play.
It doesn’t matter that Giggs is unlikely to affect the big games, against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester City, because at this stage in his footballing life, I, like many Manchester United fans, are simply happy that the Welsh wizard continues to add to the wealth of memories, no matter how seemingly trivial, he has given us over an extraordinary 22 years of exemplary service.