It is difficult to imagine what Ryan Giggs must have felt when he became 39 on Thursday. Currently out with a hamstring injury, he couldn’t do what he has done on a regular basis for the past 21 years, train for Manchester United, nor could he properly celebrate their 1-0 win over West Ham the night before. Instead he was subjected to the archives, interviewed by a variety of media outlets in the name of nostalgia, looking back through the two decades that have made him such a legend at England’s most successful club.
Whilst he was digging up the past, the sad reality is that Sir Alex Ferguson and Giggs’s Manchester United teammates would have been looking into the future. The victory over West Ham had set them up for what looks to be a two-horse race for the title with rivals Manchester City, whilst a nervy, disjointed performance would have occupied the manager’s mind further.
As Ferguson seeks to cure United’s indifference for the rest of a season that has already seen 3 defeats, it is getting harder to imagine Giggs being a part of his thinking.
The Welshman was part of the most recent of those losses, the 1-0 reverse at Norwich two weeks ago in which he, playing at the base of United’s midfield alongside Michael Carrick, was simply overran by the Canaries’ hard-working, energetic unit.
The duo of Carrick and Giggs had been a feature of United’s title success and march to the Champions League final of 2011, but just like at Wigan in April, this time the double-act were woefully exposed. Giggs can no longer offer the pace and poise to the partnership.
Age can creep up with the most sudden of impacts and with Giggs, the process has hit the legs first. His brilliant Champions League semi-final performance in Schalke in which he dictated a 2-0 win is only 15 months ago. From that to an anonymous left-wing display in the 2-3 home defeat to Spurs in September has been the quickest, yet the most expected, of footballing declines.
Like for Paul Scholes, who also performed horrifically in the loss to Spurs and struggled noticeably against QPR last weekend until he was hauled off, the bell is slowly beginning to toll for half of Manchester United’s all-conquering midfield of the late 90’s- early 00’s.
Accounting for the other half, Roy Keane now analyses for television, while David Beckham prepares for one final bank account-boosting crescendo in his semi-retirement. The time that Giggs and Scholes will have to accept that fate is driving them the same way is looming clear on the horizon; Scholes has already accepted it once, and was back within 6 months, neither of these consummate professionals, despite their prolonged brilliance, can hold off Father Time.
It is testament to the professionalism of Giggs that, even despite his tabloid scandal, his ending will be littered with tributes across the football world, regardless of tribe. His legacy will be peerless; 33 winners medals with Manchester United including a record breaking 12 league titles, the holder of the most appearances in the Premier League and for Manchester United with an incredible 774, and counting, for now.
26 personal accolades, an OBE for services to football, an Hall of Fame inductee, the list goes on. By far the most successful of a dying breed in a modern game plagued by obscene wages and transfer fees, the “one club man”.
There is an underlying criticism, even amongst United supporters, that Giggs has never realised his true potential, that his durability has been achieved with consistent mediocrity sprinkled with odd moment of genius, his wonderful FA Cup semi-final winning solo effort of 1999 for example. Yet, overseeing the unveiling of the statue of Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford last Friday, Giggs was joined by Eric Cantona, Brian McClair, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. All names associated with genius and the unparalleled success of the last 20 years at Old Trafford, but Giggs remains the Godfather of all of them.
Through all the soaves of players Ferguson has gone through during his period of constant success, Giggs has seen and played with them all. Even if the accusation of moderation lies true, there is no arguing that is a remarkable, trophy-laden achievement.
He is a throwback to the forgotten age, outliving the marketing revolution that was the Premier League and growing with it to the point of synonymity, he is the only player present on the opening day of the new dawn back in 1992 still serving.
The word legend has almost become a cliché in the current age as so many supporters clamour for a hero, but there are none worthy of it more than Giggs. By eclipsing the contribution made of Bobby Charlton, who sits as another statue near to Ferguson at Old Trafford, to the success of Manchester United, then there may even be a space for Giggs to stand in stone among company of the highest esteem.
His birthday wish as he blew the 39 candles out should be to hope his legacy lingers on a career that was decorated with medals and trophies, not to risk compromising it with lethargic performances at Norwich.
Sadly, time is running short for Mr. Premier League and they just don’t make ’em like him anymore.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow him on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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