Ode to Man United's eternal Ryan Giggs
He was still Ryan Wilson back then. The switch to using his
mother's surname, Giggs, wouldn't come until later, along with
Yet already, although barely into his teens, the abundance of natural talent and the hints of future greatness were unmistakable. Young Wilson, now the world-famous Ryan Giggs, had it all: searing speed, a tightrope walker's balance, a lithesome left foot.
Manchester United's youth coach, Eric Harrison, was smitten by the schoolboy he saw playing that day in the mid-1980s. That same night, Harrison told his wife that he had just peaked into the future. The youngster would become a United star, he predicted. And he was right.
"He took my breath away to be honest," Harrison recalls. "He was incredible, absolutely incredible."
With his first ball, "he just gracefully beat about three or four players with amazing pace and amazing control."
What no one could have predicted, however, was that Giggs would still be going strong two decades later. In a sport transformed by money, of quick fame and quick fortunes, Giggs is a model of longevity, living proof that good things do still come to those who are patient, unswerving and loyal.
Football stars like George Best, Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane or Michel Platini shone brighter than Giggs but were not as eternal. Like a family heirloom that is taken for granted until it goes missing, Giggs has been around for so long at United that it's easy to forget that he'll soon be gone.
Cristiano Ronaldo was flashier; Bobby Charlton, with his club record 249 goals, was a more efficient scorer; Best is fondly remembered for the skills he squandered at the bottom of a champagne glass and Cantona was brilliantly arrogant.
But Giggs has played the most games. In an era where clubs like Real Madrid and Manchester City can get Ronaldo, Kaka and Robinho to change shirts at the drop of a check, Giggs' devotion to United - the only club he's known as a professional - has brought its own rewards. In sticking around for the entirety of manager Alex Ferguson's reign, Giggs has become the most decorated player in English football history.
"He's probably, in my opinion, the best signing that Manchester United has ever made," says Harrison, speaking to The Associated Press in a telephone interview. The former youth coach is famed for having nurtured United's golden generation of Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers Gary and Phil, and Nicky Butt.
Ferguson's failure to recruit a big-name replacement for Ronaldo when he left United for Madrid this July and to squeeze another season - perhaps one too many - out of Giggs and Scholes looked initially like folly.
Giggs, especially, had been transparent in United's 2-0 loss to Barcelona in the Champions League final in May, as if age had truly caught up with him. Ferguson substituted his captain after 75 minutes, bringing on the equally ineffective Scholes. In refusing to recognize that his old warhorses were way past their prime, it seemed at the start of this season that Ferguson had allowed nostalgia and affection to cloud his hard heart.
But, again, Ferguson was right. While they can't take the field as frequently as they used to when younger, neither Giggs nor Scholes are ready to be put out to pasture quite yet. Those two plus defender Gary Neville have now played a total of more than 2,000 matches for United, a remarkable milestone. Giggs alone has made a club record 820 appearances - and counting. More importantly, he's still proving to be a real pest for opposing defenders.
Giggs has used yoga to coax longer life out of his delicate hamstrings. He wisely stopped playing international games for Wales from June 2007 to devote his remaining years entirely to United. And while he speaks in his autobiography of occasional partying and of breaking his nose in a drunken fight, Giggs has not allowed himself to be derailed by wealth and fame.
"A very intelligent footballer," Harrison says. "He said to me once that he was glad that David Beckham took all the limelight from him. It didn't take him long to realize that if he wanted to go far he had to behave himself off the field."
On Nov. 28, Giggs celebrated his 36th birthday a day early by becoming the only United player to have scored 100 goals in the Premier League. The dipping free kick was Giggs' 151st competitive goal, moving him to eighth on United's list of all-time scorers.
He's created many more. With a light right-footed pass, Giggs also set up a goal for Wayne Rooney in a 4-1 victory over Portsmouth and won a penalty that Rooney scored, too.
"He's an exceptional player. A rarity," Ferguson said of Giggs after that display. "He will play for two years yet."
Two years? We'd best enjoy it while we can.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press.