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The last of the Mancunians: Why we'll never see Ryan Giggs' like again

The 42-year-old coach is leaving Old Trafford to pursue a career in management.

Manchester United's Ryan Giggs (left) and Gary Neville (right) lift the Premier League trophy in 2007.
Manchester United's Ryan Giggs (left) and Gary Neville (right) lift the Premier League trophy in 2007.
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

BACK IN THE early 1990s, in Manchester United’s distinguished, highly acclaimed youth set-up, there were two players that were considered the closest thing to a surefire bet in terms of making it as professional footballers.

One was Adrian Doherty, and the other was Ryan Wilson, or Ryan Giggs as he came to be known.

Most people considered Northern Irishman Doherty to be on a par with Giggs in terms of talent. In a recent book written by Times football correspondent Oliver Kay, Giggs even suggests Doherty was the better of the two players during this period.

Source: True Red Devils/YouTube

Yet Doherty’s failure to succeed owing to a number of factors illustrates that prodigious talent alone is not enough in itself to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of professional football. Luck among other things is vitally important.

But there’s no doubt that Giggs, who would go on to register the most assists in Premier League history (271) and make a record 963 appearances for the Red Devils, was exceptional from a young age.

Source: Sports Videoz/YouTube

From early on, it was apparent he was special. He signed his first professional contract with United on on 29 November 1990, his 17th birthday, which was an incredibly rare move back then when English clubs were not quite so keen to spend exorbitant sums on gilded youngsters as they are now.

Less than four months later, Giggs made his league debut, coming on to replace an injured Denis Irwin in United’s 2-0 loss to Everton. 29 years on, he is the most decorated player in the English game.

Source: Asgood asitgets/YouTube

He made his full debut in May of that same season in the Manchester Derby, and was incorrectly credited for a goal that Colin Hendry diverted into his own net (see first video above).

By the following season, he was a first-team regular, making 38 appearances and scoring four goals, as United narrowly missed out on the league title, finishing four points behind 1991-92 champions Leeds.

In those heady days with Alex Ferguson still relatively new to the United job, almost everyone seemed beguiled by the young Giggs, who would go on to become part of surely the greatest midfield quartet the Premier League era has ever seen (along with Roy Keane, David Beckham and Paul Scholes all at or close to their peak).

Source: pledjuraa/YouTube

He was a teen idol, a pin-up, a symbol of the burgeoning popularity and formidable marketing drive at the onset of the Premier League era.

Nevertheless, Ferguson was deeply protective of his prized asset at first, barring him from giving media interviews until the age of 20. Soon, however, the Scottish manager could do little to stem the public’s insatiable thirst for this remarkable talent.

In the 1993-94 season, Giggs gave his first-ever interview on Match of the Day to Des Lynam. The popular TV show Ryan Giggs’ Soccer Skills followed shortly thereafter. Any self-respecting young football fan’s bedroom wall inevitably had at least one poster of Giggs tormenting an opposition defence.

Source: Retro Football/YouTube

Even legends such as George Best and Bobby Charlton couldn’t help but be impressed. The two veterans described the Welsh wizard as their favourite player. Best once even prophetically commented: ”One day they might even say that I was another Ryan Giggs.”

Yet the list of enormously talented young wingers who have come on the scene over the years has been vast. Many have been talked of as the ‘next big thing’ yet most are well past their best prematurely — Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright Phillips, Stewart Downing, Scott Sinclair, Aiden McGeady, Theo Walcott and Ashley Young to name a few have all been talked up but never really fulfilled their potential.

Source: Classic Manchester United/YouTube

Giggs’ longevity was the exception. He had an inner steel to match the talent. He was an intelligent enough to adapt his game, so that he could play in the centre of midfield or behind the striker if required.

Moreover, when so many other great players — David Beckham, Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Paul Ince among others — were ruthlessly shown the Old Trafford exit door, Giggs continually managed to survive in this impossibly harsh environment. His relentless drive prompted him to improvise — in an era when so many top footballers look burned out by the age of 30, Giggs turned to methods such as yoga to help stave off persistent hamstring problems and keep playing at the top level until the age of 40.

Until now, at least, as today, after 29 years and 34 medals, Giggs has confirmed he is leaving the club that he has spent the majority of his life at, and most likely the city in which he has lived since the age of six. Giggs or Manchester United will never quite be the same again.

Source: Classic Manchester United/YouTube

And it really does feel like Giggs is among the last of his kind. In the modern era, where pay cheques trump loyalty and idealism, one-club footballers are virtually unheard of. Roma’s Franceso Totti and Daniele De Rossi are other rare examples, but both are approaching the end of their illustrious careers. And this sense of utmost professionalism and exemplary conduct was invariably reflected on the pitch — in a 24-season playing career, Giggs was never sent off once while playing for Manchester United.

Forever thought of as a gifted fresh-faced youngster with a penchant for the ingenious in the eyes of football fans of a certain age, it felt somewhat surreal to hear him speak like a grizzly and somewhat disillusioned veteran as part of ITV’s Euro 2016 coverage the other day.

Source: MANUTD-TV/YouTube

And amid an impressive debut, one point from Giggs struck a chord above all else. When asked about the reasons for England’s ignominious defeat at the hands of Iceland, Giggs said the failure was part of a wider problem in football: ”I didn’t want to be famous, I wanted to be successful,” he said of his early footballing days. “Players now are rewarded before they even do anything. They’ve got the nice cars, the nice watches.”

So while there are still plenty of talented youngsters coming through in England and elsewhere, few if any can hope to even come close to achieving what Giggs has done in almost three decades in the game.

The United legend, therefore, is the last representative of a bygone era — the most successful and resilient of the famous Class of ’92, we will never see his like again.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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