A rare breed in the modern game, the one-club star is something of an endangered species. Battling week in, week out to help their club get over the humps and bumps of season after season, these sworn guardians are well-versed in the art of how to make a name for themselves among the die-hard fans through their fealty, hard work and dedication.
More appreciated in today’s climate where even the biggest, most impressive of stars can be lured away from their footballing home if the price is right, the allegiance of those who chose to stay put to toil, work and sweat for the betterment of their team is magnified impressively.
Before much was made of his undying loyalty to Manchester United or his willingness to grow with the club from a young age, a certain Welsh legend used to terrorise defenders; blotting their otherwise peaceful sleep with the harrowing image of a blurred no.11 storming past them down the touchline, seared into their nightmares. Ryan Giggs was the player.
Widely respected purely for his talent, his flair and his unrelenting capacity to turn a game on its head in the blink of an eye, the ex-Welsh international made a name for himself as a staunch defender of United’s prestige, having helped build it from the bottom up.
Undoubtedly, the now-retired star’s most eye-catching contribution in a Red Devils shirt came deep into extra-time after he was introduced as a substitute for Jesper Blomqvist against their bitter arch-rivals Arsenal during an infamous FA Cup semi-final replay back in 1999.
Down to ten men at Villa Park after the ever-fiery Roy Keane had been dismissed from the field of play for two bookable offences, Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble-chasers found themselves fighting desperately for the elusive goal which would see them go through to the glamorous final, or at least hold on for penalties.
What happened next is considered by many to be the greatest goal in FA Cup history as Ryan Giggs slalomed his way past an entire Arsenal defence before breaking their hearts with a thumping finish into the roof of the net. They might have been without a captain, but at that point in time it was crystal clear precisely who the leader was.
A remarkable individual goal that would get people talking in any era, it’s one which is often fondly recalled by neutrals.
Bearing down on goal, he had only the in-form Dwight Yorke in support ahead of him with a sea of Arsenal shirts swarming around him and, clearly eager to make an impact on the game to punish a fatigued back four, Giggs made a daring move to take on the wall of Gunners defenders blockading him from causing trouble.
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After intercepting his pass and leaving Patrick Vieira for dead, the winged wizard soon focused his attentions on making Martin Keown look equally silly. Bamboozling the Englishman with some nimble footwork, he then left Lee Dixon eating his dust with a stylish pivot before rifling the ball confidently past David Seaman between the posts from a narrow angle as Tony Adams’ last-gasp challenge fell desperately short.
Even though there were still a few minutes left to play, his goal had well and truly knocked the stuffing out of an exhausted opposition, and Giggs bolted away to celebrate what proved to be the winning strike. The less said about the hairy chest, the better – but the goal was nevertheless a sublime one.
Proving the philosophy that Ferguson’s charges had a knack for scoring late goals, Giggs also drew a line under his own ability to score important ones – strikes that continue to stand the test of time, just as his own personal legacy has done.
Having started at United as a youngster before the Premier League was even established, “Giggsy” signed for them as a 14-year-old and has been a pillar of the Manchester establishment ever since, continuing to watch his relationship with the club flourish as assistant manager to Louis van Gaal.
Planting his roots there and pinning his colours to the mast very early on, his presence on the fringes of the team didn’t last too long, however, as he was quickly plucked from the pool of talented youngsters and promoted to the senior side. On board to join in with the hustle and bustle, he was soon an integral member of a team on the cusp of commencing an unrivalled legacy and opening a cabinet ready to be dressed with glistening silverware and cups.
Reflecting back on his wonderful career now, it’s still astonishing to think that he is the most decorated player in English football history – something largely evinced by his willingness to stick with the team formerly known as Newton Heath for such a long period.
In fact, although the statistics often get wheeled out when the nostalgic discussion about Giggs crops up, it remains gobsmacking to think about just how many games he played, how many ‘keepers he got the better of, how many defenders he bamboozled and, most strikingly of all, how many assists he laid on for his goal-hungry team-mates even as the roster continued to change, new money found its way into the league and age began to hinder his normal fluidity up and down the left wing.
Breaking it down, the curly-haired Welshman has recorded the most amount of Premier League assists in history with a whopping 162 to his name, a real testament to his tremendous vision, artistic faculty and consistency. A creative genius at his peak, he was not simply an aficionado at beating defenders for pace with some silky footwork, but he was also adept at how to craft chances with some precise passing and probing through-balls.
Arguably the most memorable exhibition of his creative prowess came in a seven-goal thriller in 2009 against their inner-city neighbours Manchester City. With the pride of derby day on the line, both teams, as usual, poured blood sweat and tears into their efforts to grab the all-important win – after all, this was both side’s opportunity to silence their “noisy neighbours” and they were both eager to do so.
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None, however, were hungrier than Giggs himself; laying on as many as three sumptuous assists, he was an incessant thorn in the side of the Citizens all afternoon.
Most importantly of all, it was he who played the decisive pass that set the diminutive Michael Owen up to net the dramatic winning goal deep into the sixth minute of a period of injury time that was only supposed to last four minutes. In short, it was typical of the “Fergie Time” era that vanquished so many teetering opponents time and time again – but it was also a real insight into just how crafty a player Giggs could be at his peak.
There for the crucial moments, he made his ingenuity count on so many occasions; sparking his team-mates into life, he once more inveigled a reaction.
Harking back to the 1992 League Cup final against Nottingham Forest where Giggs got his first taste of domestic success with United offers us another insight as to precisely how astonishing his longevity was. Sporting the strangely alluring blue and white Sharp-emblazoned away jersey that would look so out of place today, he played against future club-mates Roy Keane and Teddy Sheringham, yet it was his 19-year-old influence that proved the difference on the day.
Again, it was his ability to unlock the defence that proved the decisive masterstroke as his pass to find Brian McClair for the only goal of the match ensured his side completed the enviable feat of becoming the first team to bounce back from a final defeat the prior season only to go and win the competition the following year.
Ever a player to battle against the odds, he accomplished some incredible things on the field of play – such as recording the record number of league appearances (632), braces without ever scoring a hat-trick (11), and winners’ medals (13).
That said, it was undoubtedly his self-made troubles off the pitch that were his biggest tests. Ousted as a hypocrite for his numerous extra-marital sex-affair scandals, his reputation as a staunch defender of loyalty soon came under fire. Yet, as widely castigated as he was for these big personal errors of judgement, it’s his footballing records that continue to prove what he ought to be remembered for.
A wizard of the game whose genius spanned two and a half decades at the top of the game, he sprinkled magic throughout its inner workings with some dynamite displays of individual class as well as promoting a harmonious work ethic.
Because although he was brought crashing back to reality through his own private shortcomings which ballooned into a public mess, it’s still impossible to deny that he earned his reputation as not simply a selfish star who strove for individual glory but one who was, and still is, invested in the welfare of his club and the fans who watched him develop over time.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90