The sixth entrant in our ‘Top Boyos’ feature is British football’s most decorated player and someone who has been tearing at the heart of Welsh football fans since 1991. Lost Boyos’ own Marc Harrison, a Manchester United fan, describes why Ryan Giggs is his favourite Welsh footballer.
Some football fans know exactly the moment their became their team. I don’t. The method I have chosen to backdate my support of Manchester United- and it proved to be a handy one during the 90s and the continual accusations of being a ‘glory hunter’ that came with being a south Walian United fan- is to date it from my first replica kit. That, the full red shirt, white shorts, black socks package, was given to me as an eighth birthday present in 1989. In the ensuing 23 years, United have worn 16 different variations of the trademark red. I’ve owned 11 of them, but not until the most recent one had I chosen to brand my shirt with the name and number of any single player; how do you choose from so many greats?
If you’d asked me at any single point during my years cheering for Manchester United for my favourite player, I would have answered (in chronological order) Hughes, Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo, Rooney, but looking back at the last 23 years as a whole there is no doubt that one man has brought me more joy than any other: Ryan Giggs.
Ryan Giggs won’t be the first (or the last) 40-year old to play Premier League football when he reaches the landmark in November, but there are unlikely to be many others that have a 20-plus year career in the first team of one of the league’s top clubs. Last season, Giggs featured in fewer Premier League games (although a still impressive 22) than in any since his debut season and these days the once flying winger is used as a calm head in midfield or as a late substitute to add a touch of composure to tight games. The modern Ryan Giggs remains a wonderful player to watch- just look at his ball for Robin Van Persie’s equalising goal at West Ham last season- and his longevity is to be admired, but today’s Giggs is probably not the player that makes young boys bounce up and down on the sofa.
No, the player I fell in love with is not the 39-year old ‘freak,’ as Sir Alex Ferguson labelled him, but the floating ‘cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind’ that the legendary Scot first saw as a 13-year old. Call me old-fashioned, but I love a good winger, and Giggs was a great winger. Running with the ball at speed, there was nobody better. As a dribbler, he may have lacked the artistry of say, a David Ginola, but the speed with which he was able to change direction meant there were few more effective. Giggs’ most famous goal, the FA Cup semi-final winner against Arsenal that many call the competition’s best ever, showcases his talent for dribbling in the 10 seconds it takes him to get from collecting Patrick Vieira’s loose pass to hammering the ball high into David Seaman’s net, beating four defenders along the way. My own favourite Giggs goal came much earlier, in a 1992 game against Tottenham at Old Trafford as Giggs was on his way to the first of 13 Premier League winners’ medals, but also sees Giggs at his flying best. Dean Austin miscontrols a long ball and as he slips Giggs is on him in a flash. Giggs easily avoids the stumbling Austin’s challenge, nutmegs Gary Mabbutt and is now one-on-one with the keeper. Without even a drop of the shoulder, just sheer pace, Giggs rounds Ian Walker and from a tight angle hammers the ball across the goal and into the far corner. The whole thing takes about 5 seconds. ‘Beautiful,’ said Barry Davies in commentary.
Of his 1,000-plus appearances, my own most memorable Giggs performance is one that has been written about on these pages before. It came ten years after that Tottenham goal, as so many of Giggs’ best nights have, in the Champions League, and was perhaps a sign of the intelligent player Giggs was to become in his late 30s. Manchester United gave a masterful performance in playing away from home in continental football and Giggs was at its heart. Playing, surprisingly, as a second striker to Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Giggs was the standout performer in a 2-0 win at Deportivo La Coruna’s Riazor Stadium. ‘Menacing,’ ‘bewildering,’ and ‘irrepressible’ were how various newspapers described the Welshman’s Spanish showing The performance had me and my German flatmate singing his praises and it was a night when I felt proud to be Welsh.
Because, of course, Ryan Giggs is a Welshman and be it a flat in Germany or bar in Seoul, football fans the world over know this. Giggs, more than any other footballer, is associated with our small country and it would be wrong (although perhaps convenient for the purposes of this article) of me to completely gloss over his international career. Just as I didn’t suddenly hate David Beckham, or Paul Scholes, or Gary Pallister when they pulled on the white shirt of England, I find it difficult to differentiate Giggs the Manchester United player from Giggs the Wales player. From my own point of view, Ryan Giggs is the single best footballer to have ever played for Wales and we were lucky to have him. Others might say, yes, we were lucky to have him because, while he ended his international with 64 caps, he could have easily reached nearer to 100 if he’d only shown the same level of commitment to his country as he showed to his club.
They would also argue that Giggs, the star attraction for almost the entirety of his Wales career, failed to deliver the same level of performance on the international stage as he did for his club. Indeed, in the most successful qualifying campaign of Giggs’ time with Wales, others like Craig Bellamy and captain Gary Speed were the star performers as the Red Dragons got within a play-off of reaching Euro 2004. For me, however, surely just having Giggs in the side – and he was in the side for all eight group games and both play-off matches – made Wales a much better team and probably helped Bellamy, Speed, Gabbidon, Savage, et al to reach the levels they did.
There may yet be time for Giggs to win over the detractors in his homeland, although not, of course, on the field. Giggs is close to completing his UEFA Pro Coaching Licence and has just been added to the coaching staff of new Manchester United manager David Moyes’ backroom team. He is sure to have a coaching career as long (and hopefully as successful) as his playing days, and I’m certain I’m not the only Welshman hoping that at some time in the future, Giggs follows his old teammates Mark Hughes and Gary Speed in becoming the Welsh national team manager. I certainly don’t think Wales should be in any rush to get rid of Chris Coleman, but to see Giggs eventually leading the current exciting young players we have would be an exciting prospect. As the eternal question of Welsh football goes, who knows?
Marc Harrison (@theglobalgnome)