Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ryan Giggs: Twenty United Years

During their 2-1 loss to Chelsea on Wednesday, Ryan Giggs achieved the incredible feat of playing for Manchester United for twenty years. And when he appeared to a generous ovation from the substitute's bench, Giggs equalled footballing immortal Bobby Charlton's United appearances record with 606. Think about that: twenty years! 133 teammates, ranging from the very best (Eric Cantona) to the utterly ineffective (David Healy). Forty -eight times he's been on the podium as a trophy winner or runner-up. That's just silly - and a convincing case could be made that he's football's all-time winningest player.

On a personal note, he's been my favourite player ever since that first season where United finished sixth in the old First Division. I'd only recently decided to follow football and the first game televised after that decision was a United fixture - I wish I could remember the game, but for the life of me I can't - so I followed Man U. Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson and Denis Irwin were the stars of that era but, in my first early teenage rebellion, I decided my favourite player was a young guy who showed flashes down the left, the most prominent a back-heel to Hughes just outside the box which led to a "Sparky" score. It was Giggs. 

It can't have been his debut as United lost that 2 - 0 to Everton, but it was one of his earliest appearances for the club. For the entire twenty years I've followed soccer, Ryan Giggs and Sir Alex Ferguson have accompanied me.

After some thoroughly unexhaustive but very fun research, that season 1990-91 can show just how different football is today and the changes in leagues that Giggs' career has endured and outlasted.

In that first season United won the European Cup Winners' Cup, a trophy since replaced by the Champions' League. First Division clubs included Crystal Palace (who finished third in their highest league position ever), now non-league Luton and the now defunct Wimbledon finished one spot below United in seventh. Now-Premiership clubs Fulham, Wigan, Stoke and Birmingham City sat in the lower reaches of Division 3, a league won by Cambridge City. The largest raise in club stature since that time, however, belongs rather unsurprisingly to Blackpool who finished the season fifth in Division 4. Wimbledon notwithstanding, Luton's demise is the greatest fall.

Notable debutants included Giggs, Watford's David James, Liverpool's Steve McManaman, Forest's Roy Keane, Palace's Gareth Southgate and another man to make the United flanks his own, Andrei Kanchelskis. Retirements included former United man Norman Whiteside and Liverpool stalwart Alan Hansen. The football world mourned (?) the passing of Robin Friday when the greatest non-league footballer ever died of a heart attack at 38. Liverpool were re-admitted to European competition after the Heysel Disaster and in remarkable symmetry, only eight days prior to Giggs' debut, Kenny Dalglish resigned as the Scousers' manager. That he is at the helm of the Merseysiders and opposes Sir Alex Ferguson seems very apt.
Stay tuned, as part two of our series on Ryan Giggs' twentieth year in the Manchester United first team will be published in coming days.

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