The Manchester United winger is the most decorated player in English football but finds himself relied upon less and less at Old Trafford as he approaches his 39th birthday
By Oliver Platt
More than 21 years ago, on 2 March 1991, Ryan Giggs made his Premier League debut. The Da Silva twins, Rafael and Fabio, were less than eight months old. Phil Jones would be born a year later.
Now they are playing for the same team. A week ago, Giggs played 120 minutes in the Capital One Cup tie against Chelsea. He is the most decorated player in English football history, with 12 Premier League winners' medals to his name. He has won the FA Cup four times and the Champions League twice.
However, for some time now, Giggs has played his future by ear. Manchester United do not offer players over the age of 32 new contracts lasting more than one year. Paul Scholes quite suddenly decided to hang up his boots at the age of 36 before returning little more than six months later but Giggs has rolled on uninterrupted. He will turn 39 at the end of November.
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The decision to continue, up until now, has been a routine one for Giggs. Last season he made 25 league appearances, a mark that Sir Alex Ferguson appears to have designed for him given that he figured in that number of matches in 2009-10 and 2010-11, too. He scored four goals - the exact same tally he had achieved in three of the four seasons prior.
This year, though, United have delayed talks over a new contract. Giggs only signed his most recent extension in February and we are only 10 games into the Premier League season but in 2011-12 the club opened talks with the midfielder in December. They will not do so during the current campaign until May.
That indicates that either Giggs or Ferguson - or both - have some lingering doubts when it comes to the player's ability to continue into his forties. Ferguson did take time to hail his longevity after the Chelsea match on Wednesday. "I think in Ryan Giggs, we saw a player of unbelievable proportions, in terms of playing the 120 minutes at 39 years of age next month and it's a credit to himself. It's an example to every player on the pitch, even the Chelsea players."
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There is so much to admire in Ryan Giggs. Those first fleeting moments of the young Welshman's dancing feet, gliding so effortlessly over the Old Trafford turf. The United debut in March 1991; a first goal, against Manchester City, in his second. That goal against Arsenal in 1999. The supernatural understanding of space and movement to beat an opponent, and an appreciation of his team-mates too. And a longevity and trophy collection without peer.
These are memories that will live with supporters for a generation.
Yet memories are, inherently, experiences of the past - a glorious history - but an époque now ended all the same. Today, Giggs is suffering an ungracious end to a wonderful career. With just four starts this season, no longer needed by Sir Alex Ferguson for the first team, the Welshman cuts a peripheral figure at Old Trafford. On the pitch Giggs has lost much of what made him a great, not just at Old Trafford, but of the modern generation anywhere. But as ageing limbs cut Giggs’ usefulness to United, few will forget what a wonderful player he has been.
The former option is edging ever closer. In his last start in the league, against Tottenham at Old Trafford, Giggs was substituted at half-time. United were 2-0 down and the buzz of a Spurs team that has since lost some of its sting due to injuries troubled him badly.
As the pace that made Giggs a devastating left winger has faded, he has evolved into a deeper-lying, playmaking central midfielder. Against Spurs, though, he was back out wide and that speaks to his status among United's central players. There have been calls for investment in that area of the pitch for some time but it is quality, not quantity, that Ferguson might lack. Ahead of Giggs now are Michael Carrick, Scholes, Tom Cleverley, Anderson and even Shinji Kagawa, who is usually deployed in a more advanced role.
Giggs has countered by arguing that he tends to be called upon later in the season when his know-how is at its most valuable. "It's not a new thing for me, not getting in the team every week. It's been happening a bit over a few years. I have got used to it. I don't worry too much because I know that, come the business end of the season, I'll be ready, I'll be fit and the manager will use me."
This time last season, Giggs had made just one start in the league, coming off the bench an additional five times. In the campaign so far, he has again made six appearances but three of them have been starts. The numbers back his expectations up, but, then again, they do not tell the whole story; such as the 45 minutes against Tottenham.
For a player of Giggs' pedigree and class, simply surviving should not be good enough. He has achieved everything there is to achieve in England and Europe at club level, and has worked with Ferguson long enough for both to be able to give an honest assessment of what the future may hold.
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