In the week that sees the 20th anniversary of Ryan Giggs's Manchester United debut, his long and decorated career deserves to be celebrated. But his actual contribution to all those medals can still be disputed. So here at Get the Mott and Buckett we are going against the media grain and explaining why the curly-haired Welshman definitely isn't one of United's all-time greats. Just please hear us out.
Villa Park, Birmingham. April 14th 1999. Arsenal 1, Manchester United 1. 109 minutes gone. It had been a properly epic FA Cup semi-final. Davd Beckham with a luscious strike from 30 yards in the first half. Dennis Bergkamp with another long-range effort in the second to equalise. A Roy Keane sending off. A disallowed Nicolas Anelka goal. And a missed Arsenal penalty. Into extra-time, and it looked for all the world that the 10 men of United would collapse under relentless Arsenal pressure. Then, from a misplaced Viera pass, we all know what happened next. Once touch passed Viera, passed Parlour, passed Dixon, passed Keown and then struck high into the roof of David Seaman's net. The greatest chest hair in FA Cup history; perhaps the greatest goal as well.
On the Sky commentary, Andy Grey had only one response: "I'll tell you what that is Martin: that's genius".
Since then, Ryan Giggs has been a model professional, a loyal servant and a decorated Old Trafford hero. But a genius? Never to that degree.
This past week, Giggs celebrated the 20th anniversary of his Manchester United debut. Should United go on to win the Premier League title this year, it will Giggs's 12th league winners medal. A British record. He can add that to two Champions Leagues, four FA Cups, four League Cups and one World Club Championship. And to top off all of this silverware, Giggs was recently named United's greatest ever player in a current magazine poll. This is perhaps unsurprising given he possess one the greatest medal collections in football history. Unsurprising, but perhaps undeserved.
It would be dangerous to confuse longevity with quality.
At the start of his career, Giggs was the undoubted heir to George Best's crown. Lightning wit, unfathomable acceleration, fleetness of foot, an eye for goal and, generally, an uncatchable air of brilliance. That period between 1992-1994 were arguably Giggs's most productive in a United shirt. His goal ration of 1:3 has not been repeated by him since.
It says a lot about how brilliant he was in those first couple of years, that the season immediately afterwards - 1994/95 - his performances, and goal-scoring record of one in 29 games caused such huge media debate, (remember, before David Beckham, Ryan Giggs was the poster-boy of English football). Some put it down to his relationship with Dani Behr, others to his wild lifestyle. More sensible commentators put it down to a natural period of burn-out, attributable to the fact that he had played so much so young.
This dip in form coincided with a pivotal Champions League campaign for Alex Ferguson and his men. The manager attempted to take his team's adventurous, attacking style away from Old Trafford, only to see it picked apart by both Barcelona and IFK Gothenburg.
It was after these defeats that Ferguson realised he had to add greater sophistication to United. A calm head in European storms. Still young, and in his formative years, Giggs's career path represents this experiment more than anyone else.
Just like with his team, Ferguson began a process of rounding off Giggs; adding composure to his crossing, astuteness to his acceleration.
In giving the Welshman a more rounded game, Ferguson took away his most enduring quality: unpredictability. From 1994/95 onwards, he was always too bound by team perfection. We never frequently saw him cutting loose like he had done. He had too much responsibility.
Of course, that FA Cup wonder goal was the exception rather than the norm. But it's often forgotten that fellow winger Jesper Blomqvist made more appearances than Giggs during that glorious Treble season. His effect was never quite as glamorous as 20 years of memories seem to make out.
Simply, Ferguson had to rebuild Giggs for the team, rather than build the team around Giggs. There was always someone better, more superior to be made the focal point. Between 1992-1997 it was Eric Cantona. In later periods, all of Dwight Yorke, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo passed Giggs in both importance and effect.
It also, undoubtedly, speaks volumes that the years when Giggs was one of United's most experienced and influential players, 2003-2006, the Red Devils won next to nothing. Nor should it be forgotten that, although he scored a penalty, Giggs wasn't named in the starting XI for the 2008 Champions League final. Througout that spell of success between 2006-2009, Giggs remained a valued squad member; but not a vital one.
Of course, none of this is to actually criticise Ryan Giggs. He has been an outstanding ambassador, not just for Manchester United but for English football in general. A wonderful gentleman, and a credit to the club he so dearly loves.
20 years is an amazing feat, I just don't think we should confuse continuance with class.