Friday, July 19

Ryan Giggs and football: A very complicated relationship

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The celebration was almost as glorious as the goal itself. The fuzz of chest hair, the twirling shirt, the body swerve to evade the Manchester United fans who had run on the pitch in their euphoria.

On Sunday, it is 25 years since Patrick Vieira, a genuine great of Arsenal’s midfield, played a wayward pass amid the high drama of an FA Cup semi-final between the leading two English sides of the time.

Ryan Giggs took the ball and then he was off and running, picking up speed from inside his own half, slaloming past opponents, one by one.

Vieira tried to get back but Giggs, crossing the halfway line, dipped his shoulder to get away. Lee Dixon was next to come across. He, too, could not get near him.

Arsenal had the most famously parsimonious defence in English football — yet Giggs had magic in his feet. He was on his own, with everyone to beat, under the floodlights of Villa Park. Martin Keown went to block him. Dixon was still in the chase. Giggs shimmied between them both and suddenly, with a sway of his hips, he was in the penalty area, sizing up David Seaman, the Arsenal and England goalkeeper.

His shot was still rising as it flew into the roof of the net. It was pandemonium in the stands and Martin Tyler’s voice, commentating for Sky Sports, seemed to have gone up a few octaves.

“He’s cut Arsenal to ribbons,” summed it up rather beautifully.

It’s a Thursday night in Radlett, a well-to-do village in London’s commuter belt, and a beery, boisterous crowd has broken into song.

Ryan Giggs, now 50, has wandered onto the stage of the 300-capacity Radlett Centre. The venue is not full, but there is a racket anyway. He is greeted with a standing ovation and a song that will be familiar to United fans of a certain generation. It is an adaptation of the old Robin Hood classic.

Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, running down the wing
Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, running down the wing
Feared by the Blues, loved by the Reds
Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs!

It doesn’t take long, therefore, to realise that whatever else has happened in Giggs’ life in the last few years — most notably, the criminal trial that led to him relinquishing his position as Wales national manager — there is no shortage of people who regard him as football royalty.

He has already done Cleethorpes, Hull and Lincoln since being acquitted last year of being a violent and abusive boyfriend. There was a night in Belfast and an event in Chester. Another “Evening with Ryan Giggs” is scheduled in Northampton, plus two in Manchester alongside Paul Scholes, his former United team-mate. It is not quite Giggs on tour, but it does feel like a man putting himself back out there.

Is it what he imagined for himself at this stage of his life? Perhaps not, and the most decorated player in English football history will touch upon that when he is asked whether he is seeking a way back into management.

“There’s a bit of unfinished business,” Giggs tells the audience. “I was obviously enjoying coaching Wales. We had a pretty successful time. And yeah, I loved it. So I don’t see why not.”


Who is the real Ryan Giggs?

It is complicated, though, bearing in mind all the unpleasantness and excruciating detail that came out during the 2022 trial in which he denied subjecting his former girlfriend, Kate Greville, to three years of psychological and, at times, physical abuse.

It also seems to be understood why there are no follow-up questions. To go any further might involve having to explain why he had to stand down from the Wales job, why we rarely see him on television these days, why he does not tend to do interviews and why, it seems, potential employers might have reservations about taking him on.

To go further might involve having to ask why Giggs, a history-maker with an Order of the British Empire for his services to football and 13 Premier League titles, keeps being left off the competition’s Hall of Fame.

Giggs had been charged with controlling and coercive behaviour, headbutting Greville, 10 years his junior, and assaulting her younger sister, Emma. The jury at Manchester Crown Court could not reach a verdict. Then, shortly before the retrial was due to begin last year, Greville wrote to the court to say she no longer wanted to give evidence because she felt “worn down” and “violated” by the judicial process.

Ryan Giggs leaves Manchester Crown Court in August 2023 after the jury in his trial failed to reach a verdict (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

The judge issued not-guilty verdicts on all the alleged offences. “The position is, he has always been innocent of these charges,” Chris Daw KC, representing Giggs, told the court. “Going forward, he now looks to rebuild his life and career as an innocent man.”

And so, there are around 240 people in Radlett — just a few miles from Arsenal’s training ground — paying between £90 and £250 ($113 and $314) to see him, with the more expensive packages involving a meet-and-greet and a professionally taken photograph.

Giggs looks tanned, relaxed, trim — a regular, apparently, at Barry’s Bootcamp gym in Manchester — and his Salfordian accent seems more pronounced in a room mostly filled by southerners.

It is a friendly audience and, right from the start, Giggs reminds everyone that he has always been a crowd-pleaser. “The bar’s been open, has it?” is his opening line, as the most boisterous members of the audience have to be shushed down.

He talks about watching United’s FA Cup defeat of Liverpool at his mother’s house (“she hates Scousers more than anyone”) and why he believes Erik ten Hag should keep his job as manager. United, he says, have suffered from “crap” recruitment in the post-Ferguson years and he hopes INEOS will put that right.

The compere asks him to wish happy birthday to a United fan called Nina, who is in the audience with a group of friends. It is her 61st birthday and Giggs turns the charm on full beam. “I met her earlier,” he says. “She doesn’t look it.”

But he is here to talk about his own United career, for the most part, and the evening opens with a video montage reminding the audience why they cherished him so much as a player.

The footage shows Giggs, at 17, making his United debut in a shirt that seems a size or two too big for him. In between the mazy runs and spontaneous skills, there is a clip of Best himself, analysing the teenager. “One day,” he says, “they might say I was another Ryan Giggs.”

The video moves on to the goal at Villa Park — April 14, 1999 — that would be voted in 2004 as the greatest FA Cup moment of all time. Vieira gives the ball away and the audience start cheering. They know what is coming. So does the compere, Alan Keegan, usually United’s matchday announcer.

“Oh, this is the one,” says Keegan. “Keep going, keep going, keep going Ryan… wow! That is extraordinary.”

Ryan Giggs fires in his famous goal against Arsenal in 1999 (Shaun Botterill /Allsport

It would end up being voted the greatest goal in 50 years of the BBC’s Match of the Day. Giggs was 25 at the time and, incredibly, still had another 16 years ahead of him in United’s team.

“I left the ground on crutches,” says Giggs, whose Achilles had been damaged after a tackle by Dixon. “I thought my season was over. As I was getting on the bus, a reporter asked me: ‘Was that the greatest goal you ever scored?’.”

His answer, he explains, was that, no, he didn’t think it was. But he hadn’t seen it back at that point. “In my head, I was 30 yards out and I had beaten only a couple of players. It wasn’t until I got home, watching it on the news, that I realised I was that far out and that I’d beaten that many players.”

He leaves Radlett around 11pm and, by the following afternoon, he has made his way 190 miles north to watch Salford City take on Sutton United in League Two.

Giggs is the co-owner of Salford alongside Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham. It is the fourth tier of English football and, at times, there have been some unexpected challenges for the group of ex-United players known as the Class of ’92.

“It’s different, especially when you have been in football at the top level,” says Giggs. “When we first took over, the manager had booked a two-week holiday in pre-season. ‘I book my family holiday at the same time every year’. But it’s your job, isn’t it? ‘I’m not changing it’. So yeah, we had a few things we had to get our heads around.”

Sutton begin the day in the relegation zone, dangerously close to falling out of the EFL. It is 87th versus 91st at the start of play, in a ladder of 92 clubs. And it is a bad day for Salford, in a game of blood and thunder, a fair bit of thud and blunder, and not a great amount of skill. Salford lose 2-1 and the home fans in a crowd of 2,983 go home disappointed.

Overall, though, it has been a story of near-unremitting success, involving four promotions, since the Class of ’92 took control of Salford 10 years ago, backed by the wealth of Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim.

“We love it,” Giggs tells the audience in Radlett. “Myself, Gary, Nicky, Scholesy. Phil and Becks are in America so don’t get to a lot of games. But the rest of the lads do. Roy Keane loves coming to home games. Steve Bruce comes because his son, Alex, is now assistant manager. So there’s a real United connection.”

Ryan Giggs takes his seat at Salford City, where he is director of football (Ben Roberts Photo/Getty Images)

The Athletic is there, too, though it is difficult not to get the feeling our presence is less welcome. Salford get in touch two days before the game to ask what we want to write about, which doesn’t usually happen. Giggs, we are told, is not expected to be there.

In the end, they approve our accreditation request. The only logical explanation, however, is that there are people at the club who are not keen on Giggs being the subject of interest.

A few weeks back, it was revealed that Giggs had been working for Salford all season as director of football. As well as going to all the home games, it means he is there for the majority of their away fixtures, too. So he has plenty to keep him busy, even if it is noticeable that his appointment was not announced at the time.

Nor is he afraid to make the hard calls, judging by the story Robbie Savage, director of football at non-League Macclesfield Town, told recently about Giggs ringing him in February “to warn me that Salford City were poaching my manager”.

Savage, who was once in United’s youth system with Giggs, recalled the conversation in his column for the Daily Mirror newspaper. “I thought Giggsy was calling to arrange a game of padel tennis, which we play occasionally, but this time he opened the conversation with, ‘You’re not going to like this’.

“He said Salford wanted to speak to Alex Bruce, who had guided Macclesfield into the Northern Premier League play-off places and quarter-finals of the FA Trophy, two steps from Wembley. Laughing, but disappointed, I replied, ‘First you take my place in the 1992 FA Youth Cup final team and now you’re taking my manager?’.”

Is Giggs actively applying for managerial jobs of his own? His brief spell as United’s caretaker manager in 2014 was, he says, the proudest he has ever felt. It also left him convinced he could do the job full-time. But it is far from straightforward when, unfortunately for Giggs, it is also clear that prospective employers would have to consider the damage to his reputation.

Ryan Giggs called his spell in caretaker charge of United his proudest moment (Andrew Yates/AFP via Getty Images)

“George Best has a statue outside Old Trafford and his charge sheet off the pitch is much worse than Ryan’s,” says the writer and author Frank Worrall. “So if that’s the yardstick, Giggs should have one, too. Not that he ever will. Times and attitudes have changed. Best wouldn’t get one now, either — protest groups wouldn’t stand for it.”

In 2010, Worrall brought out a biography, Giggsy, that eulogised in the main about a player he regarded as “a personable guy away from the pitch and a genius on it”.

Worrall can vividly remember that epic semi-final against Arsenal when Keane was sent off, Peter Schmeichel saved Dennis Bergkamp’s 90th-minute penalty and Giggs’ wonder goal pushed United closer towards what was, back then, an unprecedented treble.

“The utter audacity of it,” says Worrall. “The interception, the dazzling dribble past bemused defenders, the hammer shot beyond David Seaman. The shirt off, twirling it in the air. The chest hair, the congratulatory hugs. The whole bloody miracle of a snatched glory in the face of 10-men adversity.”

Giggs, he adds, “is, and always will be, a Manchester United legend… a footballing legend”.

Over the years, however, Worrall has had to get used to the idea that “the Bobby Charlton-style, clean-as-a-whistle family man” was not the person he thought him to be. And that can be conflicting — “Sir Bobby he certainly ain’t” — when Worrall counts Giggs in his top five United players from the 1970s onwards.

“Ryan contributed as much to United as anyone ever,” he says. “Thirty-four trophies from 1991 to 2013, the most appearances (963), the first and last of the Class of ’92 to play for the club and United’s most decorated player… a winger-turned-midfielder genius who tore the opposition apart, again and again.”

Against that kind of backdrop, there are many people in football who think it is wrong, and certainly inconsistent, that the Premier League has excluded Giggs from the latest shortlist of possible Hall of Famers.

Yes, there are other stories about Giggs’ private life that will be held against him. And, yes, it only needs a cursory look through the internet to understand, for example, why his relationship with his younger brother, Rhodri, has suffered badly.

Yet the Premier League inducted Tony Adams into its Hall of Fame last year, even though the former Arsenal captain had previously served a prison sentence for drink-driving.

John Terry, the former Chelsea captain, is one of the 15 players on this year’s shortlist, despite being banned for four matches and fined £220,000 by a Football Association commission that decided he had racially abused Anton Ferdinand, then of Queens Park Rangers.

Perhaps the best way of summing it up is that Giggs may just have to accept that he is always going to polarise opinion but that, in football terms alone, his achievements are as solid as the foundations of Old Trafford itself.

“You cannot separate genius from Ryan Giggs,” Ferguson said after the 1999 semi-final against Arsenal that, 20 years later, was ranked No 38 in The Times’ 50 Greatest Football Matches.

That genius has been tarnished over recent years. In football, however, where there is genius, there will also be adoration. And, however complicated it can be in the rest of his life, Giggs will always be guaranteed that in a room filled with United fans.

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