Ryan Giggs: 20 years at the top
© Getty Images

In one sense, there was an element of symmetry to it. Last night, 20 years on, Ryan Giggs’ 863rd Manchester United appearance ended just as his first had: in defeat.
Yet although Chelsea simply succeeded in doing to the Red Devils legend what Everton had to a skinny 17-year-old on 2 March 1991, there seemed something ill-fitting about the outcome at Stamford Bridge. After all, if there is one thing Giggs has perfected in the intervening decades, it is the art of winning.

As Jose Mourinho said in a tribute to evergreen 37-year-old: “The proof is in the medals.” Certainly, those winner's baubles – 11 in the Premier League, eight from domestic cups and two in the UEFA Champions League - have established Giggs as the most decorated player in English football history.

Sir Alex Ferguson has described him as the greatest player of the Premier League era, while United’s fans recently bestowed an even greater compliment by voting him the club’s greatest-ever player. Giggs, typically unassuming, said that he “genuinely couldn’t believe” he had beaten the likes of George Best and Bobby Charlton. But few elsewhere were surprised.

Everton captain Phil Neville said of his former team-mate: “He’s my hero. I know United have had some great players, but he’s won everything, he’s broken almost every record, so he stands alone now as probably one of the greatest players who has ever lived. Even now, he is still putting in unbelievable performances. If young players need to know how to live their lives, they should look no further than Ryan Giggs. He is the real football superstar.”

He’s won everything, he’s broken almost every record, so he stands alone now as probably one of the greatest players who has ever lived.
Phil Neville on Ryan Giggs

Longevity undoubtedly helped him edge ahead of players such as Best, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo, whose stars burned brightly at Old Trafford, but over a shorter period. Giggs, however, earns only deep admiration from Cantona for his ability to maintain not only his standards, but his desire.

"We are very different personalities," Cantona reflected. "Me, when I do things, I fall in love with them very quickly. I'm lucky because I have a lot of passions, so it's not a problem for me to go from one to another. But I admire this kind of person, I admire Ryan, because he still plays with a passion. I admire that, because it's so far away from my personality. It's the same for [Paolo] Maldini, players like this."

Maldini, a fellow model professional who survived - and thrived - over two decades at another of the world’s great clubs, is perhaps the only modern-day player whose achievements can be compared to those of Giggs. Yet no-one will need reminding that while the AC Milan icon starred in four FIFA World Cups™, Giggs will retire having never graced the game’s greatest stage. 

He was eligible to represent England, and Bryan Robson – an idol of his – made early overtures to persuade him to do just that. However, the Cardiff-born youngster’s mind was set on turning out for Wales, a choice that has left even some of his fellow countrymen to wonder what might have been.

"He's proud of his Welsh background like I am,” said Clayton Blackmore, who played alongside Giggs for both club and country. “But if he'd played for England during the seven or eight years when he was at his absolute best, he'd perhaps have been the greatest player on the world stage.”

Giggs himself claims to have no regrets, once telling FIFA.com that he had never questioned that early decision. “The World Cup is special - your first memory of football as a boy is the World Cup,” he admitted. “But I can't complain at all. I've had a good career and I wouldn't swap it for anyone else's.”

I can't complain at all. I've had a good career and I wouldn't swap it for anyone else's.
Ryan Giggs

No wonder. Giggs has adapted over the years, morphing from an explosive, flying winger to an astute, intelligent midfielder, but success is the one element that has remained constant. Even in defeat last night, he was still making history, equalling Bobby Charlton’s record of 606 league appearances for United. Giggs has long since held the record in all competitions, having surpassed Charlton’s mark of 758 on 21 May 2008 – fittingly, the night he claimed his second Champions League winner’s medal.

For those wondering how he has managed to stay on top for so long, his manager points to Giggs’ shunning of alcohol, chocolate and fast food, twice-weekly yoga sessions and regular sessions with an osteopath and acupuncturist. Yet an enduring hunger and hatred of defeat seems to have been just as important. As Giggs explained this week: "Last year, for example, when Chelsea won the double - it winds you up. You don't want to feel like you did last summer. You want to feel like the year before when you won the league. You think about those moments just as much as you think about the things you've won. Probably more."

Fortunately, Giggs has spent precious little time wallowing in disappointments. Whenever he does retire – and, with a new contract just signed, that doesn’t seem imminent – it will be as the most decorated player that Old Trafford and England has ever seen.

As we attempt to put the Giggs era in perspective, it’s worth looking at the context in which he made his debut all those years ago. In March 1991, a 2-0 defeat to Everton wasn’t unusual for a Manchester United side without a win in its last seven matches – and without a league title in almost 25 years.

These days, the mere thought of United starved of success and Sir Alex Ferguson under threat seems incredible. Giggs will inevitably shun credit for the subsequent transformation, but his skill and consistency have helped establish his club as England’s dominant force – and secured his reputation as one of the game’s all-time greats.