It was hardly the best goal he would ever score – some would say it was actually a Colin Hendry own goal – but when Ryan Giggs’ marked his first Manchester United start by scoring the winner in a Manchester derby a star was born.
Here was a teenage boy with the audacity, belief and talent to catch even Sir Alex Ferguson off guard, describing him as:
Like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.
Giggs was the kind of player Old Trafford hadn’t seen since George Best, and the kind of icon Manchester hadn’t had since Morrissey.
Don’t look back in anger
But now that Giggs has announced his retirement from the game, moving into a role as assistant manager under Louis Van Gaal’s new regime, it’s time to look back on a glittering career.
The eulogies rained down on Giggs after his announcement. The likes of Bryan Robson, Pele, Mark Hughes and David Beckham paid tribute to the 40-year old, as #GiggsLegend trended on Twitter.
Naturally, United fans recalled his greatest hits. There was the stunning strike against QPR in 1994 and the goal against Wigan that secured the Red Devils their 17th league title.
Of course, his solo goal against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-finals sticks in the memory as a career defining moment of spell-binding brilliance.
He gave Giggsy the ball, and Arsenal won fuck all, the United support still sing to this day.
There is no question over what Giggs achieved across his 23-year career at United, but how much further could he have risen? Giggs was good but he should have been great.
History will remember Giggs as Manchester United’s most decorated player. His legend is undoubted. Just like the manager who he played under for all but one of his years at the club, Giggs is the embodiment of United. And United is a reflection of Giggs.
I am immensely proud, honoured and fortunate to have represented the biggest club in the world 963 times and Wales 64 times he wrote in an open letter to United fans.
It’s appropriate that Giggs should mention specifically how many times he played for club and country, because that’s the biggest accolade that can be attached to his career.
Sure, he has a collection of medals that would make Michael Phelps blush – winning no less than 35 trophies in total – but his personal achievement doesn’t quite match up. Giggs will be remembered for the records and numbers he racked up, rather than what he did with those numbers.
Was Giggs even the best of the famed ‘Class of 92’? Probably not.
I could have been a contender
Paul Scholes was certainly a more accomplished player. Even David Beckham enjoyed a more rounded career, captaining his country at two World Cups, while winning titles in England, Spain, France and the US.
Roy Keane and Eric Cantona also outshone Giggs over the course of his two-decade long stint at United. And the development of Cristiano Ronaldo over the past decade shows what Giggs could have been.
Where is the Ballon d’Or in Giggs’ trophy cabinet? Even the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award was won on the basis of sentimentality, awarded almost out of guilt that he’d gone so long without winning one.
Obviously his loyalty and longevity should be admired, but the Welshman has been nothing more than a solid squad player for the past five years or so. Even in his prime, will he ever be categorized alongside greats of his generation like Zinedine Zidane or Ronaldo (the Brazilian one)?
In an age without La Liga on satellite TV, YouTube clips of teenage wunderkinds from far-flung corners of the globe and Joga Bonito adverts, Giggs was a bolt of flair, a rarity in the still machismo, straight-edged world of English football.
He was impulsive, potent and lightning quick. Giggs in his pomp was a force of nature, but the truth is his best years came too early. Such a high starting point suggested even better was still to come. It wasn’t.
Giggs reinvented himself in order to prolong his career at the top level as much as he could, but in the process he robbed us, and himself of course, of his full potential.
He lost his identity, becoming a solid enough central midfielder from about 2004 on, leaving behind the marauding, exhilarating wing wizard he once was all too briefly.
Even before the consequences of age took hold, Giggs would opt to play a pass rather than take a shot, cross it into the box instead of dribbling past an opponent.
As he got older Giggs grew wiser but that was to the detriment of what made him great as a younger man.
United will miss Giggs, but they’ve been missing him for some time already.