It’s nigh-on impossible to draw up a Premier League all-time XI with mentioning the name Ryan Giggs.
The Cardiff-born winger spent an incredible 24 years at Manchester United, making 963 appearances for the club and scoring 168 goals. In that time he would cover his mantelpiece with just about every winner’s medal available to him, along with the occasional personal accolade along the way.
Following his breakthrough season in 1991/92, Giggs would play a major part in defining the early Premier League years, with his lightning pace and quick feet bamboozling right-backs as the Red Devils claimed the inaugural Premier League title, subsequently embarking on a dynasty which would see them notch eight league titles in 11 years.
Giggs’ astronomic rise to prominence brought about controversy, with many beginning to question why the United winger had opted to play for Wales having represented the England Under-16s. However, contrary to popular belief, the United man was never eligible to play for the Three Lions, despite his numerous caps at Schoolboy level.
Regardless of his ineligibility to play for England, Giggs always insisted that he would never have turned his back on Wales, and that he was only awarded caps for the Three Lions at youth level because of where he was playing his football at the time.
"I'm Welsh through and through - I was born in Wales, I grew up in Wales and my family are Welsh,” he said. "I only played for England Schoolboys because I went to an English school."
"I'd rather go through my entire career without qualifying for a major championship than play for a country where I wasn't born or which my parents didn't have anything to do with.”
Very few footballers have the honour bestowed upon them of being a winner of England’s fiercely competitive top tier, yet even fewer do so at the tender age of 19. Fame struck Giggs like a steam train, something which he openly concedes he struggled to cope with.
The pressure which came with being branded ‘the new George Best’ was of course enormous, coupled with a multi-million pound Reebok deal, endless letters from adoring fans, thousands of column inches in tabloid newspapers and even the occasional stalker to contend with, Giggs was tasked with growing up very quickly, though his maturity off the pitch mirrored his displays on the pitch.
Giggs was the David Beckham of Manchester United before David Beckham was, and in a weird sort of way, Beckham’s innate ability for headline-grabbing perhaps aided Giggs’ development. One of the greatest wingers in world football was never going to be able to fly under the radar, though the emergence of his teammate at least afforded him some breathing space.
Very few world-class attacking players go throughout their entire career without producing one moment of absolute undeniable genius. A piece of play which they’ll forever be associated with in years to come and that fans present at the time of their standout moment will proudly boast ‘I was there that night’.
Villa Park. 14 April 1999. United face Arsenal in their FA Cup semi-final replay, looking to overcome their bitter rivals and keep their treble hopes alive. With the score locked at 1-1 the game edges towards extra time with the Gunners beginning to rue Dennis Bergkamp’s missed penalty.
It would be understandable to see Sir Alex Ferguson’s men beginning to settle for the lottery of penalties after a gruelling contest which was nearly nearly two hours old by this point, however, as Patrick Vieira uncharacteristically misplaced a pass just inside United’s half, Giggs decided enough was enough.
The Welsh wonder sprinted at the Arsenal backline as though it were minute one, weaving and darting through defenders, slaloming past challenges and overcoming all who dared confront him, before finally catching a glimpse of the whites of David Seaman’s eyes and thundering a left-footed drive into the roof of the helpless England international’s net.
What followed was perhaps more iconic than the goal itself, with Giggs unable to contain his joy and subsequently whipping off his shirt to reveal some sort of tightly woven Moroccan rug on his chest. The celebration may have been hilarious, but it was still an absolute wonder strike.
Phil Neville was lucky enough to have the best seat in the house as he admired the strike from the left-back berth, describing the goal as quintessential Giggs.
“I stood still, and it was like slow motion in and out, gliding in and out,” he said. “He’s like a gazelle. He had this grace about him and he was making body movements without even touching the ball and Lee Dixon went wrong, Martin Keown went wrong. I just saw him going through going through…that was Ryan Giggs; that was what Ryan Giggs was all about; this was Giggs’s moment.”
Towards the latter stages of his career the Wales international would move into central midfield, a role he would not only adequately fill but would excel in, going on to be named PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 2009 at the age of 35.
Giggs’ seamless transition from winger to central midfield was yet further evidence of his brilliance, with a 24-year career at the very top testament to the sacrifice and commitment he’d displayed throughout his time at United.
In recent years he seems to have spent just as much time on the front pages as he had done on the back pages during his playing career, yet the off-field drama that surrounds him shouldn’t detract from the absolute genius of a footballer he was. A one in a million who helped define the Premier League and propelled United back to greatness.