Jonathan Westwood

Ryan Giggs: legendary footballing genius

Created on 19 May., 2014 9:33 PM GMT

If there’s one word overused in 21st century football, it’s “legend”. It feels like players can attain the status of a “legend” these days just by staying at the same club for more than 3 seasons.

For example, when Liverpool were riding high on top of the table a couple of months ago I heard some dimwit on a radio phone-in claim that Luis Suárez is a “Liverpool legend”.

No, he is not.

He is a player who has played 110 games and scored 69 goals for Liverpool over the course of 40 months. That goal-to-game ratio is fantastic and he is an exceptional footballer. However, he has helped the club win only 1 minor trophy, been banned for 19 matches for 3 separate instances of indiscipline, and as recently as 9 months ago publicly asked to leave the club.

If anybody seriously wants to debate Suárez’s entry into the LFC Hall of Fame, have another go in about 7 years if he’s won a hatful of league titles and at least 1 European Cup.

I’m old enough to have seen Kenny Dalglish play for Liverpool in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was in his prime. Kenny Dalglish is a true legend: 3 European Cups, 6 league titles, 1 FA Cup, and 4 League Cups - and that’s just in his 11 years as a Liverpool player (355 appearances, 118 goals). And he was a joy to watch.

It cheapens the language, and is shockingly lazy, to compare Suárez to someone like Dalglish. Maybe in time the comparison will hold water. For now, it’s just fatuous.

But with Ryan Giggs’ retirement today, the word “legend” feels, if anything, as though it's not quite enough.

He’s the most decorated player in the history of English football. In 126 years of professional football in this country, nobody has achieved more than Ryan Joseph Giggs OBE: 2 European Cups, 13 league titles, 4 FA Cups, 4 League Cups - and a further 12 minor cup wins.

He made more appearances for Manchester United (963) than any other player in their history.

Giggs made his debut as long ago as 2nd March 1991. John Major had been Prime Minister for only 94 days, a new TV phenomenon called Bart Simpson had the #1 single in the UK charts, and the English Premier League didn’t even exist.

But - for me - what seals Giggs’ status as a true footballing legend is about much more than the longevity of Giggs’ career, the number of medals he won, or even his loyalty to one club.

It’s about the way he played the game.

Ryan Giggs was a truly beautiful footballer. Before he lost some of his pace as he aged, it was genuinely exhilarating just to watch him run with the ball.

Sir Alex Ferguson once said that watching Giggs dribble with the ball as a teenager was like watching a cocker spaniel chase after a piece of shiny paper in the wind. And that wasn’t an exaggeration.

Even when he was tearing Tottenham’s defence apart - something he did with tedious regularity for 20 years - I wanted him to get the ball just to see what he’d do with it. It was the same feeling I had when watching true footballing geniuses like Glenn Hoddle or Zinedine Zidane play the game.

While Dalglish was a phenomenal footballer, he was shorter and stockier than Giggs and didn’t possess the same kind of pace. There was just something about Ryan Giggs that looked majestic in a way that professional footballers rarely do.

And he managed to exercise sufficient self control never to have been sent off in his 963 club appearances. (He received the only red card of his career while making one of his 64 appearances for Wales. The naughty scamp.)

Many influences combined in the early 1990s to help save English football from the pariah status it had acquired through the 1970s and 1980s - and the emergence of Ryan Giggs was one of those influences. Victoria Adams may have eventually married David Beckham, but she had a poster of Ryan Giggs on her bedroom wall long before meeting Goldenballs.

Almost alongside the misuse of the word “legend” is the overuse of the phrase “end of an era”. But this evening it really feels like a book has been closed forever.

And I’m not even a Manchester United fan. They must be crying in their pint glasses in Surrey tonight.

Good luck in the future, Ryan. And thank you.