At 40, Ryan Giggs showing no signs of decline
MANCHESTER, England (AP) - Ryan Giggs' path to becoming the most durable and decorated player of the English Premier League era can be traced back almost 32 years, to the moment his precocious talents were spotted by a milkman on a muddy school pitch in north-west Manchester.
''He was just like a gazelle, flying up the wing,'' recalled Dennis Schofield, who happened to also be a scout at Manchester City. ''I thought, `Flipping heck, he's good this kid.'''
Giggs was just 8 at the time, but his close control, pace and skills had Schofield salivating.
''He is the most outstanding player I've seen at that age, even now. Like Stanley Matthews,'' Schofield, now 82, told The Associated Press.
Three decades on and the comparison with Matthews could not be more apt. Like the England great, who played top-level football until he was 50, Giggs' longevity is going down in folklore.
On Friday, the Manchester United midfielder turned 40. His hair is thinning and greying, his turn of pace isn't what it was, and he is used more sparingly by the English champions, where he is now also part of the coaching staff under manager David Moyes.
But Giggs the player is showing no sign of decline. From central midfield, he was the driving force behind United's devastating 5-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday in the Champions League, club football's top and most intense competition. He played 90 minutes, too.
And don't be surprised to see him featuring for United against Tottenham in the Premier League on Sunday. That would be his 953rd club appearance, all coming for United since his debut in 1991.
''I don't know what the younger lads think of me,'' Giggs said. ''When I was 17 and 18, I thought 31 was ancient. Here I am, at 40.''
Teddy Sheringham, Kevin Phillips (who is still playing in the top flight for Crystal Palace) and Gordon Strachan are the only other outfield footballers to have played in the Premier League in their fifth decade. But none of the trio performed at the elite level throughout their careers as Giggs has done - and no one has come near his haul of titles and medals.
The list keeps growing: 13 Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, three League Cups, two Champions Leagues, one UEFA Super Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and a Club World Cup.
He is the only player to have scored a goal in every Premier League season, has the most appearances in the Champions League (148), and played 1,021 professional games for club and country.
His solo goal in the FA Cup semifinal replay against Arsenal in 1999, where he set off from inside his own half, jinked round three defenders and slammed a shot into the roof of the net, has gone down as one of the greatest goals in English football.
Giggs doesn't see himself quitting any time soon, either. Since turning 30, he has undertaken regular yoga sessions, which is an accepted method of keeping in shape even if, years ago, it earned funny looks in the macho world of football.
He has also refined his game, playing deeper in midfield rather than on the wings. He relies on speed of thought rather than the speed of his legs, and he is way ahead of the rest.
''He's an unbelievable footballer,'' Moyes said, ''and is even getting better.''
Tributes to Giggs poured in from across the country on Friday. Moyes said he ''undoubtedly'' the league's best ever player and former teammate Mark Hughes - now manager at Stoke - said the success Giggs has had ''won't be replicated by anyone.''
''Maybe he is like a good Bordeaux (wine),'' Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger mused, ''he gets better as he gets older.''
Schofield believes the natural fitness Giggs is blessed with means he could go on for another four of five years - and he has been right about the Welshman before.
Schofield recalls his chance first encounter with Giggs as if it was yesterday.
''I was on my milkfloat this day and all these kids came out of school,'' he said in a phone interview. ''I said, `Are you going playing?' and they said, `Yeah, just down the road.'
''So I parked my milkfloat up and went and watched them. They kicked off and this young lad, 8 years old, playing on the left wing. My, he had some pace on him, good control. Everything.''
Schofield spoke to Giggs' mother, who was watching on the touchline, and invited the youngster to train with a local team, Deans. He spent years nurturing Giggs, taking him on tours to the Isle of Wight where, Schofield reminisces, ''parents left their own teams, their own kids who were playing, to come across and watch Ryan play.''
Then came the moment Schofield has forever regretted.
''I got him down to Man City and told the chief scout, `When he is 14, you'd better be down at his house because there will be quite a few clubs knocking on his door. He told me not to worry, that (Giggs') father has shaken hands on it and will sign for us.
''Well, on that morning he was 14, the only people who were at his house were Alex Ferguson and (former United scout) Joe Brown. They signed him on. Our chief scout was still sat in his office, waiting for him to come down to City. And the rest is history.''
City's loss was United's gain - and 26 years later, Giggs is still ramming that message home.
''I still enjoy training, the buzz before the game, the buzz when we win,'' Giggs told The Times of London. ''As long as that lasts, I'll carry on.''
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