Ryan Giggs: Nice guy finishes first
The Guardian, Saturday 2 October 2010
I'm waiting for Ryan Giggs when I notice a great white handlebar moustache strolling down the corridor. "Hello, Harry," I say. Harry Swales, Giggs's 84-year-old agent, is unmistakable. We chat for a good few seconds before I notice that Giggs is standing next to him; tanned, handsome, ski-slope cheeks, one of the most recognisable faces in world football – and somehow invisible. He looks like a little boy, polite and obedient, out for the day with his eccentric grandad.
Giggs has had a remarkable career. Having won a record 11 Premier League titles with Manchester United and countless other trophies, he's Britain's most successful footballer. At the ridiculously old age of 35, years after most wingers have hung up their boots, he was voted footballer of the year by his fellow players. Last December, at the even more ridiculous age of 36, he was named BBC sports personality of the year.
Giggs has a surprisingly complex identity. He grew up as Ryan Wilson, playing for Manchester City Boys and captaining England Schoolboys, and ended up as Ryan Giggs, making more appearances for United than any other player and captaining Wales. Most people think of him as white, but he's mixed race – his father, the former Swinton rugby player Danny Wilson, is black.
His father has been a huge influence on him. "He was my first hero. I never really had footballers I worshipped – I loved Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, people like that – but watching him perform for three or four years every Sunday home and away, he was so talented. Going to training with him, he was someone I looked up to." But he also despised him – Wilson was an aggressive bully to Giggs's mother, and walked out on the family when Giggs was 15. In his autobiography, Giggs described the welter of emotions as he carried his father's bag to the station for him for the last time – loss, hurt, anger.
A year later he changed his name from Wilson to his mother's, Giggs. Was that a big decision? "Yeah, it was. I'd always been Wilson through school. United were in Italy for a youth tournament and I'd just had my passport done, and the referee came in and he read out all the passports, and he read my name out and I said, 'Yeah, that's me' and everyone just went, 'What?' " Was he disowning his father by changing his name? He ums and ahs. "No, not really. Not really. It was more that 'I'm with my Mum' than a statement to my dad." Today, he is extremely close to his mother and rarely sees his father.
As a boy, he suffered racism, even though most people assumed he was white. "Where I grew up, people obviously knew my dad because it's a small place and he was the top player for Swinton – they'd go and watch him play, see him in the papers, so they knew he was black." Is his blackness important to him? "Yeah, of course it is. It's your roots. It's who you are, it's what you are."
In the past, Giggs has said his parents' fraught relationship helped his football – toughened him up. Today, he says he's not sure that's quite right. "Maybe not toughened up. Maybe escapism from the tough times at home. It was a release."
Giggs could just as easily have been a rugby player. He played for Salford Boys and Lancashire, and was due to have trials for Great Britain when he signed for United. I look him up and down sceptically. "Yeah, you look at me now and say, 'You? A rugby player!' but at that age I was quite tall, quick, and grew up in a rugby environment."
He made his first-team debut for United at 17. From the off it was obvious he was special – a phenomenal mix of pace, grace and wing wizardry. He's been described as the most beautiful runner in football; Alex Ferguson said of the way he attacked full-backs, ball glued to his feet, turning one way, then the other, "Giggs can twist your blood."
Alex Ferguson presents Ryan Giggs with his trophy as Manchester United's Young Player of the Year, 1992. Photograph: Manchester Evening News Syndication
He was part of the astonishing youth squad, alongside Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt, that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992. While Beckham eventually flew the nest and became a global brand, Scholes and Giggs shied away from the limelight and became one-club wonders. It's tempting to think of them as throwbacks to a lost age, but even half a century ago few footballers stayed with the one club, and even fewer played at the highest level into their late 30s. On every front, Scholes and Giggs are footballing freaks.
How have they managed to stay so normal in the era of the egomaniacal footballers? "It's just your character," Giggs says.
Why have so many players lost touch with reality? "Too much money at a young age," he says instantly. "It just takes your eye off the ball. And you're not as hungry as players used to be. You think you've made it before you've done anything. Even me, I still feel I can do things, there's still unfinished business."
Swales, who is sitting with us, starts to rage about the modern footballer. "They get to be 16 or 17, they score two or three goals, the newspapers blow them up to be something superhuman," he says. "And then they say, 'It's the pressure.' Bollocks! What pressure? See, Ryan appreciates he is doing something he enjoys, and he also enjoys what it brings, and by putting that with his family and his home, he's got the perfect life, so why bugger it up by playing away or insulting somebody?" As Swales fumes, Giggs sits with his hands on the table, undemonstrative, listening.
Swales says that when he first met Giggs he was unbelievably shy. Giggs laughs. "You never spoke to me for three months," Swales says. "I said to him, 'Are you all right?' and he just nodded. And I said, 'Do you speak?' "
Giggs: "When I made my debut, I was on YTS, earning £29.50 a week, and £10 expenses. Forty quid, and I was in the first team. It didn't bother me."
Swales: "I bet you felt that you were a millionaire."
Giggs: "And the manager promised me that the more you play, the more I'll reward you. That's gone out of the window now. It's not just the players, it's the culture. Sometimes it's the people around them; the people who are looking after them – the money they're given. Some of the families give up their jobs and live off their sons. That would never have happened 10 years ago."
"Some of these birds…" Swales mutters to himself.
United's kids were lucky in that they had Ferguson to guide them. A lasting image of young Giggs is Ferguson leading him away from the press, a protective arm round his shoulder. Even now we know remarkably little about his life. There have been few pictures in the papers of his wife, Stacey, let alone his children. "I learned it from an early age. I was in the papers and I just didn't enjoy it. They want to know everything about your girlfriend. And once that starts you can't stop it." In his new picture-led book, he has provided a rare photo of him and Stacey on their wedding day, but that's about it on the family front. "Why does anybody need to know anything?"
He says Ferguson told them time and again how lucky they were, how they could never become complacent. "A good example is Becks. He's still as hungry as anyone to play football. People will knock him, but everybody in football respects what he's done, how he's done it." Was he frightened of Ferguson? "I'm not going to lie – growing up, he was scary. How he'd have a go at you, and it didn't matter who you were. He was a scary character." I ask if he'll do an impression of Fergie's famous "hairdryer" blasting? "I couldn't even begin to do an impression. I met him when I was 13 and now I'm 36, so the relationship is totally different. He was a lot more scary then."
What's the worst thing Ferguson has said to him? "He might have said a couple of times, 'You'll never play for the club again.' " What had he done to merit that? "I don't know. Probably shot when I should have crossed! The thing about the gaffer is, he's had loads of gos at me, but the next day it's forgotten."
Is it true that he was next to Beckham when Fergie kicked the football boot into his face? "Yeah, Becks used to change next to me, so it just flew past me." Was it a hard shot? "It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. You couldn't do it if you tried a million times." Where did it hit Beckham? "Just on the eye." What was the mood like in the changing room after that? Look, he says, so much has been made out of this one incident. "What you've got to realise is that footballers, and me in particular, have seen everything in the changing room. Everything. I've seen the manager kicking off with the players, the players kicking off with him, players fighting each other, managers fighting, everything."
The greatest change in his footballing life, he says, is the attitude to privacy and celebrity. Everything is up for grabs today, nothing is sacred. There are countless stings, girls selling stories, and even some of the players themselves seem to measure their renown as much by front-page exploits as back-page achievements.
"I don't think that's just football. Celebrity culture, it's everywhere, isn't it? It's reality TV, Big Brother. I didn't become a footballer to be famous, I became a footballer to be successful. I didn't want to be famous. Now people want to be famous. Why? Why would you want people following you about all day? I couldn't think of anything worse."
I have a theory about modern footballers – they are paid such ridiculous money that they lose all sense of value and everything, women included, becomes a commodity. Just in the past few weeks two England footballers, Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch, have been exposed by the tabloids. Giggs nods diplomatically and keeps his counsel. "I don't know."
Swales has got his theories, too. "In the old days, footballers were lucky if they had a Ford Popular and lived in a semi-detached. What sort of cop was that for a girl? But now 17 Bentleys, four Ferraris, a house in Marbella, and they throw money around like it's going out of fashion."
Giggs grins. What's the flashiest thing he's bought? He looks embarrassed. "Probably cars." How many has he got? "Oh, I've had my Ferraris and my Porsches."
Swales: "And your Aston Villas…"
Giggs: "Aston Martin, yes. It's still a weakness. I've just had to rein it in a little bit." So how many cars has he got now? "Just the one." That's pathetic, I say – call yourself a footballer. What is it? "What's my car? Bentley!" He snorts.
Apart from the cars and a nice house, Giggs is remarkably unchanged. He hangs out with many of his schoolboy friends, and lives within a mile of where he grew up and went to school. "I just saw my old PE teacher in the bar."
In the 2009/10 British Football Rich List, Giggs was fifth with an estimated £24m, while Beckham left everyone trailing with £125m. Does he think top players are paid too much today? No, he says, that's not the problem. "Always, in any sport, the top people get paid top dollar. The problem is now that average players, young players, are getting paid top money as well… When I first got into the team, I didn't know what so and so was on, I didn't really care, but now everybody seems to know." It leads to a spiral of greed, he says. "It makes players go to agents and say, 'That average player's getting so and so, I want some of that.' Never mind, 'I want to play at the same club 10-15 years', it's just, 'I want to earn that money.' "
The best players bring in the crowds, he says, and there's lots of money sloshing around football so they deserve a good whack. But isn't that the problem? The reality for many clubs is that they are broke. When Manchester United were bought by the Glazer family in a £790m debt-financed takeover, the world's most valuable club became the world's most indebted, leading to mass protests by fans. Would he like to see the Glazers go? "Would I?" he asks with a mini gulp.
"Nothing to do with him," Swales says.
"As players, you just play for the club. I love Man United, I'm going to play for Man United, and that's what my focus is on."
Focus is a big word for Giggs. He says he had to be incredibly focused to make it in the first place, and even more so to keep his career going. He talks about his capacity to block things out. He did it when his parents were fighting at home, he does it when he sees other players getting into trouble and he does it when confronted with the financial problems facing his club.
The trick, he says, is just get on with it, don't think about it. People are always asking when he's going to retire, what next (he was recently touted as the new Wales coach), and he doesn't have a clue.
"The last two or three years, you just see how the season goes, sit down and chat with the gaffer at Christmas and go from there."
He's having his photo taken, and it's a classic Giggs pose – serious, still, focused. "You must be pretty chuffed with how things have worked out, I say. "I don't think…" He stops, apologetically. "Honest, I keep saying I don't think about it, but I don't. I just enjoy it while it lasts." When it's all finally over, he says, and only then, will there be time for reflection.