Robbie Savage was certain which way his vote would be headed. Interviewed after Derby's defeat by Manchester United in the FA Cup at the weekend, the flamboyantly coiffured Welshman said of course he would be voting for Ryan Giggs as footballer of the year. What other choice was there?
Hard though it is to take seriously the opinions of a man in his thirties wearing an alice band, Savage has a point. Sure, you can make a very good case for Ashley Young, Robin van Persie or Nemanja Vidic as the outstanding performer this season. If nothing else, all of them have played more games than Giggs, all of them have been more crucial to their team's progress, all of them have scored more goals (and that includes Vidic). Yet there is something about Giggs's claim that makes it almost irresistible. And not all of that is due to nostalgia.
Watching Giggs on Sunday was to see a player having the time of his life. Starting up front, he drifted all over the place, providing incisive, penetrating passes at every turn. Never mind that the goal was ruled out for offside, his flick for Cristiano Ronaldo to run on and score was so artistic it could have been framed and hung in a gallery. At 35 he no longer has the searing pace that marked him out in his youth, but these days he has added a whole new dimension to his play.
And it is not just against weaker opposition like Derby in which he unfurls his tricks. Against Chelsea at Old Trafford last month he was the outstanding performer, running the game from the middle of the park, tackling back, exploiting space, thinking, always thinking and thus giving the over-developed egos of the Blues midfield a lesson in application and team ethics. That game alone would have been sufficient to mark him as a candidate for the big annual awards.
But there is far more to Giggs's candidacy than just his touches. He is - and this is no less true because it is now a cliche - the model professional. Which, given where he came from and how he arrived on the scene is a remarkable achievement. When he first arrived at Manchester United, the hype was insistent and cacophonous. Yet, despite the best efforts of the Old Trafford marketing machine to exploit his potential as the new George Best, for nearly 20 years he has been a magnificent antidote to the cult of celebrity that has furred up the game.
Back in 1992, every possible distraction was open to him, every opportunity available to turn himself into a brand. He ignored them all, preferring to concentrate on his football, to train with dedication, to practise, to enhance his natural skill. Nothing else appeared to matter to him. Despite once claiming his childhood ambition was to appear on the front cover of GQ magazine, he has never been tempted by the siren lure of celebrity.
These days we know next to nothing about his private life. He has remained at a distance, no easy trick to pull off given the circumstances. What do we know of him? Is he married? How many children does he have? Where does he live? What we do know, however, is how many games he has played for United (788, a club record, more even than Bobby Charlton) that he has scored 147 goals, won 10 league titles (an English record) and that the 18th anniversary of his first team debut falls in two weeks time. Oh, and that despite all that he has never won either the PFA or the Football Writers' version of the Footballer of the Year.
But what is perhaps more pertinent to his claim finally to put the title on the shelf among what must be the largest trophy collection in the country, is the manner of his leadership. The grand old man of the United side has presided over a perpetual rebuilding process at Old Trafford, helping the development of those who will eventually supercede him. When the next generation of players - Nani, Darron Gibson, Rafael, Jonny Evans, Ben Foster - stepped out at Pride Park, he was there captaining them, showing them what it entails to be a record-breaking champion. He leads not by shouting or by intimidation, but simply by example. When you have seen Giggs in action, you know what it takes not only to reach the top, but to stay there. It is some performance.
- Manchester United
- Ryan Giggs
- Old Trafford
- Robbie Savage