“Maybe one day people will say I was another Ryan Giggs.”
When you hear the phrase ‘one club man’...which players do you think of?
In the Premier League - Ex Chelsea Captain John Terry is a prime example.
A player who from a young age committed himself to one team and went onto achieve success at the highest level of the games. Or perhaps Carles Puyol, formerly of Barcelona and Spain, a dogged defender who formed the foundation on which Pep Guardiola’s Tiki Taka would take the game to new heights. Consider Paolo Maldini - the legendary AC Milan Captain - who played at the top level of Italian football into his forties.
But what of Ryan Giggs?
Less celebrated within the global game than some previously mentioned. Yet with a career spanning three decades and all of which played under the lights of Old Trafford across nearly a thousand games.
This debate focuses on a famous comparison born through the media that Giggs was on course to become the equal of United’s greatest ever talent- George Best. At certain points it appeared as if their paths would mirror one another, yet as time passed, their legacies began to drift in very different directions.
When the young Welshman first emerged then so too did the connections to Best. But when delving into their careers and lives; we find that although Giggs is remembered as an unquestionable United legend - Best is placed on a whole different level - as possibly the greatest player both Old Trafford and the World has ever seen.
Rising Through The Ranks
Both Giggs and Best share similar humble beginnings.
Each was discovered by United’s scouting system in their early teens and handed their Old Trafford debuts aged just seventeen.
Giggs scored his first goal for the club only two months into his United career against Man City in May 1991 and continued his progression by becoming a first team regular during the 1991/92 season. The Welshman made an impressive 51 appearances and found the net seven times..
Best’s first full season came in 1963/64. To begin with he played a handful of games - appearing twenty six times and scoring six goals over the course of his maiden campaign.
The two youngsters developed quickly.
The following 1992/93 season saw Giggs mature into a vital cog of the United team who won its first league title in over a quarter of a century. The Welshman scored 11 goals and found his trademark style beginning to flourish.
Similarly in his second season, Best had established himself as a first team regular, slowly improving his goal scoring rate with a total of fourteen and helping United claim the First Division title in 1965.
It was in their third seasons that the pair would begin to mirror each other.
Giggs and Best would become the poster boys of their era.
Into The Limelight
The idea of a footballing celebrity in the modern game is commonplace.
With the influence of social media and online global coverage transforms athletes into superstar sensations overnight. However during the game’s more primitive eras, upto and including the mid 20th century at least, a player’s lifestyle was centred firmly on field.
Yet with the rise of pop culture in Britain, aided by both the power of Newspaper and popularity of Television, sparked the birth of the celebrity footballer.
Before Best so famously shot to fame - it was West Ham and England captain Bobby Moore who’d tasted the celebrity lifestyle that began to surround the game. Around the time of his national side's World Cup win in 1966, the charismatic and charming sweeper found all sides of the media industry fighting for his attention; regularly appearing on Magazine covers, newspaper front pages and TV panel shows.
Yet by the dawn of 1966 George Best had taken the idea of superstar to the next level.
The Irishman found himself a household name at the age of 19. After three seasons in United’s first team, Best moved from an icon of the English game to a continental starlet, scoring two goals in the European Cup quarter finals against Eusebio’s Benfica side in March 1966.
In an instant he was propelled into the international limelight and hands of the World’s media.
The Portugese press quickly nicknamed him “O Quinto Beatle'' or The Fifth Beatle. On his return home, Best found himself transported from the back pages to the front cover of British newspapers more regularly than any footballer before him.
The consequences of Best’s fame are well documented. As the years rolled on he would become gripped by partying, female attention and most devastatingly alcoholism.
"People always say I shouldn't be burning the candle at both ends. Maybe they haven't got a big enough candle."
Ryan Giggs’ career looked certain to take an eerily similar trajectory.
In his earlier years, United manager Alex Ferguson was incredibly protective of his young star, who wasn’t allowed to be interviewed for the first four years of his time at Old Trafford. Interestingly Best was never given such protection - suffering as part of a footballing generation without experience of how dangerous the exposure could be.
By the summer of 1994, Giggs had evolved from a wiry winger into a maturing all round attacker who displayed not only electrifying pace but also end product; scoring a variety of goals, free kicks and offering multiple assists.
With his rising stock came increased status and public admiration - attention that United couldn’t resist in order to build their brand and could no longer control.
British newspapers claimed that Giggs was ‘single-handedly revolutionising football’s image.’
Still only twenty one, print press described the Welshman as having “pace to burn, a bramble patch of black hair bouncing around his puppy popstar face and a dazzling - a gluey relationship between his impossibly fleet left foot and a football.”
Giggs began to transcend the game; adored by Old Trafford’s diehard male contingent but increasingly attracting the attention of a wider female fanbase too.
Like Best before him, Giggs was a commercial asset, adding numerous book deals and video releases to his growing brand image. History would label him as “The Premiership’s first poster boy” and cemented his status as a ‘teenage pin-up.’
The Welshman became integral to brands; the likes of Reebok, Quorn Burgers and ITV Digital all using his likeness to promote their products.
Giggs was seen as the pioneer of a new breed of young celebrity footballer, with a greater presence than those original stars of the 1960’s, spawning Liverpool’s Spiceboys and the eventual Media behemoth David Beckham has since become.
To effectively highlight the similarities between our duo, it is useful to select a moment where the two were of a similar age, having fantastic seasons and displaying their classic styles fans remember with real affection.
Both aged 22 - Giggs’ prime moment was 1995 and Best’s in 1968.
Giggs was about to embark on a truly fantastic campaign. At this point in his development applied his trade as a traditional left sided midfielder, with his favourite plays including taking on opposing defenders, crossing balls into the box or blistering shots from wider areas.
“When Ryan runs at players he gives them twisted blood. They don’t want to be a defender any more.”
His main defining characteristics were pace and ball control. Giggs was an incredible old fashioned dribbler - a throwback skill which is less prominent in today’s game. During the 1995/96 season most games the Welshman played were littered with moments of brilliance, often twisting and turning defenders through classic weaving runs of yesteryear.
But Giggs’ less celebrated skills were in his playmaking. He regularly provided accurate crosses for his teammates, swept long range passes more associated with the likes of David Beckham and had an ability to score a range of goals.
Giggs had endless energy throughout his career but especially in this particular era where he would roam from box to box; picking up the ball in deeper areas or starting attacks from wide positions and driving in field. Yet for all his dynamic gameplay there were more calculated elements to his play, regularly praised for his intelligence, movement and work rate.
By the end of 1995/96 season Giggs scored twelve goals, one of his best returns in a single campaign and dramatically improved his assist rate, providing nineteen crosses or passes to teammates that resulted in a goal.
Deservedly his season ended with silverware. The club famously crawled back Newcastle United’s twelve point mid-season lead to claim their third Premier League title in four seasons, going on to secure ‘the double’ with a 1-0 FA Cup final victory over bitter rivals Liverpool.
In 1968 - also at the age of 22 - Best had arguably his best season in a United shirt.
Although many of his wonder goals from the early 1970’s have since found popularity on YouTube; this well known period of his Old Trafford dynasty remains his most potent. The Irishman was full of confidence and youthful vigor. The previous summer United had just won another First Division title and went into the 197/68 season with Best soaring to his dazzling best.
Best was a graceful dribbler and perhaps one of the best football has witnessed. His flair and quick thinking clearly an obvious influence on Ryan Giggs’ overall style. Similarities continue to be drawn between the two. The way they both mastered not only control of the ball but also their body movement.
Best had incredible balance, feinting and shifting his weight to escape the clutches of lunging defences. For a scrawny lad his pace was often surprising, light across the turf, the attacker’s speed standing out in an era that was less athletic and boots more cumbersome.
Fellow players often cite Best’s near supernatural balance. In the bygone footballing days of the 1960’s, English defenders were prone to hacking at opponent’s legs to prevent an attack and yet Best had an uncanny knack of staying on his feet as boots came flying in.
But what many fail to remember was Best’s role as an outstanding playmaker. For all of his seemingly selfish obsessive dribbling, in reality he regularly provided chances and assists for teammates in equal amounts, rarely wasteful in possession and always intelligent in the final third.
"I used to dream about taking the ball round the keeper, stopping it on the line and then getting on my hands and knees and heading it into the net. When I scored against Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final I nearly did it. I left the keeper for dead but then I chickened out. I might have given the boss a heart attack!"
At the close of the 1968 campaign - Best was near untouchable. He was instrumental in United’s European Cup triumph, a career best return of 32 goals in 53 appearances. In addition Best received two personal accolades, named as the First Division’s top scorer and most impressively Ballon D'or winner - considered the finest footballer in Europe for that calendar year.
Going Their Separate Ways
In the following five seasons both players went from strength to strength.
Giggs performances at a consistently high level for the remainder of the 90’s, adding Premier League crowns, FA Cups and a Champions League trophy to his collection. His all round play matured; able to control games from wider areas and regularly produce game changing moments.
Despite the public perception that Best’s finest years at United were short lived - he sustained a superb level of fitness and productivity through to the end of the 1971-72 season, finishing as the club’s top scorer for a sixth consecutive campaign.
Yet as the pair moved into their thirties their careers suddenly faced new challenges with Giggs and Best suffering varying degrees of decline for very different reasons.
At the turn of the century Giggs began to suffer a noticeable dip in form. The Welshman was finding it hard to adapt, unable to replicate the scintillating style of play he’d found so natural in his youth. It would be a lengthy point of transition for Giggs, from former pacy winger to creative playmaker, and for some time the change made him look awkward and inconsistent.
In comparison Best’s drop-off was far more serious.
Because after the highs of their European Cup triumph United had been in slow and steady decline. Matt Busby retired after the following campaign in 1969 and over the next few seasons the club experienced a series of mid-table finishes. By the Summer of 1972, having spent multiple campaigns dragging United out of the mire with an impressively consistent goalscoring record, the Irishman announced his retirement.
Despite his decision, Best oddly continued to train on and off for a period; but his overactive social life that had been in full swing for sometime began to strangle him - the player regularly missing sessions and games. Best made his final appearance for the club in early 1974 - only months before they were relegated to the Second Division.
Best played at Old Trafford for just over a decade and for the majority of his time in Manchester he shone brightly. Whilst his United career is marred by his latter years of rebellion and chaos it seems that both have done very little to tarnish his legacy - instead giving it a sense of edge or excitement.
The polar opposite to Best’s melodrama is Giggs. Within the game at least (personal life aside) the Welshman is reflected upon as a model professional and elite athlete. His longevity and consistency across such a prolonged period of time has helped to firmly secure his place towards the summit of the club’s legend list. Changing his position into the mid-2000’s allowed Giggs to retain his importance amongst the first team yet it sacrificed much of his dynamic and eye-catching gameplay in the process.
“There will never be, in my opinion, somebody who is going to play at that level from the age of 17 to 40. It’s quite unbelievable”
Giggs need not fear - he will forever be lauded as a bonafide United great.
Over an almost unprecedented twenty four seasons at Old Trafford he played a club record 963 times, finding the net 168 times and providing 162 assists in the Premier League alone. Across more than two decades the Welshman claimed thirty four honours including thirteen Premier League titles, four FA cups, two League cups and a pair of Champions League trophies.
“A young Giggsy was like a Ballet Dancer. I had never seen a young player like that and I had seen the Busby Babes”
He will always be remembered for his strike in the FA Cup Semi Final in 1999.
Finishing 1-1 after 90 minutes, the game headed into extra time and with just over ten minutes to play, Giggs characteristically sprung into action. Picking up a misplaced pass from Arsenal midfielder Patrick Viera, the Welshman headed on a weaving run from his own half and after a series of ‘Best-esque’ body swerves, found himself in the penalty area - expertly striking the ball high into the roof of David Seaman’s net.
Best completed ten full seasons at United and in part an eleventh troubled final campaign. He made 470 appearances for the club and scored 179 times in all competitions. In comparison to Giggs, the Irishman’s silverware haul is far less impressive, claiming only two top flight titles and a single European Cup.
For all his amazing goals - arguably his most important strike came in the 1968 European Cup final itself. Winning the ball following a 50/50 tackle about twenty yards from goal, Best ran through before skilfully rounding the keeper and slotting into an almost empty net.
So why is Giggs seen as a United great whereas Best is remembered as one of the greatness?
Why Ryan Giggs Was Nearly The New George Best
"Pelé called me the greatest footballer in the world. That is the ultimate salute to my life."
When Ryan Giggs rose to fame in his teenage years his career began to follow the same path as former Manchester United great George Best. Both players quickly became crucial to their respective teams and helped United win several trophies. Giggs and Best found superstardom beyond the game, drawing attention from the World’s Media and becoming commercial assets to big brands of the time.
Yet in the later stages of their careers, the two players' lifestyles started to differ from one another; with Giggs choosing to remain professional and committed to his club while Best faltered in his prime; a result of his frenetic lifestyle and addiction.
Giggs is a Manchester United legend. The consistently high standards he set over many decades with one club has ensured his incredible legacy. However George Best is seen not only as an idol at Old Trafford but also one of the greatest players to have ever played the game.
Rightly or wrongly - it is Best considered not only a great but one of the greatest.