Ryan Giggs is a modern footballing phenomenon. He’s in his 40th year but still we see him playing almost every week at the top level. On Tuesday he reached the incredible achievement of 1,000 competitive games by playing against Real Madrid, and he did so in a match of the highest quality.
His durability and skill are unquestioned. The number of trophies he has won is unlikely to be surpassed in this country.
We have been friends for years and when we met last week it was just two days after that 1,000th match. He was still absorbing the deep disappointment of Manchester United’s exit from the Champions League following the 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford.
He had just endured an ice bath as he tried to recover from an extraordinary game. In a week which meant so much to Ryan Giggs and United, we had to start with the events of Tuesday night…
NEVILLE: How are you feeling after Real Madrid? Are you still feeling the effects of the game?
GIGGS: Yeah, both mentally and physically. You get yourself prepared for a big game, you get yourself up for it. Then afterwards you don’t sleep or eat properly. So I’m still feeling the effects, really. That’s probably what’s changed a lot after turning 30, the actual recovery from games takes longer.
NEVILLE: How long after a game now would you say it takes before you’re back to feeling normal again? When you were 17, that would take two days. What would it be now?
GIGGS: I think after a big European game you’re looking at four or five days. For two days afterwards I don’t really do anything. I do a recovery the next day, which is bike work, a light stretch, some yoga and an ice bath after that. Then the second day I would just do the bike again for 20 minutes and then do some strides, which is box to box, just eight of them, just to get the legs going and the blood going again.
NEVILLE: When did you start to manage yourself differently — recovering properly, sleeping in the afternoons, that kind of thing?
‘After we’d lost to Real, I just sat there in the dressing room. I wanted to say something but it didn’t feel right
GIGGS: I think turning 30 really. European games or evening games seem to take a lot more out of you because you don’t sleep that night. And as you get older, it gets worse.
NEVILLE: Before the Real Madrid game, being around Manchester you could feel it’s a huge game, so how is your mind compared to 10 years ago? Are you more relaxed before the game? Or do you have moments of doubts — I know I did — where you think: ‘What’s going to happen? Will it go well?’
GIGGS: In my career, there’ve been three stages really. There’s been the stage when you come into a team, you don’t feel the nerves, you just go out and play. Then through your 20s you start thinking a lot more about the games and what’s at stake. And then, as you get more experienced towards the end of your career, you enjoy it a lot more and you’re a lot more relaxed. So my mind was excited but quite relaxed. You have that feeling, especially at 1-1 [following the first leg] when you think: ‘What’s going to happen?’ That anticipation and nerves really, which I think you need. It’s not nerves for the game, it’s just nerves as to what’s going to happen.
NEVILLE: When did you start to get the feeling that you would be playing against Madrid? Does the manager give you early nods, knowing that he can trust you?
GIGGS: A couple of days before the Norwich game [last Saturday], when the manager said he’s going to leave me out altogether, you start thinking: ‘Right, I’m going to be involved against Madrid.’ I don’t know if he’d made up his mind or not, whether it was a definite or toying with ideas. But as soon as I heard those words, ‘You’re not involved with Norwich’, my mind set was straight: ‘I’m playing against Real Madrid and get prepared for that.
NEVILLE: Do you change your eating, sleeping, training pattern because you’re playing on Tuesday?
GIGGS: Yeah. As soon as I get told that, I’ll go to Mick Phelan and Tony Strudwick, the sport scientist. I’ll have in my mind what I think is best for me and talk it through with them. I trained with the team Friday, I came in Saturday but it was just left to me to prepare with Tony, so I did some running drills, about 45 minutes, an hour, just sharp stuff, nothing too long. That’s me on my own. Everyone else is in the squad. On Sunday I did the warm-down with the team that had played Saturday. That’s the bike and the stretch and that was it.
NEVILLE: Post match, after the defeat by Real, the atmosphere was deflated in the ground and would have been in the dressing room as well. What’s your role? Have you done anything different, speaking to people, trying to lift things?
GIGGS: As an experienced player, you’ve got something to fall back on. You’ve known this before. A lot of the younger players may not have, but in five days you’ve got to quickly turn it around to another massive game, a cup game [against Chelsea today] when anything could happen. It’s our job to pick the lads up — as well as, obviously, the manager’s and the coaching staff’s. I didn’t say anything on the first training session back. I think you need to give them that couple of days. I didn’t say much to anyone individually, just to a couple of lads who did well: ‘You were brilliant the other night.’
NEVILLE: Would that be the younger players? I imagine that would have a huge impact on them, helping them switch their mind-set from thinking negative things?
GIGGS: Yeah, and that’s why I try to do it really. Because as an older player, the hurt is still there but you get over it quicker. You’re looking at the bigger picture, you’re looking at Chelsea on Sunday. For young players, there might be that little doubt in their mind that we’ve gone out of the Champions League: ‘Did I play well or not?’ But there wasn’t one lad really that didn’t play well. It was a good performance. Everything was spot-on, up until the sending-off of Nani, obviously. So there’s a lot to be proud of.
NEVILLE: United have been knocked out of the European Cup in every year bar four in your 20 years at the club. Did this one feel different? Because in the past here have been some real bad ones where you come off and the carry-over can be for weeks. It had a different feel because it was a good performance.
GIGGS: Yeah, it’s weird. Because I probably haven’t felt that disappointed for a long, long time. But somewhere in your head there are so many positives as well. Because I think that we performed so well, we made Real Madrid look ordinary at times. And it was a proper European performance. And you’ve been there, where everything seems right. You’re in control of the match. The manager always says about games in Europe: ‘Be careful because the roof can fall in.’ And it did, but not in a way in which you can really blame the players, tactically or some of the performances. So it was weird. It was silent and everyone was gutted. It was shock really. But there were a lot of positives to take out of it.
NEVILLE: When was the last time you felt this disappointed?
GIGGS: Sunderland last year [losing the league in the last minute of the season when Sergio Aguero scored for Manchester City against QPR].
NEVILLE: Did you carry that through the summer with you?
GIGGS: That was quite a big one. I think you try to get over it but then you go on holiday and you’re sort of day-dreaming and thinking about what you could have done differently. And then you try to forget about it again but a month later that Aguero goal would come on Sky Sports and it would just trigger it again. I was sick of seeing it.
NEVILLE: Just after Nani’s sending-off against Real, you tried to rouse the crowd. Obviously you’re passionate about United but you very rarely show emotion like that. What brought it on?
GIGGS: I’ve never done that before! I think it was anger and obviously trying to get myself up. I was pumped. The crowd had been brilliant all night and I wanted to get them up and was just looking for that little bit of edge where it could help us. I didn’t plan it. I’d seen the ball go out for a dead ball and just felt that rush of adrenaline. It was one of those special nights at Old Trafford when sometimes you do things that, you know, you don’t plan. It just happens.
NEVILLE: When the referee put the red card up…
GIGGS: I’d initially gone over to tell him Nani was looking at the ball. I’ve gone back to my position on the edge of the box, because they’ve got a free-kick. I was actually looking at the referee when he did it (showed the red card). I’ve never, ever experienced a shock like it on a football pitch because I just didn’t expect it. And I’ve never seen a stadium in shock like that.
NEVILLE: I’ve been going to Old Trafford since the age of five and I’ve never seen a stadium like that, because it wasn’t anger or noise. It was astonishment. There was a 10-minute period afterwards when it was almost as though everyone was in shock.
GIGGS: It was, but the only thing I could think was: ‘Right, let’s try and stay compact. Let’s try and ride it out.’ I think we did that. But you can’t really say anything about the goal; it was brilliant by Luka Modric. There’s not a lot you can do, going down to 10 men. Carra [Michael Carrick] was in the back four and he had to come out to Modric, close him down, whereas if we’d had 11, he would have been there probably. Take nothing away from Modric, it was a great goal.
NEVILLE: You will have walked into the dressing room after the game, you will have sat in your corner — I can picture you. How long was it before you spoke? Because you could sit there, top off, for half an hour…
GIGGS: It was quiet and two or three times I went to say something like, ‘Make sure we win the FA Cup and league now’, but I didn’t. I just sat there for 10 minutes. It didn’t feel right to speak. It was a quiet moment. When you lose a Champions League final or like last year against Sunderland it’s more gutting because there’s nowhere to go after that. When you lose a game or don’t play well you can’t wait for the next one, because it soon disappears, the disappointment.
NEVILLE: In the last five or six weeks, there’s been massive focus and concentration. Is this a team that is using what happened at the end of last season to think: ‘Right this is not going to happen again.’ Is it because of the Aguero goal and the shock of losing last year?
GIGGS: That is part of it, definitely. My first full season was when we lost [the title] to Leeds and the next season, you don’t want that feeling again. You don’t want to be sat in that changing room, as we were at Sunderland, feeling like we did. So there’s that determination not to let it happen again. But there are other things as well; players are in good form and we’ve got a full squad to pick from. I mean, training is as hard as the games. On a Friday morning, it’s 10 v 10, and both teams are so strong. That’s added to it as well, players are going in fresh, players are going in in good form, and it must be a nightmare for the manager to pick a team.
NEVILLE: Do you have days at the age of 39 when you think: ‘This is fast’?
GIGGS: If I’m playing on the left against Rafael…
NEVILLE (laughing): You tuck in?
GIGGS (laughing): I just tuck in! Tom Cleverley and Carra [Carrick] in the centre of midfield are saying: ‘What are you doing here?’ So I just tuck in next to them!
NEVILLE: There are some days when you have to manage yourself in those sessions…
GIGGS: Yeah. You have to. Training sessions are full on. I’m playing left-wing probably against Antonio [Valencia] and Rafael. When are you going to get that in a Premier League game? The intensity of those two? So it just steps you up a notch. You know what I’m like, if someone takes the ball off me. It’s: ‘You can’t do that!’
NEVILLE (laughing): The eyes go!
GIGGS: Yeah, the eyes go! It just fuels you. Then you just get stuck into tackles and it steps you up. It’s that natural progression.
NEVILLE: I remember clearly when I knew I had to quit. That game at West Brom on New Year’s Day, 2011, when I felt I was a liability to the team at the age of 35. Where’s your West Brom moment? What’s going to make you stop?
GIGGS: When I stop affecting games, really, when I stop contributing. I’ve got to be careful. You speak about your West Brom moment but I’ve had a few of them…
GIGGS: This year, against Cluj, against Tottenham at home. I came off at half-time against Tottenham. The team were awful but I was awful. Cluj at home this year, I was shocking. Once I get into a rhythm, and it’s usually around Christmas time, when it starts getting a bit colder and the games are coming and probably a lot of players are going backwards, I come into a peak then so that’s a massive plus for me. And the manager knows when to use me.
NEVILLE: At those points, when everything gets on top of you and you think: ‘This could be it.’ Do you have those moments?
GIGGS: Yeah. But it doesn’t last for long. I was down after those two games.
NEVILLE: How do you get yourself up? Do you listen to the media, people saying: ‘Oh, he should retire now’?
GIGGS: No. It doesn’t have any influence on me whatsoever. It used to, because you’re young.
NEVILLE: At what point did that change?
GIGGS: Well, a watershed season for me in that respect was around 2002 when I was getting a bit of stick. Only for a few games, I think it was slightly exaggerated. But probably then, I was 28, 29. It affected you but I was sort of surprised how well I came through it. It was like: ‘Oh, it’s not that bad, is it? It doesn’t really matter.’
NEVILLE: So earlier in the season, you were having those doubts — not to the point that you did what I did and decided to quit — but what are you thinking?
GIGGS: My thinking is: ‘What you going to do about it?’
NEVILLE: And what do you do?
GIGGS: It’s just stupid things, like saying: ‘Right, I’m not going to have butter on my toast. I’m going to make sure I go to bed an hour earlier. I’m going to make sure I go home after every training session for a couple of weeks and rest my legs. I’m going to do extra running.’ There’s no alcohol, certainly. My weight doesn’t really fluctuate but I make sure I don’t eat late at night. It’s about making sure I’m right physically because mentally I’m OK.
NEVILLE: Did the 1,000th competitive game on Tuesday night mean anything?
GIGGS: I don’t want to sound dismissive, that it didn’t matter [laughs] but, no, it didn’t. When I retire I’ll look back at it and I’m really proud of getting to 1,000 but it all built up to the Norwich game and I just wanted it over with. That doesn’t really matter to me, that stuff.
NEVILLE: You’ve done your coaching badges and are now doing your pro licence, so where do you see yourself in three years? Coaching?
GIGGS: I think so. That’s why I’m doing the badges, to prepare myself as best I can. As a footballer, you don’t look too far ahead. So I’m going to have to change my mind-set when I finish. I’ll have to say to myself: ‘Where do you want to be in two or three years’ time?’ You have ideal scenarios, where you might be going on the coaching staff at United to learn how everything works at a football club and then take a manager’s job.
NEVILLE: Man United is obviously the dream job. I don’t want to pin that on you but can there be another job for Ryan Giggs other than managing this club?
GIGGS: Yeah, I think there can. We’ve talked about it on the pro licence course, that ideally you want to get that bit of experience, two or three years on the pitch coaching, organising. That’s your apprenticeship. Now that might not happen. I might finish and get offered a decent manager’s job.
NEVILLE: Would you take it?
GIGGS: Well, you don’t know until it’s offered and see what your alternatives are. Ideally, you would want your apprenticeship, like you do as a footballer before you get into the first team.
NEVILLE: Have young players changed in the last 20 years?
GIGGS: Yeah, they have. They’ve got more power.
NEVILLE: Is that good or bad?
GIGGS: Well, they’re still decent lads who want to improve. But bottom line now, if they want to get the best deal they can for themselves at an early age, there’s nothing you can do about that in this environment, because they have the power.
NEVILLE: Do you ever think: ‘I need to pull them into line’?
GIGGS: Oh yeah, yeah. I think you do. But I’ll do it in a sarcastic way. Rather than pull them aside and say: ‘What are you doing? Sign that contract.’ The way I am, I would be like: ‘Who do you think is going to buy you? Where are you going after here?’ With a straight face, you know, so they’re waiting, thinking: ‘Is he serious or having a laugh?’ And then I’ll laugh and walk off. It just puts a seed in their heads — ‘was he serious or was he joking?’ — rather than straight off saying: ‘You’re not going to get better than this.’
NEVILLE: I would say that when we were growing up — you, me, Scholesy [Paul Scholes], Becks [David Beckham], my brother [Phil] and Nicky Butt — we were all good mates. But when three of us [Giggs, Scholes, Neville] were left at the club, we all got closer. You’re probably closer to Scholesy now than you were.
GIGGS: Yeah, at a young age it was me and Nicky who were close and you with Becks, and Phil with Scholesy. If you had to put us in couples, that’s how it was. But like you say, it’s evolved and we hung about more and more socially as we got older.
NEVILLE: We both moved into Manchester in the same apartment block in 2004 when I was 28. Then we would always get the car together to go to games and that’s when we spent a lot more time together outside of football.
GIGGS: And you relaxed a lot more! You liked going out and having a drink. Before you’d like a drink but then it became more regular and we’d go out for meals and that. You were a lot more relaxed.
NEVILLE: When you came into the team, though, the culture was of the lads going out for a drink after the game…
GIGGS: When I was first in the team we’d go out after every game. Games were on a Saturday and you’d go out on Saturday night.
NEVILLE: How many times would you go out now compared to when you were 20?
GIGGS: Nowhere near! Once every two months.
NEVILLE: So, about four times a season?
GIGGS: Yeah. I went out yesterday [Wednesday] and had three glasses of wine, that was it. The last time I’d had an alcoholic drink was the Christmas party, so that was December 20.
NEVILLE: So you went out yesterday because you thought you just needed to get out, to get away from everything?
GIGGS: Yeah, I didn’t organise it. I went out for lunch with a few mates. We had a glass of wine and then decided to have a couple more. I was home at half-seven in the evening and we’d gone out at half-three. Sometimes your mind needs it rather than anything else.
NEVILLE: Why do you think more players haven’t done what you do and played into their late 30s?
GIGGS: I don’t know. I think there’s definitely a lot of things in my favour. If I was playing at another club, would I still be playing now? I honestly don’t know. There’s so much going for me in that I’ve got great facilities, it’s brilliant going into Carrington, training every day, I haven’t had to move house, I’ve got the same manager, I’m at Man United, you’ve got good players around you, I don’t play every week. There are so many things that go in my favour. I quickly got my head round not playing every week — and some players don’t. I knew it was for the greater good really because I knew it would benefit me playing every 10 days.
NEVILLE: You’ve achieved almost everything. In the next 30, 40 years what would achievement be for you? What would give you satisfaction, completion?
GIGGS: I don’t think there is anything. There’s never been completion in my football career because I’ve always been striving for that next thing. You listen to people who have finished and nothing replaces playing, but I’m still excited about not having to put my body through what I’ve put it through. And not feeling the disappointment that I feel. I mean, I’ve got mates who are gutted [after Tuesday’s defeat by Real] but they don’t feel what I feel. They’re gutted, they’re mad Man United fans. But I’m gutted and it affects your life and it affects your mood for the next two or three days. I’m not going to miss that. I’m not going to miss putting my body through it, the sacrifices you make. My lad comes home every day and wants to play football and sometimes I’ve got to say: ‘No, I can’t. I’ve got to relax.’ I can’t wait for all that sort of stuff [to end]. But, professionally, I think it’s got to be something within football, something that’s going to satisfy you. But what that will be, I really don’t know.