On the morning after the night before Ryan Giggs reached the 1,000 appearances milestone, Daniel Storey believes that we should be focussing more on the characteristics that have enabled him to reach such a number...
By Daniel Storey - Follow me @danielstorey85. Last Updated: March 6, 2013 9:10am
There is often discussion regarding what exactly creates a footballer. Nature is clearly important, and one must be fortunate to be born with a natural aptitude, a basic ability to play the game. On top of this is nurture, which usually depends on the dedication that family members are prepared to invest, both in terms of time and money. Training sessions, practice matches and hours in the garden, all prove crucial in formative years.
Luck will also play a part. Scouts must attend matches in which a youngster performs to the best of their ability, scores a goal, catches the right eye, and they must be from a club in which the academy has the resources to allow potential to be fulfilled. Soccernomics, a book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, even offers evidence that children with blonde hair are more likely to be scouted, such is the myriad of relevant factors. A tiny fraction make the grade, and the secret here is an age-old adage: control the controllables, and you can do no more.
Having made the grade, players have far more control. There is still the relative lottery of injuries, which can be down to negligence of others just as much as a weakening in bones or muscles in an individual, but other than that footballers are largely in control of their own destiny.
A minute percentage of professional footballers reach the landmark of 1000 games, and even fewer of these are outfield players. Take only those that remained at the top level for the entirety of this marathon and you are left with a very select few. Marginalise this further to solely include players forced to deal with the rigours of a much-changed, increasingly-demanding modern game and I am left with three. Paolo Maldini, Javier Zanetti and now Ryan Giggs, the latest member of an elite club.
There have been some arguments this week about exactly when Giggs' 1000th appearance occurs. Common consensus tells us Real Madrid in the Champions League is the pertinent moment, whilst others point to a cap for Wales U21s and an appearance for Wales against a Basque side in 2006 for which he was not awarded an international cap. For me, this is spectacularly missing the point. What difference does the number make?
It is a very modern trend to reduce everything to statistics, and football is amongst the worst sufferers of the affliction. Suddenly, everything must be mathematically describable, every result explained through science. And in doing so, we are in danger of detracting from the joy of feeling. Football should be about emotions more than equations.
With Giggs, this tendency is wearily evident. In a manner comparable with Lionel Messi's goals, it seems not a game goes by without us being force-fed another specific 'landmark' achievement reached. But rather than over-analysing the 'four-figured nature' of his achievements, why not appreciate his attributes. To revisit my original point, Giggs has proved adept at 'controlling the controllables'.
Professionalism is the evident key to longevity. Giggs is still regarded by Manchester United's coaches as one of the best trainers at the club, and he supplements fitness training with daily yoga sessions. "The yoga has definitely helped me," Giggs believes. "It helps me train every day because it gives me the flexibility and the strength not only to play the game but to train as well."
This is the man that in 2011 even released a fitness DVD. 'GiggsFitness - Strength and Conditioning Inspired by Yoga' was a best-seller, a telling (if rather commercial) tribute to a reputation he holds throughout the game.
However, the other key to Giggs' permanence is his adaptability (an ability on which Zanetti and Maldini did not need to rely), and his career can effectively be split into two halves. As a winger, the electric pace was the hallmark, a curly mop and dancing feet the signifiers of the Premier League's finest winger, an image typified by his famous semi-final goal against Arsenal in 1999. The ability to beat a player at pace is one of football's hardest arts, and the Welshman was almost unrivalled as an exponent.
Giggs: A flying winger in his early United career
However, it is easy to forget that throughout the nineties Giggs was literally hamstrung as injuries threatened to curtail his time at the top table. As the winger lost pace, Alex Ferguson effected a transformation from wide player to central midfield fulcrum, initially due to the paucity of options after the departure of Roy Keane.
No longer relying on pace, Giggs instead uses his world-class passing range to unlock a defence. In the last four seasons, he has assisted 47 goals for Manchester United. The terrace chant may stay the same, but Giggs has transformed as a player. This is more 'pass you in two' than 'tear you apart'.
Put simply, this is Giggs' greatest achievement. Remaining at the top level for so long has taken incredible dedication and professionalism, but the Welshman has effectively trained himself to stick to a specific regime. However, professional footballers have a firm idea of their position by the age of 16, and this will be honed over their career in order to perfect their art. And here is a player that shifted his style and position whilst remaining at the top level, and done so at the age of 32 to assist his team and manager.
Ryan Giggs' career has become a series of deserved milestones, but we should be wary of reducing him to facts and figures. Instead, why not cherish some of the aptitudes he has offered, and respect the immense professionalism of the man. Most importantly, revere at the incredible effort undertaken to transform his position during the traditional twilight of a player's career. That's quite a feat.