Ryan Giggs technical area with Jurgen Klopp ()Ryan Giggs technical area with Jurgen Klopp () © Copyright

Sacrifice, desire and hunger

Ryan Giggs is the most decorated footballer in British history, and this is the first season since the advent of the Premier League that he hasn’t been involved with Manchester United. We sat down with him to reflect on his astonishing 24-year playing career, his ambitions for Salford City, and find out what advice he can pass on…

Something you’ve been vocal about is the difference between modern academies and when you were an apprentice at Manchester United. What was your experience as a young footballer like?

I used to get two buses to the Cliff [Manchester United’s former training ground], and at 15 or 16, I was playing in the reserves against men. We would play Morecambe Reserves or Marine, and that doesn’t happen any more. Today, the young players are protected from playing in games like that.

We had jobs: washing boots, cleaning the dressing room, cleaning the managers’ cars, sorting out bibs and balls.

If an apprentice didn’t blow the balls up properly and Peter Schmeichel was facing shots which were swerving everywhere, he would let them know. I’ve seen him kick every ball into the river and you had to go and get them. So we soon learned to pump up the balls properly, and to make sure that the bibs were dry and that they didn’t smell from the day before.

Ryan Giggs dribbling ()

 

And how does that compare to the experience of today’s players?

So much has changed. Players get picked up and dropped off in a minibus from their digs. They’re treated very much like first team players. They’re already all driving Range Rover Sports, they’re already well-paid and treated like a Premier League player, but in reality they’re not – they’re nowhere near it.

When I was younger, you wanted to get out of those jobs, you wanted to get out of the reserve team dressing room; you wanted to progress. You looked at the first team just turning up, training and going home. It looked like they didn’t have to do a lot, and you wanted to be one of those exclusive people.

One of the long term ambitions at Salford City is to develop your own players – how would you run an academy differently?

First of all, you need a first team that you’re proud of, a first team that people want to come and watch, then you could start developing young players in a way that lets them get into that team.

Are you going to make them wash your cars?

We’d want them to take responsibility for their actions. Take their own kit home and wash it, clean their own boots, clean the first team boots. It’s about creating a situation where young players want to get somewhere because they aren’t overly happy where they are.

Class of 92 ()

 

So, do you think young players at big clubs lack motivation because they’re too cossetted?

I think it’s easy to have an attitude: “I’m getting paid OK, I drive a nice car, so do I really have to go that extra mile? Do I need to really train hard? Do I need to come in on my day off? Do I need to go all the way to the line when I’m doing running drills? Or shall I just run a little bit short, it doesn’t matter.”  Sooner or later, you’ll get caught, it’ll all add up and you’ll get found out in a game. Last minute, your man runs off you, you don’t track and you lose the game. They are the things you try and put over to younger players: sacrifice, desire and hunger.

Nowadays you can reflect on a long and successful career – was it always your ambition to play until you were 40?

No. I was on a summer holiday just before I turned 30 and someone asked if I’d thought about breaking Sir Bobby’s record [758 appearances]. I was on under 600 at the time. I told them there was absolutely no chance, I thought I’d play to about 35 and knew I’d have to play much longer to break that record. There’s a decision every season once you pass 30. Do I want to do this all again? Do I want to leave United and go somewhere else? Every year, it was deciding whether to carry on, or whether Sir Alex thought I was playing well enough to deserve a new contract. I started doing my coaching badges with Gary [Neville] aged 30, thinking we’d be finished in four or five years.

Your elongated career is often accredited to yoga. How did that start?

I’d had a bit of trouble with my hamstrings, but the one big moment came when we were playing Bayern Munich away in a big game in the 2001/02 Champions League. We did a bit of training on the pitch the night before the game, and I pulled up with another hamstring injury. I was devastated. I’d been playing well, it was Bayern Munich away and I really wanted to play in the game. I sat down with the physio and the doctors that night and said, “Right, throw everything at me, what can I do to finally stop this?” I literally changed everything – changed my car, changed my bed, started acupuncture, osteopathy and yoga. I remember the first time I did yoga, I just went home and slept for two hours afterwards. I was wiped out, stretching parts of the body I’d never stretched before, but when I got up, it was like floating, I felt brilliant. I did a lot of things to try and stop the hamstring injuries, but yoga was the big one.

Ryan Giggs Yoga ()

 

Would you recommend it as conditioning to more agile players?

Yoga identifies your weak points and your strengths, which shows you what you need to work on, but you need to be your own person and try to know your body.

What do you mean?

OK, so take me and Scholesy. Towards the end, he went to the gym a bit, but generally, he was about putting on a masterclass on the football pitch. He wouldn’t do a lot before or after. I was completely different. I’d get there earlier to start treatment on my back or my hamstrings, and I’d stay a lot later. Scholesy would just come off the pitch – I would be coming back from the gym, and he’d be dressed, showered and on his way home. He’s not less professional, he just knew what was good for him. He thought that leg weights would slow him down, and he didn’t want his upper body to get too big or anything, and it didn’t affect him. So my advice is to know your body as soon as you can. And work hard on injury prevention, because there’s nothing worse than being ruled out and not being able to train or not being able to play.

As a player, who did you look up to?

I learned a lot off the captains: Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Roy Keane. They taught me how to lead. But to be honest, I liked it when the foreign players started coming in, just seeing the difference they brought. Like Laurent Blanc – every time we had baked beans at lunch, he’d point at them and be like, “what is that? I can’t believe you’re all eating that!” You’d look at his plate and it’d be salad and chicken, and a little bit of pasta, and he would just go on and on about diet. Those little things you take on board.

Ryan Giggs celebrates against Blackburn ()

 

When did the younger players start looking up to you? What were they looking for?

Sorry to keep going on about it, but it was probably the yoga thing…

Ryan mate, you’ve won the Premier League 13 times. You can say what you like!

We would do it in the gym where the weights were, and a lot of people would come over after they’d finished their weights and it had a big impression on the younger players, when a 36-year-old is still there at two o’clock doing yoga. When I first started, it was me and Roy, and Gary would join us. Then there was a group of five or six, players who’d come to the club or younger guys who’d had trouble with injuries. Also, after every game I’d have an ice bath, whether we’d won or lost. Away from home at the beginning, maybe the other clubs wouldn’t have the facilities, so I’d make sure the physios got ice baths ready with ice from somewhere, the bar, just little things like that.

Did you interact with the much younger players often?

The schoolboys would come in twice a week with their blazers on, and I’d always walk over to them at lunchtime and look at their plates. If they didn’t have vegetables on them, I’d say, “Where’s your vegetables?” and stare at them. I wasn’t aggressive, but serious enough so they couldn’t tell if I was joking or not. I’d be like, “Do you want to have muscles like this?” and I’d flex my muscles, and say, “Look you’ve got to eat fruit and vegetables, eat properly.” While they were still 14 or 15, I’d just try to chip away at them a bit. At first, they’d be scared, with a player in the first team coming over and saying things like that to them, but slowly they’d become more comfortable and confident and more cheeky, and they’d start walking past and showing me their plate. It was brilliant.

So what’s next? Are you looking to jump back into management soon?

Yeah, I really enjoyed being an assistant. It was hard, it was challenging, but it’s the next best thing to playing. You can never, ever replace playing, but when you’ve had a session and the lads have enjoyed it, and they’re coming off the pitch, you get a good feeling. And when you’re preparing for a game and the plan comes off, that’s a great feeling too. It’s harder, obviously – it’s not like being a player when you turn up half nine and you’re home for half one. I was arriving at seven and leaving about four or five o’clock, seven days a week. 

I suppose it had ups and downs?

Yes, and you take the defeats home with you. It was frustrating, too, because you want to be your own boss, but it was a brilliant adventure, and I loved it, even the tough times. I’m taking time out now, but I want to be a manager and I want to get back into the game when the right opportunity comes along.

Class Of 92: Out Of Our League – Our Journey Back To The Heart Of The Game. By Nicky Butt, Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes Published by BBC Books, out now, £20

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