In less than a month Ryan Giggs will mark the 18th anniversary of his league debut for Manchester United. Everton were 2-0 victors at Old Trafford when the skinny winger replaced Denis Irwin. United were not kings back then, finishing sixth in 1991, but it was the introduction of a player who has since made a huge impact on their fortunes and become synonamous with their success.
Quick feet to take him past two players against West Ham on Sunday, and then a cool finish to score the only goal of the game, was a flashback to old times as the Welshman put United back on top of the table. This is the 17th successive season in which the winger, 35, has scored. That is a remarkable feat. and a record 11th title remains within reach. His effort rightly gained admirers from all quarters, including the record-breaking Edwin van der Sar.
Another blankout made it 13 straight clean sheets and 1,212 minutes since he last conceded a goal, breaking the British mark set by the Aberdeen stalwart Bobby Clark in 1971. But van der Sar knows how crucial the winner was from Giggs, breaking down a steely Hammers side and moving United two points clear of Liverpool with a game in hand. "Ryan probably doesn't play as many games as he wants to, but every time he comes in he does a job. No, he does more than that. He keeps putting in performances as if he was still 24 or 25," he said.
Sir Alex Ferguson has talked about another year for Giggs when his contract ends in the summer, but if another league crown is sealed it might be fitting to end on a high. Gianfranco Zola, the West Ham manager, knows how hard it is to give up. The Italian retired from playing just before his 39th birthday. "When I was at his age, I just didn't want to give up," he said. "I wanted to get better and better. That's why I played for more years. Looking at him, he has the same desire."
The Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez, has said experience could be the key in this season's championship race and United are way ahead on that front. In Giggs, van der Sar, 38, and Paul Scholes, 34, they have wise heads and proven winners. Jose Mourinho, the Inter Milan coach, was at the game to meet up with his former Chelsea assistant Steve Clarke, now at West Ham. He must be worried about his side taking on United in the last 16 of the Champions League, with a quadruple still in sight for Ferguson's men.
Mike Phelan, the United assistant, said: "Everybody wants the four trophies. "It is difficult and we are just happy to be getting nearer to the finishing line in every competition: the club has been built to sustain challenges in four competitions." firstname.lastname@example.org