Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 13 July 2020

Ryan Giggs' remarkable longevity at Manchester United recognised with Athletic Bilbao's One Club Man award

The Welsh former footballer, now manager of his national team, made 963 first team games and scored 168 goals for United

Athletic Bilbao have named Ryan Giggs as their One Club Man for 2020. Previous recipients have included AC Milan’s Paulo Maldini, Celtic’s Billy McNeil, Barcelona’s Carles Puyol, Bayern Munich’s Sepp Maier and Southampton’s Matt Le Tissier.

When Ryan Giggs last played in Bilbao, the entire San Mames stadium rose to applaud him when he was substituted during Manchester United’s Europa League game against the Basques in 2012.

But Giggs reminds The National that he had played there once before.

“For Wales against a Basque 11,” he messages. “I scored the winning goal too! Their fans were fanatical.”

In 2006, Giggs, playing his first Wales friendly away from home 15 years after his international debut, and Wales, were fortunate. They were outclassed by the Basques’ superior technical levels, but Giggs started and finished the counter attack which led to the winner.

Wales were then coached by John Toshack, who was revered in the Basque Country for his time at Real Sociedad. Like the Catalan national side, the Basque national team – Euskari – isn’t recognised by Fifa and can only play friendlies. They draw their players usually from Athletic Bilbao, the biggest Basque club, their great rivals Real Sociedad, Alaves and Pamplona. Ivan Campo was at Bolton Wanderers when he played that night.

Athletic Club – or Athletic Bilbao as they are known internationally – are the biggest and most successful Basque club, the only one which still only uses Basque-born or raised players – though they have a rich history of British managers. They hope that their greatest players stay at their club, but understand it when the likes of Fernando Llorente and Kepa Arrizabalaga move on. With a tiny market to purchase players from, supporter-owned Athletic are one of the richest clubs in football

The Basques said they hadd awarded Giggs for “his fantastic professional career with Manchester United (24 seasons). We speak of a world-class footballer who has demonstrated an unwavering loyalty to their club."

“This award is special because we hope other players feel about their club like we feel ours,” explains Athletic fan and football coach Josu Julian, from Barakaldo close to Bilbao. “And for them to know our club and that it’s a part of our life, our religion.

“I watched Giggs when he came to San Mames with Wales. He was one of the first players I saw in the 1990s, someone who played in a completely different way to other British players. I thought that British players were about the long ball, jumping high and being prepared to fight. And yet Giggs came with the best left foot that I’ve ever seen from a British player. He always came across like a gentleman in interviews, too.”

The Basques hope to see that for themselves if Giggs is able to visit Bilbao to receive the award, which is usually presented before a home game in front of a 50,000 crowd.

Giggs’ longevity at United is incredible. With 963 first team games (168 goals) between 1990-2014, he tops United’s all-time appearance record, easily surpassing Bobby Charlton’s total of 759 as he played into his fifth decade. Giggs said that he enjoyed playing at 38 and 39 years old more than at any stage in his career.

The Welshman, who grew up and still lives in Manchester, also outdid a number of world class players who stayed at one club throughout their career. Maldini played 902 times for Milan; Francesco Totti played 785 times for Roma.

Giggs’ United record is even more impressive if you consider the friendlies or non-first team games he played. None of United’s official statistics sites had any such record, nor any books, so in 2017 I sat down with Giggs and worked out how many times he had played for United since he appeared in a youth friendly against Colchester United in May 1988.

The calculator came out as games were totted up from the 24 seasons, the friendlies and reserve matches over a quarter of a century. Almost all of them were in open age matches against adults. In total, Ryan Giggs played in 1,142 matches for United and scored 209 goals, before becoming the assistant manager for two years under Louis van Gaal. Giggs was astonished to hear that he had played for United over 1,000 times

The current Wales manager joked that it was down to the yoga he took seriously in his later years, but he also had one manager for all but one of his seasons at Old Trafford and was part of a team where his ambitions could be matched - a team which won everything.

He also changed roles with age, shifting from a flying winger to a central role where he wasn’t expected to beat opponents. When treble winners United became champions of the world in 1999, Giggs was man of the match.

Giggs could have taken his Wales team to Bilbao this month had they finished third in their Euro 2020 group to reach the last 16. That may well happen in a year’s time, but before that Bilbao hopes to welcome him in an individual capacity.

Updated: June 4, 2020 03:41 PM

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