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Opinion: Ryan Giggs is hanging up his boots – it's truly the end of an era

Giggsy was arguably the first of the celebrity footballers, a brave pioneer with fabulous bone structure in a world previously reserved for bouffant rock stars and toothy actors.

Lisa McInerney

I USED TO take solace in constants. The sun would rise. The rain would fall. And Ryan Giggs would play for Manchester United. So now that he’s announced his retirement… well. There’s significant restructuring to be done. I need new constants. Ryan Giggs has called it a day. I am officially old.

Hyperbole aside, football fanatics and pop culture enthusiasts alike may well feel that Giggs hanging up his boots marks the end of an era, which is curious because his emergence, all the way back in 1991, marked the end of an era too.

Ryan Giggs was arguably the first of the celebrity footballers, a brave pioneer with fabulous bone structure in a world previously reserved for bouffant rock stars and toothy actors. Up to his debut there were footballing heroes, of course – Pele, Best, Maradona… uh, Vinnie Jones – but Giggs was the first of the footballers-as-mass-market-sex-symbols, a prodigious talent with prodigious cheekbones. His entrance heralded the final days of an age when footballers could be great sportsmen without also needing to be great brands, coinciding with the rise of the Premier League and Murdoch’s reimagining, on a grand scale, of football as entertainment. Pre-Cristiano Ronaldo, Pre-Ljungberg, Pre-Beckham… pre Liverpool’s Spice Boys, even: Ryan Giggs was a whole new world.

Ryan Giggs was all that

OK, so he shared a little of the limelight with teammate Lee Sharpe and rival Jamie Redknapp, but neither commanded the same level of attention. Sharpe was plagued by injuries, and Redknapp was stigmatised as holding a key role in an underperforming team, while Giggsy wowed the commentators, enthralled the fans and dampened the gussets of a generation. It was partly down to his modesty, partly to his rootsy Manc accent (the Welsh lilt having been knocked out of him years before), partly to Alex Ferguson’s insistence that he was a super special snowflake who needed minding, to the extent that a frustrated media dubbed him “the cotton-wool kid”.

It was significantly down to his looks, which meant his visage was particularly suited to commercial endorsements and Smash Hits posters, and attracted a celebrity girlfriend or two. And it was overwhelmingly down to his talent: his balance, his speed, his ridiculous twisting and turning on United’s left wing, his impeccable temperament. That would have earned him his status as a legend even if he’d looked like Peter Beardsley, but the inescapable early-‘90s fact was that Ryan Giggs was all that and a bag of chips.

Due in no small part to Fergie’s efforts, Giggs escaped his teen-dream phase unscathed. He settled on the fans’ pedestal, safe in the knowledge that, barring some David Busst-level injury, he would remain a remarkable footballer. He wasn’t always consistent (remember his Samson moment? He shaved his head and temporarily forgot how to play), but his longevity is legendary, deservedly so.

Knocked off his pedestal?

And then out of the blue he fell victim to the Streisand Effect, got himself into a heap of trouble with a superinjunction, and was revealed to have had a torrid affair with glamour model Imogen Thomas. We didn’t even have time to scoop our jaws from the floor before it was revealed he was also doing a line with his little brother’s wife. Up to this point, the suggestion that the saintly Ryan Giggs could have even contemplated such a thing would have been met with howls of derision. Ryan Giggs? His brother’s wife? RYAN GIGGS? The tabloids might as well have revealed an evil wizard had turned him into a literal bag of chips.

The interesting thing here is not that the public knocked Giggs off his pedestal, because generally, having an affair with your brother’s wife is the kind of thing people get upset about. It’s not the way he handled it (with stone-cold silence; Fergie would have been proud), or how his family reacted (brother Rhodri seems to be softening, but dad Danny Wilson continues to utilise the tabloids to pitch bitter insults at his first-born). It’s how quickly fans and pundits shelved the misdemeanour, and how that epitomises idealised celebrity: come for the fireworks, stay for the talent.

Celebrity should be no more than a spotlight shone on the extraordinary.

There are those, of course, who would argue that athletes have no place on the celebrity carousel, though such a stance seems ill-informed to the point of naivety in a world where David Beckham’s wedding was covered by OK Magazine and every second student flat sports a print of Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over Sonny Liston. And it’s in our nature to be fascinated by idiosyncrasies and shortcomings; we want to worship athletes’ abilities, but identify with their humanity. We project onto them our hopes and dreams – and perhaps there’s no sport quite as emotionally charged as football, especially in a culture where your team becomes an extension of yourself.

All that remains will be actual achievements

Celebrity, though, is fleeting. At the end of Giggsy’s time in the sun we’re left with pundits arguing about whether he deserves his plaudits, and whether his record commands inclusion in Man Utd’s G.O.A.T line-up… which is exactly how it should be. Celebrity, and its downsides – intrusion, personal criticism, pressure to conform to the beau ideal – will melt away, and all that remains will be actual achievements. And perhaps a bawdy joke or two about “keeping it in the family”.

In the 23 years since Ryan Giggs made his first-team debut, football has been transformed. The current landscape is one in which Jose Mourinho can complain about peacock players who care more for the money then the glory, and Yaya Touré can (hilariously) make headlines because he thinks his birthday cake wasn’t impressive enough. And so Ryan Giggs’ retirement demonstrates a fitting – and significant – lesson. When all is said and done, no one’s going to care who you had affairs with or which designer you favoured. All they’re going to remember is how good you were, and Ryan Giggs, the most decorated player in English football, was very, very good.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

Read:  Alex Ferguson praises ‘amazing servant’ Ryan Giggs

Read:  19 reasons why Ryan Giggs is a footballing legend

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About the author:

Lisa McInerney

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