Football fans are a fickle bunch.
One minute they worship a player as though he had been sent to their club from heaven, and come flying into their training ground in a white Bugatti chauffeured by angels and adorned with a diamond encrusted halo.
The next, he is the most treacherous spawn of Satan and a man who they would rather spit on than cheer for.
Arsenal fans view their former captain, Van Persie, with the same contempt that flames inside a jilted bride as she stares at her former fiancée shopping with his new family. United fans are singing Rooney's praises again after a summer of fat jibes and rants about his lack of loyalty.
On his 40th birthday, fans of every club are united, as they should be, in salute of the legend that is Ryan Giggs. Yet, there was a time, a fleeting, forgotten, yet still so sinful moment when even those who don the red of Manchester turned on their Welsh Wizard and the end of his United career seemed imminent.
The was season was 2002/2003.
The reigning champions were Arsenal. Wenger's Gallic army, led by the muscle of Patrick Vieira and magic of Thierry Henry were charging towards their first ever successful Premier League title defence.
Manchester United had made a stuttering start to the season and pundits lined up to shoot down their chances (sounds familiar).
Most critics took aim at the same scapegoat. Ryan Giggs, at 29, should have been at the peak of his powers. Yet, he was lost in the most inconsistent spell of form of his career.
Performances laden with errors, inaccurate crosses and poor decisions were compared unfavourably to the automated crossing machine on the other flank. David Beckham and Ryan Giggs' futures were inherently linked, but it was Giggs for whom the exit door seemed open.
Having spent just over a decade entranced by the magician on their left wing, United fans followed the wave of Giggs criticism and grew frustrated with the Welshman. Giggs's longevity may now get credited to the yoga program to which he has adhered to fight off the hamstring injuries that hampered his early progress. Yet by early 2003, many questioned if those injuries had taken their toll.
Rock bottom for Giggs came in a Worthington Cup tie at home, at the end of January. With United being held 1-1 by Blackburn and Giggs again underwhelming, Sir Alex opted to replace him with super-sub Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. The dejected winger trotted off the pitch whilst attacked by a chorus of abuse and boos. It was the sort of reception that few United players have since been subjected to by the Old Trafford faithful until Nani.
The tabloids picked up on the unrest. Giggs situation at United was further scrutinised by the rumoured emergence of an internal dressing room war, with him cast as villain in a feud with other graduates of the class of '92.
Beckham supposedly led the condemnation against the way Giggs began dating, now wife, Stacey Cook while she was the “girlfriend of his former best mate, Dave Gardner.” This was all in the wake of rumours that had started linking him with a transfer to Inter Milan in late 2002. Now, the rumours focused on an imminent bid for Giggs.
Off the pitch, the United machine has always been just as powerful as on it. At no time was this more true than when they had Peter Kenyon pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Although his standing would wane later with the botched summer deal for Ronaldinho, at that moment in time he was second only to Real Madrid Galactico collector, Florentino Perez, in terms of power in the transfer market.
So, if United were determined to hold onto Giggs at that time, rumours could be slapped away with a firm declaration of “he is not for sale!”
It would have been taken far more seriously than United's use of the tactic to hold off Mourinho's recent advances for Rooney. Kenyon's statement was actually far less convincing: “it is too soon to say whether we would consider a bid, we don't want to disrupt our season.”
No statement of the club's intent to keep Giggs. No assurances of his future. No problem with the idea of a transfer. His only issue was the timing, early February 2003 now, rather than once the summer window opened. In many ways Kenyon's statement seemed pragmatic and measured, as though waiting to see how Giggs's declining form would affect the potential profit to be made from his Italian suitors.
In summary: The pundits were criticising him. The United fans were booing him. His team mates were reportedly warring with him. The writing seemed to be on the wall.
As mentioned earlier though, Giggs and Beckham's future were inter-linked and the pivotal moment for both occurred on Saturday 15, February 2003. Arsene Wenger strutted into Old Trafford, bringing his side for a FA Cup match that he was so confident of winning that he left his star forwards Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp lounging on the bench.
The record books read Arsenal 2 Manchester United 0, but the two memorable moments from that day were not the goals.
After an impressive substitute appearance against Chelsea, Giggs had been restored to United's line up. His moment to shine came as he raced in on goal, danced around David Seaman, and found himself with an empty net inviting him to earn his redemption. One wonders if some lucky fan, sitting in row Z, caught the ball that sailed off Giggs's right foot, and is waiting for his retirement to auction it on ebay.
Giggs's infamous miss was relegated to a sub-heading by the next morning, as David Beckham's Alice band kept his golden locks away from a scar above his eye. The headlines read: “Raging Ferguson injures Beckham.”
The fallout from that day was immediate. The hungry pack of critics who had spent months devouring Giggs leapt on a new target and took a bite of the Beckham-Ferguson power struggle.
Giggs responded to his miss with arguably the most virtuoso display of his career. Just three days later, he weaved through Juventus, scoring a duo of solo goals and leading United to a 3-0 win in Turin. By squeaky-bum time that year, Giggs rediscovered his starting XI place and his best form, while Beckham's feud with the manager left him watching Ole Gunnar Solskjear take his place on the right.
When it stopped being too early for Peter Kenyon to consider transfer bids, it was Beckham's departure to Real Madrid that he announced. The rest is history. The moral of the story is one that Giggs' Welsh heirs, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, have since further emphasised: in difficult spells of form and fitness, fans should stick by talented players if they want them to come good.
Through all the doubts of pundits, chief executives, and most shamefully the fans, only one man wholly believed that Giggs would remain a United player; Giggs himself, whose immediate response to being booed was “I'm not finished... I want to end my career here.”
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