LONDON (AP) — Exactly 22 years ago on Saturday, a lithe 17-year-old wearing a baggy shirt and hitched-up shorts ran on as a substitute at Old Trafford to make his Manchester United debut.
Having excelled at youth team level, the kid was already being spoken about in glowing terms. English football was expecting big things. He has been worth all the hype. Now thinning on top and specks of gray hair forming above his ears, Ryan Giggs will pass another milestone in his extraordinary career if he appears for United in Saturday's Premier League match against Norwich, back at Old Trafford.
It will be his 1,000th senior competitive match — and the superlatives for the 39-year-old Welshman have long run out. "Everyone should take an example of Ryan Giggs because what he has done is really, really wonderful, amazing," FIFA President Sepp Blatter said Friday.
Managers, players and teammates have been effusive in their praise all week. Swansea manager Michael Laudrup labeled him "pure class." United colleague Rafael da Silva went as far as saying Giggs "is such a good player it is getting boring."
Perhaps Giggs can be best summed up by his manager and mentor Alex Ferguson, who has carefully nurtured his protege into arguably the greatest player in the Premier League's 21-year history. "He is a marvelous player and an exceptional human being," Ferguson said Friday, moments after United rewarded Giggs for his continued outstanding displays with a new one-year deal.
"He seems to reach a new milestone every week. It's unique in the modern game, but I think it's more than that — I don't think it will ever be achieved again by anyone." Ferguson once said Giggs, as a 13-year-old, seemed to float across the ground "like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind," and it is still true to this day — even at the relatively venerable age of 39.
He no longer has the energy to produce lung-busting performances every week. Instead, his games are carefully selected by Ferguson and the end product remains the same. Take Queens Park Rangers last week, for example. Giggs started in central midfield, lasted the whole game and popped up with a match-clinching second goal in the 80th minute in a 2-0 win. His displays in the ultra-physical Premier League and Champions League are age-defying and simply incredible.
Manchester City must really be kicking itself. United's big rival signed up Giggs to its center of excellence but he somehow slipped from the club's grasp after being watched in matches by scouts from United, which offered him schoolboy terms in 1987. He was 14 at the time.
"I told him this morning I expect a bill from his mother for all the sandwiches and teas she used to make for us when we went to his house every week when we were trying to get him to sign schoolboy forms," Ferguson said Friday. "It seems a long time ago."
Giggs has gone on to become the most decorated player in British football history, winning 12 Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, three League Cups, two Champions Leagues, one UEFA Super Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup.
He has played 931 matches for United — scoring 168 goals, including five this season — 64 times for Wales and made four appearances for Britain at last year's London Olympics, his first major international football tournament.
And still he retains the hunger that can leave some players by the end of their teens. "I am feeling good, enjoying my football more than ever and, most importantly, I feel I am making a contribution to the team," Giggs said, after signing the deal that will keep him playing into his 40s. It means he is likely to pass 1,000 matches just for United.
Starting out as a fast and tricky winger, Giggs has had to refine his game to stay competitive. He now plays more often than not as a playmaker in midfield or as a more conservative wideman, relying on technique and a reading of the game more than his raw pace. Former England international John Barnes did the same at Liverpool, but not to such devastating effect.
Giggs still has that aura when he is on the pitch, often transforming games when he comes on as a substitute. "His talent is God-given," former United assistant coach Brian Kidd has said. "He will have wonderful skill even when he's got his bus pass, because that sort of ability never deserts you."
Welsh FA President Trefor Lloyd-Hughes said he wouldn't be surprised if Giggs went into coaching with Wales or United. "Some years ago, we thought about Ryan coming to help and I'm sure he would come and help if asked because I think Wales is very close to his heart," said Lloyd-Hughes, speaking on the sidelines of the International Football Association Board annual meeting in Edinburgh.
For now, though, Giggs has enough going on in his playing career. Such is his enduring value and importance to United that Ferguson may yet choose to rest him this weekend and keep him fresh for the second leg on Tuesday of the Champions League last-16 match against Real Madrid, which is delicately poised at 1-1.
Don't expect to see any more strikes like the one that settled the 1999 FA Cup semifinal, when he slalomed through Arsenal's defense from the halfway line to score one of English football's great goals.
But Giggs is sure to create more special memories in his unique career.
AP Sports Writer Rob Harris in Edinburgh, Scotland, contributed to this report.