Manchester United veteran Giggs still fit for purpose
Ryan Giggs, a footballer associated with grace, poise and muscular suppleness is attempting to teach me (associated with none of the above) the art of yoga.
It is the quiet persistence of his attempts to get me to “pull up from the obliques” for a third time that reveals how different a manager he will be, one day, from the one for whom he has performed 599 times ahead of tomorrow's trip to Tottenham.
Sarah Ramsden, the yoga professional who has done so much for Giggs and is leading this session, warns in her preamble that “if you've stopped breathing you've gone too far,” which sounds rather ominous, though Giggs does not seems to require oxygen as he flattens his spine against his yoga mat and eases up his legs.
“You don't need to touch your toes if you're feeling the hamstring,” Giggs tells me quietly and diplomatically, when we've moved into the next series of stretches.
When he instructs me turn my head without moving the hips, the unmistakable sight of his agent Harry Swales looms into view. Swales is 84 and has skipped the session.
“I thought I'd leave you to it,” he says, grinning from behind his vast and distinctive handlebar moustache. Giggs neglects to say that Swales would have been a more able pupil.
Giggs is here to discuss the new DVD on which he and Ramsden have collaborated which provides an insight into the mixture of yoga, Pilates and conditioning work without which we would not be witnessing Giggs standing on the cusp of towards two more of those landmarks which seem to litter each of his seasons: the 600th league appearance, if he plays a part at White Hart Lane, will be followed in a little over a month by the 20th anniversary of the cold Spring day when he first appeared for United.
The career progression across the decades seems so elementary and effortless now, though it wasn't like that on a bitterly cold night in Munich, on November 20, 2001, when an ill-fated training session that pushed Giggs towards yoga took place.
It was in the old Olympic Stadium, ahead of United's Champions League tie with Bayern Munich that Giggs, now 37, sustained the latest of the series of hamstring injuries which were causing so much devastation in the middle part of his career and which, on that occasion, forced him to reappraise every aspect of his life.
“I would have been playing in that match,” Giggs recalls.
“The manager had already told me I was playing. It was the day before the game, we were training at the stadium and it was just coming towards the end of the session when it happened.
“It was cold — that didn't help — and right at the end I'd gone on a jinking run when I felt my hamstring. I was just so depressed it was unbelievable.
“I remember going back to the hotel and sitting there, gutted. I had travelled over and trained, I was feeling good and suddenly I'm missing out, which is something that shouldn't happen.
“It was that day I just thought 'I need to do something, I need to not drink as much alcohol, I need to look at my diet, I need to do everything I can, my bed, cars — everything to stop this happening.' The hamstring injuries were stopping me probably playing 10 or 15 games a season and I was coming up to 30.”
The mattress was the easy bit and the car, after a little soul-searching, relatively straightforward. (Giggs settled for a Mercedes 500, rather than buy a new sports car each year, with the stiff clutches that put extra stress on his left leg and hamstrings.) But the yoga was something he hardly knew was there.
A yoga practitioner, remembered only as ‘Louise' to United's players of that time, had started work a fortnight earlier at United's then new Carrington complex.
“The physio had brought her in,” Giggs recalls.
“I was just looking at any angle so I just wandered over to her, talked to her, told her my problems and she just said 'yeah, come next week then.'“
Giggs wasn't the only intrigued United player. Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Mikael Silvestre all started yoga at about the same time in the hope that they muscular suppleness might extend their careers.
Silvestre might be the less illustrious player of that quartet, but the relish with which he took to the discipline, typical of the French contingent who have always been years ahead of the British players in this field.
“Mikael was like a yoga teacher,” Giggs remembers. “Foreign and British players have the same approach to coming in and doing yoga. But from my experience you see players who come from France they have got better flexibility because they are taught to stretch; it's a massive part of their game from a young age.
“They have just got more flexibility, or they seem to. It's part of what they do — whereas British players stretching is just something that you either do wrong or you are sat around pretending to stretch, having a chat just before you go out to train.”
The consequences have been profound for Giggs.
The hamstrings are not immune — the 37-year-old played only three games in two months through last autumn because of a hamstring injury sustained at Bolton and aggravated against West Brom — and he provides a revealing insight into the anxiety which players prone to injury take into every game when he reflects on the fact that he has not run flat out in a game since sustaining his first injury, in a league game against Ipswich Town in the mid 1990s.
“I'd say I haven't sprinted since I was 19, 20 or 21 at full pace because I was always wary of my hamstrings since that first calf injury,” he added. “How old would I have been? 20? Up to then I'd had no injuries but once you get that first hamstring injury you are always wary of sprinting full pelt.”
Needless to say that Giggs did not imagine when he made mental decision to play within himself that he would one day eclipse Sir Bobby Charlton to turn out in comfortably more games in all competitions for United than any other player — and do so by turning to yoga. Back in those early days at The Cliff, stretching hardly came into it.
“Training would start at 10.30am so I'd be there at twenty past ready to go,” he recalled in a recent interview with Men's Health magazine, whose interest in Giggs reveals everything abut the way he has carried a torch for new forms of physical preparation.
“There would be a lot of football, no gym work at all. We'd finish at midday, have lunch and I'd be home by half past 12.”
These days he is in at 8.30am and doesn't leave until 2pm.
That debut day at Old Trafford — Giggs appearing as a substitute for Denis Irwin on March 2, 1991 — is one which will be replayed on a loop in the weeks with the 20th anniversary looming.
Giggs seems surprised when told of it — “I was wondering where you were going there,” he says, when the question is out.
“I was aware it was coming up to 20 years but I didn't know when.”
It was his full debut in the Old Trafford derby two months later, in which Giggs was credited a goal deflected in off Colin Hendry, that Giggs recalls best.
Fittingly, the 600th appearance will coincide with evidence in north-London of another player blessed with powers of longevity. David Beckham will not appear for Tottenham against United but that is not the point of his value to Spurs, Giggs reflects.
“He's been away eight years but he has still got that quality of producing cross a free kick or goal,” his old team-mate reflects.
“It will be great for Tottenham players especially younger players to see the professionalism of him, how he conducts himself. The thing about Becks is he’s always prepared himself right.”
And with that Giggs is away. Not to a wholly yogic domestic life, it should be said — there's no yogic flying at home in Worsley and the culinary and spiritual parts of yoga don't come into things either.
“We have everything laid out for us, food wise, and that side of it is not what interests me really,” he said.
The absorbing part, as he puts it, is “just being able to train every day and feeling good.” Which, the morning after ‘pulling up from the obliques’ is not a description of your correspondent — with or without Giggs as a mentor.
Ryan Giggs, a Reebok ambassador, was speaking at the launch of Giggs Fitness, a new strength and conditioning workout DVD which is inspired by yoga and offers expert advice. For more information or to purchase Giggs Fitness, visit www.amazon.co.uk or www.giggsfitness.com