It might feel slightly implausible now, at a time when Ryan Giggs seems to be drifting to the edges of the game, but if it had gone to a poll last season among Manchester United players about who they wanted to replace Louis van Gaal, a manager they found both bewildering and impenetrable, the majority of votes would not actually have been for José Mourinho.
No slight intended. The idea was always appealing and Mourinho had a certain mystique that players find intriguing. Mourinho once reminisced about life at Porto with its “beautiful blue chairs, the Uefa Champions League trophy, God and, after God, me”. He was always going to be a natural fit for a club with United’s haughty self-regard, where one banner, in happier times, proclaimed “not arrogant, just better”.
Yet there was still a consensus in favor of Giggs. Wayne Rooney was in the Giggs camp. Rooney, the captain, is the player all the younger ones look up to at Old Trafford but, even putting that aside, it is easy to see why Giggs had so much support within the dressing room. Giggs was football royalty at Old Trafford. He was the boy who played football like a man, then became a man and played football like a boy. And in his older years, once the hair whitened above his ears, he was afforded the kind of reverence that all the great one-club men – Maldini, Puyol, Totti and so on – were due. Giggs knew Old Trafford inside out. And, as far as the players were concerned, he was also much less likely than Mourinho to fall out with everyone after two years.
To be overlooked was a grievous setback – not least as there was no contact whatsoever from Mourinho during the following severance process – and it isn’t easy knowing what is next for Giggs when it has reached the point where Swansea City, a club desperately in need of some new impetus, have already turned their backs on him once and barely given him a second look now their job has become available again.
Perhaps that should not be a surprise when, on the first occasion, Giggs was summoned for an interview about taking over from Francesco Guidolin but apparently blew his chances because the club’s American owners were unimpressed by the way he projected himself (a revelation that, out of common courtesy, the relevant people really ought to have kept to themselves).
It ended up as public rejection from the club currently bottom of the Premier League and it does throw up a question about where, or when, another opportunity might materialize in the top division, or whether Giggs might have to realign his sights now it is becoming increasingly apparent that potential employers are not seduced by big-name players in the way that was once the case.
Not that it is a necessarily a bad thing to start a little further down the food chain. Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career began at East Stirling, where he inherited eight players and his first signing was a goalkeeper who, at a conservative estimate, was two stone overweight. Brian Clough started at Hartlepools United, with its leaky roof and superfluous “s”, and Bill Shankly had spells at Carlisle United, Grimsby Town, Workington and Huddersfield Town before all the glory at Liverpool. Antonio Conte, the manager of the current Premier League leaders, was relegated to Serie C1 with Arezzo in his first year of management and if Giggs wanted examples more relevant to his own career he might reflect that Steve Bruce, his former United colleague, had spells at three different clubs in England’s second tier, and Wigan Athletic another rung down, before working his way up.
The question is whether Giggs would be willing to do the same and, though it would be a climbdown for the man Van Gaal anointed as his natural successor, he is reaching the point where if he wants to come in from the edges it might have to be that way.
In total, 35 of the 92 clubs in England’s top four divisions have hired new managers – six more than once – since Mourinho’s appointment on 27 May. Swansea did at least interview Giggs, but Crystal Palace, Hull City, Everton and Sunderland did not. There was a brief link with Nottingham Forest, one of the Championship’s many basketcases, but so little otherwise it is tempting to wonder whether Giggs may have suffered indirectly as a result of Gary Neville’s failure at Valencia. Or, to put it another way, would potential employers be more emboldened if Neville, with the same kind of qualifications and background, had not found it so difficult transferring all that insight and opinion into the sharp end of the business?
All that can really be said is that 2017 holds a certain amount of uncertainty for Giggs if he left Old Trafford hoping his lofty status might help open a few doors, and if he really meant it in October when he claimed it was his decision to turn down Swansea because “their ambitions did not really match mine”.
Giggs is trying to buck the trend, in one sense, when there is a natural suspicion throughout the sport these days about whether formidable footballers can also excel in management. Pep Guardiola is the obvious exception and Zinédine Zidane, approaching his first anniversary at Real Madrid, has had precisely the uplifting effect at the Bernabéu that Giggs presumably saw himself having at Old Trafford.
Overall, though, it is not a common theme. Many more have failed and, without wishing to be too downbeat about Giggs’s chance, there is a risk here that he will go through the rest of his professional life with the same kind of regrets that always consumed Phil Neal about the passing of the baton at Liverpool. Neal had positioned himself as next in line to Joe Fagan but the inheritance he envisaged never materialized and, to his dismay, the job went to Kenny Dalglish. “The dreams and ambitions I had striven for, for a decade, had been shattered,” Neal later wrote.
In Giggs’s case, United’s most decorated player is far too savvy to have assumed it would be a seamless progression and, though anyone with his collection of medals is probably entitled to a reasonably high self-opinion, it would be a disappointment if he had pinned all his hopes on coaching at elite level.
Giggs, unlike Neville, is not a natural fit in the world of punditry and he did not take all those coaching badges, becoming the first individual to complete the mandatory qualification for Premier League and Champions League managers while still playing, for the odd appearance on ITV trying to make England’s latest friendly sound exciting.
First, though, Giggs has to be given a way in and, unfortunately for him, he is also associated with those difficult days as a coach in the David Moyes era, followed by the leaden appearances alongside Van Gaal in the dugout, trying to make sense of the Dutchman’s football philosophy and succeeding only in looking as blank as the rest of us.
At 43, Giggs is at an age when the next stage of his career could have years to run and he could be forgiven for thinking it might be Swansea’s loss bearing in mind how everything worked out with Bob Bradley.
Yet it has been seven months of drift and Giggs might also want to take note of the advice Ferguson used to pass on in his role with the League Managers Association. Don’t spend too long out of work, Ferguson would say, because it is amazing how quickly the people in the profession can be forgotten.
Can you imagine the outcry if Wayne Rooney had been caught drink-driving after a party in London, as recently happened with Yaya Touré?
Likewise, it is fair to say there might have been an awful lot more brouhaha if it had been Rooney, not Roberto Firmino of Liverpool, who had been arrested for the same alleged offence in the early hours of Christmas Eve but was allowed to play for his team a couple of days later and now faced a court appearance on the same day as a top-of-the-table encounter against Chelsea?
Rooney does not always help himself and, lest it be forgotten, the England and Manchester United captain issued a public apology after his last blow-out on international duty. Yet he does have a point when he says he seems to be judged differently to just about every other footballer in the country.
The transfer window is swinging open and already, I fear, we might have peaked too soon with the news that one of our gelled, tanned, ultra-successful superstars – and I’m not talking Cristiano Ronaldo – is being linked with a big-money move to China on the back of being honored with his industry’s equivalent of the Ballon d’Or.
Until now, with Mark Clattenburg modestly fending off speculation about a lucrative move to the Chinese Super League, I must confess I did not realize there was such a thing as referees taking advantage of the Bosman rule or being the subjects of transfer gossip.
Where it all ends is not clear. Will they have press conferences to announce their arrivals? Will they be “unveiled”? All that can really be said is that Clattenburg, sounding every bit like a man in demand, isn’t ruling it out, finds the speculation flattering and, just as Oscar, Carlos Tevez and all the rest have already made clear, would hate for anyone to think it might be about the money.
“If an opportunity came along I am contracted to the Premier League but I have to look at my long-term strategy of my career,” Clattenburg said. “There is no offer on the table but if they made an offer it would be under consideration.”
It sounded suspiciously like a come-and-get-me plea. And he should probably give Jorge Mendes a ring.