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Putting on the pace

It was a huge shout from Andy Townsend but one he had thought long and hard over. Ryan Giggs, he declared towards the end of Sunday’s show, is Manchester United’s best player ever.

Andy’s statement came an hour or so after Giggs had opened the scoring for United against Everton and sent them on their way to a win and a 12-point lead over City. That goal, of course, meant the Welshman had scored for a 23rd consecutive season – therefore in all 21 Premier League campaigns – and it took him above Paul Scholes into second place in United’s top Premier League scorers chart.

Alan Curbishley swiftly reminded us that none other than Sir Bobby Charlton had described Duncan Edwards (so tragically lost in Munich 55 years ago) as the best player he had ever seen. We all duly mentioned the Charlton-Law-Best holy trinity as well as Cantona and Robson but Andy then listed his reasons for picking Giggs.

Firstly, and undeniably, he has the best set of individual honours any player will ever boast at a top-flight English club: 12 Premier League titles, two Champions League winner’s medals, four FA Cups, four League Cups and assorted others. However, Andy also spoke about 39-year-old Giggs’ longevity and adaptability as being deciding factors.

That he can still command a place in the country’s leading side at that age is virtually unprecedented. “As a wide man, when you get to 32, 33 tops, that should just about be it,” Andy said. Yet Giggs has managed to adjust his game, maintain his fitness levels and make a vital contribution, like Sunday’s goal.

“Not every wide player would have gotten himself into the position from which Giggs scored,” said Alan, adding few would have had the composure to control the pass and finish as clinically with his “wrong” foot.

To celebrate Giggs’ 21-season Premier League scoring run, we showed a selection of his goals down the years. Among them was his very first goal – a stunning solo effort at White Hart lane, featuring a nutmeg, a feint to go around the keeper and a classy finish from a difficult angle. All executed at high pace.

Soon after, we spoke of Giggs’ iconic FA Cup semifinal goal against the mighty Arsenal defence – the way he weaved through their back four and blasted the ball past David Seaman before turning on the after-burners for his bare-chested celebratory sprint.

That pace and unerring finish set me thinking about another player who has been showered with superlatives lately, Tottenham’s Gareth Bale.

He has been the subject of comparisons with Giggs and with Cristiano Ronaldo and football fans the world over have had their say on the matter. I feel it is still too early to definitively place this young Welshman anywhere in a pecking order but I have to say I have not been as excited by a footballer in this league since Thierry Henry was turning it on in his pomp.

The reason? Pace – the sheer strength of his running, the visceral reaction I feel when Bale surges past defenders and blasts the ball home. Plus, the way we almost felt it was inevitable he would score league goal number 13 for the season from the moment on Saturday when he nudged the ball past Fabrizio Coloccini and bore down on Newcastle’s goal.

Giggs has scored just the one goal for United this season. Bale is scoring all of Spurs’ right now. Ronaldo notched up another hat-trick at the weekend. Henry broke Arsenal’s goal-scoring records. All boast, or will boast incredible scoring records. Yet the real reason I am talking about these player here is their pace.

Thanks to our exposure to Barcelona’s football (in particular) over the last few years, we are a sophisticated generation of fans. We revere Iniesta, Xavi and Pirlo’s artistry. We rave about Suarez’s close control. We pay respect to the pressing game, to ball retention and passing percentages. We have serious discussions about Sergio Busquets.

What gets us out of our heads and out of our seats is pace. When a player turns on the power, bursts past opponents and then does something spectacular with the ball, we roar our approval. When Jack Wilshere surged through Brazil’s midfield at Wembley, we paid attention, just as we do when Messi scampers away from defences, as we did when Maradona danced through opposition ranks.

When Wilshere brushed past three Sunderland midfielders on Saturday, he broke open a game that had looked deadlocked. The Arsenal man’s ability to consistently run through and past opponents impresses the living daylights out of all our pundits, several of whom played in midfield for international teams. Sure, they admire his touch, vision and passing, but they really rave about that surge.

Jack Wilshere wasn’t even born when Ryan Giggs first unleashed his pace on top-flight defences but as Sunday’s debate continued off-camera, my major observation was that of all the elements that might go into making a player the “best ever”, I rate pace (as long as it is allied to end product) right up there.

We may choose to call Giggs United’s most “important”, “valuable” or even indeed “best” as Andy did. I, for one, look at the fact that Giggs satisfied my “wow factor” criteria for seasons on end and is now doing something no-one has ever done before and I think it is fair to say he is simply one of a kind.

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