By Kevin Fixler
DENVER -- After all this time, Ryan Giggs is still figuring out what to do with his hands.
One of the most decorated footballers in history, who retired in May, plays the part of newly-appointed assistant manager of his former club just fine as Manchester United hits the pitch for a training session this late-July evening at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, where the NFL's beloved Broncos play. But be it sheer enthusiasm or, for the first time in a long time, a touch of professional unease and apprehension, Giggs lets this piece of his anatomy -- banned in-game for almost every player -- speak for him, when he otherwise will not.
Gray fills the sky and light sprinkles begin their on-and-off cycle only minutes into the practice. It's almost as if the members of the storied North West England football club have packed the weather with them on the journey to the States for the International Champions Cup exhibition matches across the country. Giggs, who sometimes displays unkempt stubble to match his salt-and-pepper coif, is today cleanly shaven and stalks the grass before joining the periphery of the team huddle at the center of the field. His arms are folded right over left across his chest and he aggressively chews a wad of gum. During a changeover, he'll transition to resting his chin in his left palm, inquisitive, with his right hand holding his left biceps.
Moments earlier, with fan-installed red banners, flags and jerseys draped over the lower bowl's wall, first-year club manager Louis van Gaal led his red-shirted squad out from a field-level tunnel with a raise of his arm to the eruption of cheers and applause from the 1,500 or so diehards in the crowd. Van Gaal is off recent Dutch national team fame at the World Cup, aside from successful club stops with Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, among others, and fan excitement has already begun to build for their cherished Man U under new management.
Trailing not far behind Van Gaal, and also wearing black shorts accented with red and a black short-sleeve shirt decorated with the recognizable Man U logo on the left chest, is Giggs, arms lightly swinging as he saunters to his destination. The 40-year-old Welshman is the legendary club's most important player of the past generation, and certainly in the discussion as one of its best ever. He ranks, far and away, first all time with 963 team appearances, and, with 168 goals, tied for seventh among the club's prolific scorers. During his uninterrupted 23-year career at Old Trafford, Giggs was known as a playmaker and also holds the English Premier League record for assists. On the same day he officially announced the end of his playing career he accepted the post as Van Gaal's assistant and explained, in open letter posted to the club website, his delight for working with him.
"Coaching boots," a nearby member of the traveling British media will say to Giggs later in the session, giving him grief over old-school looking black cleats with white Nike swoosh. Giggs murmurs something indistinct under his breath with a smile to the familiar face and carries on with his task. Such soft speech and calm leadership from the former occasional captain of the Red Devils appears to be the norm, Giggs seeming to prefer the quiet so he may soak in all that Van Gaal has to bequeath upon the junior coach. And much like in his playing days, Giggs opts to let his actions on the pitch do all the talking, to the tune of zero red cards, very few yellows, 34 trophies and countless individual awards under celebrated manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Asked by a local reporter about Giggs' significance to the club through the years and how that relationship will now continue, Van Gaal deferred the question to his player Tom Cleverley in the post-practice press conference, simply, "I think he can start first because he knows him better than I."
"He's brilliant for the players, we've obviously known him a long time," answered the center midfielder Cleverley, who donned the captain's armband in the match against AS Roma the next afternoon. "As a young player growing up with the club, he's been the best role model there is -- his career, his titles. And now hopefully he can pass his knowledge on to the players, and it's good to have him around."
"OK," followed up Van Gaal, as the British might say, cheeky, "I agree with everything that he said." Cue the full room of media breaking out in laughter.
Jokes aside, Giggs' job for the club is not necessarily an easy one, which may help explain his perpetually changing pose out on the field during training. Last year, under the guidance of Ferguson's handpicked successor David Moyes, Man U had the worst finish in recent memory, placing seventh in the Premier League and shockingly failing to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in more than two decades. Moyes was canned 10 months into a robust six-year contract and Giggs took over in the interim as player-coach.
The overall experience was far from the days of the famed Man U "Class of '92," of which Giggs belonged and that also included David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil. The homegrown sextet is known for having won the 1992 FA Youth Cup, then together moving up to the first team and completing the club's most successful season on record in 1998-99. The group won what is referred to as "The Treble," or three top-tier trophies in the same year, taking the titles in the Premier League, then the FA Cup, and finishing it off with a Champions League victory. While Beckham, Butt and Phil Neville each eventually moved elsewhere, the trio of Scholes, Gary Neville and Giggs played their entire careers with Man U, Giggs maintaining his stay the longest, not only of the six pack, but of anyone in club history.
Back to the pitch, while the goalkeepers take turns blocking shots on the other half of the field, the position players cycle through various active stretches and warm-ups. The intensity of the fan noise only increases with each rotation. Giggs distributes yellow Aon-branded pennies and then stands observing the passing drill, hands now in his pockets. "Great ball," another assistant directing traffic tells a player, Giggs closely following each touch with the turn of his head. Silence.
Waiting in line after a rep, Chicharito juggles a ball with his highlighter yellow spikes and Giggs has already shifted his hands behind his back in similar fashion as Van Gaal is accustomed, left clasping right. After all, student must mimic teacher.
Even today looking fit enough to play were his well-known No. 11 called, Giggs serves up each ball from the corner when the team moves to an 11-on-11 drill. And to the sides of the goal he'll remain, switching between arms folded across his chest or positioned behind the back, just watching, as the squad runs through set pieces before ending on penalties. Silence.
The next afternoon for the match, Giggs is again dressed the same as the headman, and sits to the right on the bench while Van Gaal's Roma counterpart Rudi Garcia is often up, orchestrating his players. Not even the excitement of Man U's three first-half goals nor Roma's two in the second to close the gap bring the men to their feet, though most of the more than 54,000 in the stands are frequently on theirs. The same scene can be assumed of a scoreless 5-3 shootout win versus Inter Milan three days later at FedEx Field near D.C., leading up to a showdown with Real Madrid in Michigan Saturday, and potentially the finals match in Miami a couple days after that.
Following victory in Denver and lengthy discussion in the locker room though, Giggs, two steps behind Van Gaal and almost his mirror image, strolls to the team bus for departure and puts his hands to use once more. He raises his right one to decline an interview request, and adds in a quick shake of his head to continue letting the product on the field of play, even if he no longer himself enters it, do the only talking. Silence.
And away the bus went, all hands on deck.
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Kevin Fixler is a Denver-based writer who holds a master's from UC Berkeley. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, The Atlantic and The Daily Beast, among others. Follow him on Twitter @kfixler.