Football Features

Remember Ryan Giggs’ line-up from his sole appearance as Man Utd’s player-manager? “They have the outstanding young player in Europe”

By Ben Green

Remember Ryan Giggs' line-up from his sole appearance as Man Utd's player-manager?

Published: 16:45, 6 May 2020

Amid the disaster that was Manchester United’s first season of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, and considering everything that’s happened since, it’s often forgotten the end of the campaign was not without a sense of optimism. Or a feelgood vibe, at least.

David Moyes was sacked 10 months into the job when a top-four spot in the Premier League became mathematically impossible. And so, for a while, Ryan Giggs was the manager of Manchester United.

He perhaps lacked gravitas (see clip below) but there was romance in the idea. Many hoped the one-time academy gem would follow in the footsteps of the only first-team manager he ever knew at at club level.

It didn’t quite work out that way, of course. Louis van Gaal was brought in for the next season and Giggs became his assistant, but not before his legendary playing career had its emotional curtain call.

Giggs as Man Utd manager:

  • Record: W2 / D1 / L1
  • Results: 4-0 Norwich (H), 0-1 Sunderland (A), 3-1 Hull City (H), Southampton 1-1 (A)
  • Managers faced: Neil Adams, Gus Poyet, Steve Bruce, Mauricio Pochettino
  • Final finish: Seventh (64 points)

Despite holding the title of player-manager for four games, only once did he name himself in a matchday squad. The occasion came against Hull City in the penultimate game of the campaign (and the last at Old Trafford) in 2013/14. Steve Bruce’s men fell to a 3-1 reversal, with starlet James Wilson and stalwart Robin van Persie getting on the scoresheet.

Giggs made a 20-minute cameo to close the book on a glittering career after, in response to a disappointing home defeat to Sunderland, deploying a much-changed combination of youth and experience to get the job done.

Goalkeeper: David de Gea

  • Current club: Man Utd
  • Man Utd appearances: 394

By this point, De Gea had firmly banished the ghosts of his jittery Man Utd start and was fully established as one of Europe’s leading goalkeepers.

Unfortunately, even his dexterous heroics between the sticks couldn’t save Moyes, nor too could he prevent Hull getting on the scoresheet that day when substitute Matty Fryatt scored a consolation goal. 

As the years have rolled on the Spaniard has remained a near ever-present for Man Utd in goal and is truly one of the continent’s finest shot-stoppers, despite a few unwarranted clangers here and there.

Right-back: Antonio Valencia

  • Current club: LDU Quito
  • Man Utd appearances: 339

The versatile Ecuadorian was enjoying his fifth season in a Man Utd shirt and would go on to play for another five after 2013/14. Not only did Valencia provide depth – he was able to function at full-back or in midfield – he also went on to captain the club and marked the end of his decade-long Old Trafford career by amassing 325 Premier league appearances, a record among South American players.

Upon the expiration of his contract last summer, the 34-year-old returned home and joined capital club LDU Quito. He added the 2019 Copa Ecuador to his trophy cabinet last November.

Centre-back: Phil Jones

  • Current club: Man Utd
  • Man Utd appearances: 224

Jones has become something of a meme these days at Old Trafford, but there can be no denying injury problems haven’t helped his progress at the club. And this game encapsulated that, with the hulking defender forced off in only the 22nd minute after sustaining a shoulder injury.

The proceeding years haven’t been kind, with fitness issues continuing to plague his career, and so now a player Ferguson famously once said had the potential to be United’s “best ever player” will instead most likely go down in folklore for his bizarre in-game facial expressions. The 28-year-old has mustered just two league starts this campaign.

Centre-back: Chris Smalling

  • Current club: Roma (on loan from Man Utd)
  • Man Utd appearances: 323

Smalling, like Jones, was out of favour among Man Utd fans. Unlike Jones, though, the towering centre-back has restored his reputation this season and may yet have a pivotal role to play at the club in years to come. And all without kicking a ball in a United shirt.

Back in 2013/14 both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand — arguably the best centre-back pairing the Premier League has ever seen — were on the wane and Moyes needed long-term successors. That placed huge pressure on the shoulders of Smalling and Jones, who were unable to emulate the formidable showings of their predecessors.

While Jones remains a periphery figure at Old Trafford, Smalling has enjoyed a stellar campaign abroad for Roma. There, the Englishman has acclimatised superbly to Italian football, playing a key part in the heart of Paulo Fonseca’s defence.

Left-back: Alexander Buttner

  • Current club: New England Revolution
  • Man Utd appearances: 28

After scooping the Vitesse Player of the Year accolade in 2011/12, Buttner was plucked from Dutch football by Ferguson with perhaps one eye on the future as Patrice Evra entered the twilight years of his career. He marked his debut with a man-of-the-match performance against Wigan and famously scored in Ferguson’s final game, but those would be the main highlights of his short Man Utd career.

Under Moyes, he found little playing time as the former Everton manager preferred the experienced legs of Evra and following the arrival of Van Gaal, he was shipped off to Dynamo Moscow. Again he struggled for playing time and returned to Vitesse in 2016 before joining New England Revolution earlier this year.

Central midfield: Michael Carrick

  • Current club: Man Utd first-team coach
  • Man Utd appearances: 464

Carrick enjoyed a trophy-spangled 12 years as a player at Old Trafford, competently anchoring the midfield with his metronomic passing range and innate reading of the game. He featured prominently for Moyes and would play for another four years before hanging up his boots in 2018. The former England international remains at the club as part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s backroom staff having initial joined as a player-coach under Jose Mourinho.

Like Giggs, he too held the post of interim manager at United, albeit only for 48 hours and without taking charge of an actual match.

Central midfield: Shinji Kagawa

  • Current club: Real Zaragoza
  • Man Utd appearances: 57

The Japanese enigma looked a masterful signing when Ferguson prised him away from Borussia Dortmund in 2012. Indeed the creative midfielder was able to translate his BVB form at Old Trafford in his maiden campaign and showcased flashes of brilliance, notably becoming the first Asian player to score a Premier League hat-trick during a 4-0 rout of Norwich City.

Unfortunately, such instances nosedived upon Ferguson’s departure. In fact, as Patrice Evra recently revealed, Kagawa and Robin van Persie were the two United players for whom Ferguson reserved personal apologies for when telling the squad of his decision to retire.

“[Ferguson arrived], and he said, ‘I’m really sorry,” Evra told the UTD Podcast. “Some people have said that I’m going to retire even before I say it myself. That’s why you saw all those cameras. But I will retire because my wife needs me’. He apologised to [Robin] van Persie, he apologised to Shinji [Kagawa], because he just bought them. He apologised to them especially.”

Kagawa featured only sporadically under Moyes before returning to Dortmund the following year. The 31-year-old again showed glimmers of creative genius in the yellow and black of Dortmund but nothing like his first spell, and he is now plying his trade in La Liga with Real Zaragoza.

Right wing: Adnan Januzaj

  • Current club: Real Sociedad
  • Man Utd appearances: 63

One of the biggest, and perhaps only, success stories of Moyes’ tenure was the emergence of Januzaj. The brilliant Belgian burst onto the scene under the Scot and immediately flourished, even catching the eye of former Man Utd player and the Hull City boss on that day, Bruce, who lead the eulogies at the time.

He told reporters after the game: “It can’t be dark times [at United] when you have someone like Adnan Januzaj. He is only 18 and he looks a proper, proper player. In Januzaj they have the outstanding young player in Europe.”

That glowing appraisal set Januzaj up for a bright future at Old Trafford, but the departure of Moyes eventually led to his diminishing form and after two underwhelming loan spells away from the club he left for Real Sociedad in 2017, where he has incrementally been picking up his form.

Central attacking midfield: Marouane Fellaini

  • Current club: Shandong Luneng
  • Man Utd appearances: 177

The physically imposing midfielder joined Moyes from Everton, but his unconventional style never really struck a chord with the Old Trafford fans. He proved a solid servant for the club across a six-year spell and shone in their 2016/17 cup-double season, but he became more of a battering ram under Mourinho in the latter years rather than the unorthodox yet effective attacking midfielder he first established himself as at Goodison Park.

The Belgian ultimately left for the Far East midway through last season where he has since re-established his goalscoring prowess.

Left wing: Tom Lawrence

  • Current club: Derby County
  • Man Utd appearances: 1

The Welshman’s solitary Man Utd appearance came in the match against Hull, before Giggs brought himself on for his compatriot. Loan spells followed for Lawrence before Leicester secured him permanently in 2014. The winger would endure a similar experience with the Foxes but is now a fully-fledged member of Derby’s squad, as well as the Welsh national team, where Giggs is currently the head coach.

Striker: James Wilson

  • Current club: Salford City
  • Man Utd appearances: 20

Earmarked for future success at Old Trafford, Wilson netted a brace on the day, providing Man Utd fans a real buzz for the next chapter.

“He’s a goalscorer – a natural goalscorer; but he’s got more to his game than just that,” Giggs told post-match reporters. “He can turn and run and he’s a very clever player. I was delighted for him that he got two goals and I think he wanted to stay on for his hat-trick when I took him off.”

But, like Januzaj and Lawrence, the former England U21 international was unable to cement a consistent starting berth and fell down the pecking order following numerous loan spells. It was even reported at one stage that Giggs became ‘frustrated’ by how Wilson was managed at United.

Whereas the aforementioned academy products have established themselves in La Liga and the Championship respectively, Wilson is currently playing for Salford City – a club part-owned by Giggs – in League Two, having joined in January following his release from Aberdeen in the summer.


Ryan Giggs

  • Current club: Wales manager
  • Man Utd appearances: 963

A then 40-year-old Giggs made his farewell appearance for Man Utd that day, bringing himself on for Lawrence. He would have been desperate to mark his swansong with one final goal, and had he done so, he would have scored in Premier League season across his career. He nearly achieved as much, but Eldin Jakupovic was equal to his free-kick effort in the closing stages.

Giggs went on to be assistant manager for Van Gaal but left in 2016 and is currently the head coach for the Welsh national side.

Robin van Persie

  • Current club: Retired
  • Man Utd appearances: 105

After a Golden Boot-winning season in 2012/13 and a Premier League title to his name, Van Persie continued to find the back of the net at a consistent rate, including this match. But he was nowhere near as clinical as Ferguson’s final year. He netted 12 league goals under Moyes – and Giggs – and 10 under Van Gaal the following season. He relocated to Fenerbahce after being forced out by Moyes’ permanent successor and subsequently returned to Feyenoord where he hung up his boots last summer.

Nemanja Vidic

  • Current club: Retired
  • Man Utd appearances: 300

Introduced for an injured Jones in the early stages, Vidic would leave Man Utd at the end of that season and joined Inter Milan. The Serb spent one season in Italy before retiring in January 2016.