Manchester United’s legendary player Ryan Giggs was 32 years old going into the 2006-7 season. The mercurial left winger still had goals in him, still had some bursts of speed to fly past opposing fullbacks. He was showing signs of slowing, a fact not lost on Manchester United’s legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson and the team CEO David Gill. Gill had a long-standing policy against signing players over 30 to a contract that lasted longer than a year. However, “Giggsy” was so beloved by fans, and still had the manager’s trust so much that Gill would sign Giggs to a two-year deal in 2006.
Replacing a Hero
“Fergie” had already started looking for a replacement for Giggs for the long term. He and his staff scoured European clubs for up and coming speedsters who could conceivably emulate Giggs’ speed, crossing ability and success on the wing. Man U observed the Portuguese international Nani, who was 20 and at Sporting Lisbon. They scouted the Brazilian Anderson, still only 18 at the time and playing for Porto.
The Rise of Ribéry
There was one left-winger who was catching the eye of the managers of top clubs in 2006, French international Franck Ribéry. Ribéry was a quick, tricky player who possessed great dribbling skills and a tenacity to beat players and win the ball back if he lost it. He played professionally at first at lower division clubs in France, eventually dominating those leagues until signed by Turkish club Galatasaray in the 2005 season. His success there, winning the Turkish Cup, lead to his signing by Marseille in the French Ligue 1 the following year.
Ferguson Says No
At Marseille, Ribéry won a young player of the year award, voted on by the National Union of Professional Footballers. But just before that, Ferguson took the opportunity to get a close-up look at the young winger. According to a book by Alastair Campbell, the former communications manager of Tony Blair, his good pal Ferguson went to watch a UEFA Europa League match between Bolton Wanderers and Marseille. By halftime, Ferguson was off recruiting the Frenchman, having decided Ribéry wasn’t good enough for the Red Devils. Had Fergie stayed, he would have seen Ribéry score in the second half.
Later that year, France would battle to the infamous runner-up spot in the 2006 World Cup. The final against Italy is best known as Zidane’s last stand, where the soon-to-retire legend and current Real Madrid manager saw red from the official after Marco Materazzi goaded Zidane into a ridiculous foul. Ribéry played a significant role in France’s advance towards the final game, scoring against Spain and running opposing defenders ragged.
While Ferguson didn’t rate Ribéry, other powerhouse teams in Europe certainly did. The next season, a bidding war erupted between Arsenal and Real Madrid for Ribéry’s services. Local club Olympique Lyonnais also tried to sign Ribéry from Marseille, causing an off-the-pitch controversy between the rival clubs. Eventually, Ribéry stayed at the club that year. Marseille didn’t want to sell, and there were four years left on his contract.
The speculation didn’t affect Ribéry’s play. He pushed his club to a second place finish in the league, their highest in decades, and won the French Player of the Year award, snatching the title from four-time winner Thierry Henry.
A big European club finally landed Ribéry. He signed for Bayern Munich at the end of the 2007 season for 25 million Euro transfer fee. He made an immediate impact for the Bundesliga giants. He was named the player of the year for the league that year in a season where he scored 16 goals and 17 assists. Bayern won the league and the German cup.
Ferguson could have reversed course and signed Ribéry, but it wasn’t his style. He had already settled on two young men who could take over for Giggs on the left. United signed Nani and Anderson, and they settled into a rotation where they shared playing time with Giggs.
Glory Glory Man United
There was little reason to look back at Ribéry. Ferguson had Cristiano Ronaldo on one wing, Wayne Rooney as the central attacking midfielder and a then in-form Rudd Van Niestelroy as the striker. With the combo including Giggs and the young players, United saw a string of success. They won the league in 2006, finished 2nd in the FA Cup. They repeated as league champions in the 2007-08 season and won the UEFA Champion’s Cup, beating new rival Chelsea in the final. They would win three more league titles in a row until Manchester City and Chelsea intervened in the streak.
Could Ribéry’s presence have kept United’s run going? It’s hard to say. Nani had a good, if not spectacular, run in the Manchester United kit. He had the task of replacing Ronaldo as the club’s full-time right-winger after Ronaldo transferred to Real Madrid. Anderson made less of an impact during his time at the club despite dropping back to play in the midfield, the position he played with the Brazilian national team.
Replacing Ryan Giggs would have been an impossible task. However, Ribéry may have provided a longer lasting impact on the left wing. Ashley Young and fellow French star Anthony Martial gave United life in recent years as the club struggled through Ferguson’s retirement.
Ribéry still plays an important role on a Bayern side stacked with talent. It’s Bayern who has managed to win their domestic league title and Champion’s League titles with more dominance than has United in recent years. Bayern has survived coaching changes several times since Ribéry signed with the club, unlike United, who has struggled in recent years after Ferguson’s departure. However, under Jose Mourinho’s control, the Red Devils appear to be on the path to resurgence even without a superstar on the left wing.