The Gold ClubThe Gold Club

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Jens Lehmann

‘The Madman’

Ah Jens. ‘Mad Jens’. Where to start with you?

Well maybe it’s best to begin by stating that our second inductee into The Gold Club is unquestionably a more left-field choice than debut entrant and certified Premier League legend Ryan Giggs. Lehmann can not hope to compete with Giggs’ in terms of domestic longevity nor trophy haul. His name will not be sung high and low through Welsh valleys nor, for that matter, through the lederhosed hinterlands of his native Deutschland. He doesn’t have a ‘that moment’ on par with Giggs’ marauding run through the Arsenal backline, in fact when attempting to conjure to mind an equivalent for Lehmann you are more than likely left with a montage of the German aggressively wagging his gloved finger in an opposition striker’s face or screaming in protestation at a decision gone against him. The closest thing the keeper has to a tangible ‘moment’ is the farcical confrontation with Didier Drogba embedded below.

And yet his name too will be written indelibly into Premier League folklore. Perhaps not front and centre as will be the case with Giggs, but scrawled in messy biro on the outer margins of the page. Not neat or conventional but deserving of a place all the same.

Why you ask? Well he was an Invincible for one; one of Arsene Wenger’s heroic league-romping squad who went the entire 38 unbeaten in 2003-2004. Then again so was Pascal Cygan and it’ll be a cold day in hell before he forces his way through The Gold Club’s rigorous screening  process and into our hearts and minds.

Well, then there’s the fact he was a damn fine keeper too, a fact his controversial reputation sometime serves to obfuscate. His fiery disposition together with a reputation for baiting opposition players and making inadvisable, gung-ho charges from his goal line at the first hint of the ball entering Arsenal’s half (an admittedly hilarious weakness) leads many to overlook the German’s quality; at his most awe-inspiring he was among the best in the world.

Really, you ask, sort of rudely now. Well let’s break it down. His size and aforementioned (over) eagerness to rush from his goal made for an opposing and intimidating presence should a pacey striker chance to slip in behind the Arsenal rearguard. Yes, this propensity to dash from his goal line did cost him on the greatest stage of them all – a early red card in the Champions League Final against Barcelona not only terminally crippled his side’s chances but cruelly ended Robert Pires’ Arsenal career as the Frenchman was substituted eighteen minutes into his self-confirmed last match, a game his entire family had traveled the bereted vineyards of Francais to watch.

Barcelona

However, the keeper’s admitted rashness, here and in other instances, was an accepted risk of the attacking full-back system Wenger employed. More often than not Lehmann’s quick reactions would immediately extinguish an opponent’s attack or, even better, disperse the ball immediately back into opposition territory. A similar sort of system was employed by Spurs and Hugo Lloris  under AVB this season although Lehmann was less of a ‘sweeper keeper’ and more of a steaming locomotive hellbent on retrieving the ball at all costs.

The German also called upon a biscuit-tin pilfering reach to pluck crosses from the sky, a cannon-like throw to find distant teammates always looking to break and seemed able to defy the laws of physics to save shots that had looked predestined to nestle into the back of his net. Throughout these moments Mad Jens would simultaneously be throwing a barrage of insults at the referee for not spotting supposed infringements (of which he, of course, claimed to be the victim) occurring on a constant basis in and around his six-yard box. ‘I’ve done my job. Now you do yours’, the goalkeeper seemed to be constantly telling the referee.

But the ref only got half the German’s thunder as he marshaled Arsenal’s defenders in a way that can only be described as Schmeichelesque; commanding, rebuking and outright bullying teammates into doing his bidding at times. Given Arsenal’s more recent problems it’s hard not to feel they’d benefit from a more Lehmannic presence lurking behind their backline; an angry voice spreading through the team’s ranks like a forest fire, gaining in momentum and ferocity as the game wears on. Undoubtedly talented as Wojciech Szczęsny is (and arguably a better handler of the ball than the German), he cuts more of a jovial presence in The Gunner’s goal, an impression Lehmann actively avoided. You’d be hard-pressed, for instance, to imagine Mad Jens taking a self-satisfied ‘selfie’ after a shaky North London derby win or allowing the complacency that occasionally creeps into the Pole’s game to creep into his own; in fact, Wenger’s later occasional preference for Manuel Almunia in goal ensured complacency simply couldn’t become an issue for Lehmann.

There’s also a sense that Szczęsny, like his team, has folded during the big games whereas Jens came emphatically alive one way or another during them. He had the uncanny ability to utilize all the aforementioned skills just when Arsenal needed it most; a crucial penalty save against Villarreal in a Champions League semi-final here, a full-face block from a scorching Ronaldo volley there (advancing the parameters of what we understood to be goalkeeping, via his face). The supernatural, man-of-the-match performance against Manchester United in a FA Cup final his team deserved to lose but Jens stubbornly insisted upon winning perhaps typifies this best.

Lehman Group Celebrate

However, he also had a nasty habit of spectacularly imploding in those same games. Big mistakes against Tottenham and Chelsea in his first season in England, the aforementioned red against Barcelona; the German never hid from the important matches but all-too-often made game-changing errors through instinct-based decisions.

The problem was all of his skills lacked a key essential ingredient; consistency. Throughout his career Lehmann rode sensational peaks and suffered embarrassing troughs. His mistakes were never a result of complacency – Lehmann’s self-confidence was always twinned with an iron-willed application – they seemed instead to be ingrained within his genetics.  The player’s form shifted with his mood and the same qualities that led him to pull off remarkable saves were intrinsically linked to the weaknesses that led to a number of high profile errors.

Wenger’s decision to test Almunia in his place may seem bizarre in retrospect, (Almunia at times made errors seem an artform; the 2010-2011 season saw Almunia’s Salvador Dalí compete with Heurelho Gomes’ Vincent van Gogh for the title of worst goalkeeper in the Premiership; a title made all the more impressive considering the category also contained well-versed fumblers Scott Carson, Steve Harper and a fresh off the World Cup plane, Rob Green), but it seemed intended as a jolt to the system for Lehmann. Upon his return Jens excelled in key matches but mistakes still intermittently appeared throughout his game. Wenger’s plan seemed to misunderstand the German; he believed by dropping Jens the mistakes could be eradicated from his game, theorizing a shot to Lehmann’s confidence would make him train harder and become more focused. But the problems were never a matter of poor focus or under-training. The goalkeeper was unshakably confident, yes but it could be argued this skill is essential for a top-level keeper. The ability to not get rattled and to pick yourself up again post-blunder is vital and a generation of England goalkeepers attest to the fact that one high profile mistake can ruin a once-promising career. Lehmann was never rattled. When he was dropped his response was not to look inside himself, it was to look to exterior sources; Wenger’s incompetence, Almunia’s inferiority.  Wenger’s dropping just made Lehmann resentful and angry at those around him.

Lehmann 2nd Arsenal

What Wenger initially didn’t understand was that these mistakes were a byproduct of the same iron and fire that made Lehmann such an asset to his team. The same confidence that inspires his team mates around him, the same instincts that are responsible for countless stunning saves are the same traits that proved Lehmann’s downfall on a number of occasions. This “fire” is what distinguishes him from his contemporaries and earns him a place in The Gold Club; a temperamental impulse equally likely to lead to self-destruction as to a moment of magic. It can’t be bottled, it can’t be tamed but at its most potent it made Jens a magnetic, mesmeric presence. A ominous storm swiftly approaching over the hillside. Hurricane Jens.

Lehman Confrontational

Aside from his five years in the English top flight (in addition to a brief cameo in which he was parachuted in to cover Arsenal’s never-ending injury problems), Lehmann played the majority of his career in his native Germany intersected by a brief and unhappy spell in Italy. Over the next two weeks we’ll dig a little deeper into these spells and his international career to give a fully rounded picture of the German. We’ll also look more closely at his rivalry with Almunia and the many controversies that have blighted and characterized Mad Jens’ career.

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Ryan Giggs’ Trophy Cabinet

Honours

Trophy

Club

Manchester United

Premier League (13): 1992–93, 1993–94, 1995–96, 1996–97, 1998–99, 1999–2000, 2000–01, 2002–03, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09, 2010–11, 2012–13
FA Cup (4): 1993–94, 1995–96, 1998–99, 2003–04
Football League Cup (4): 1991–92, 2005–06, 2008–09, 2009–10
FA Community Shield (9): 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013
UEFA Champions League (2): 1998–99, 2007–08
UEFA Super Cup (1): 1991
Intercontinental Cup (1): 1999
FIFA Club World Cup (1): 2008

Individual

PFA Young Player of the Year (2): 1991–92, 1992–93
PFA Team of the Year (6): 1992–93, 1997–98, 2000–01, 2001–02, 2006–07, 2008–09
PFA Team of the Century (1): 1997–2007[93]
PFA Players’ Player of the Year (1): 2008–09
FWA Tribute Award: 2007
Bravo Award (1): 1993
BBC Sports Personality of the Year (1): 2009
BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year (2): 1996, 2009
GQ Sportsman of the Year (1): 2010
Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year (1): 1997–98
Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year (2): 1990–91, 1991–92
Premier League 10 Seasons Awards (1992–93 to 2001–02): Overall Team of the Decade
Premier League 20 Seasons Awards (1992–93 to 2011–12): Most Player Appearances (596)
UEFA Champions League 10 Seasons Dream Team (1992 to 2002): 2002
Wales Player of the Year Award (2): 1996, 2006
Premier League Player of the Month (3): September 1993, August 2006, February 2007
Goal of the Season (1): 1998–99
English Football Hall of Fame Inductee: 2005
Golden Foot: 2011

Orders and special awards

OBE for services to football: 2007
Honorary Master of Arts degree from Salford University for contributions to football and charity work in developing countries: 2008
Freedom of the City of Salford: 7 January 2010. He is the 22nd person to receive the Freedom of the City of Salford.

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Ryan Giggs’ Top Five Moments

Ranked Gold

How do you rank tangible moments of not just quality but game-changing quality? How can you measure the significance of one Giggs goal over another or assess the influence he exerted in one match compared to another? It’s an impossible task.

What we’ve endeavored to do instead is find the examples that best represent Giggs’ ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. These five moments, we believe, best summarize the immense influence the one-club man has had on Manchester United  and seek to function as the tip of the Giggs iceberg, offering a visual encapsulation of the wonders you’ll find if you dip beneath the surface. If nothing else the following clips offer another chance to bask in the magnificence of the Welsh maverick as he tears opposition defences apart.

5) Tottenham Hotspur 1 MANCHESTER UNITED 1, 19th September 1992

The Goal: Just witness how far away Giggs is from the ball when Austin miscontrols it; the mistake doesn’t deserve such brutal punishment. The winger capitalizes on the lapse in a nanosecond, retrieving the ball, bamboozling the covering Jason Cundy before striding past Walker and nonchalantly finishing from a difficult angle. All this at the tender age of 18. 

The Significance: The goal is generally credited with announcing a young Ryan Giggs to the world, earning him a reputation for meandering runs and blink-and-you’ll-miss-him pace in the process. This moment perhaps best typifies Giggs’ electric beginnings and the Class of ’92’s rampant domination of the early Premier League era. 

Giggs 3

4) Wigan Athletic 0-2 MANCHESTER UNITED, 11th May 2008

The Goal: Sixteen years later and now an United veteran, Giggs works some space in the Wigan penalty area and finishes with an understated coolness, clinching United’s 17th League title in fine fashion.

The Significance: If young Giggs was the lungs of his team, marauding past the opposition with frenetic stamina, then old Giggs was the heart of his, controlling the tempo, pumping passes and dictating space. The Welshman, now converted into a deep-lying playmaker role, enjoyed a much vaunted purple patch in his mid-thirties, producing career-best performances and shepherding Fergie’s next generation of superstars into title winners. This goal was a cherry-on-the-cake finish to a resurgent season in which United won their second of three consecutive League titles and Giggs reproved his relevance. 

Giggs 4

3) Juventus 0 MANCHESTER UNITED 3, 25th February 2003

The Goal: A divine mixture of elegance and industry as Giggs races through the Juve backline and threads the ball (with his right-foot no less) past a motionless Buffon. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it probably qualifies as the second best goal of the player’s career. 

The Significance: The goal may not have come at a particularly pivotal juncture in proceedings with United already 1-0 up and looking comfortable, but it came during a period of mixed form for the winger as for the first time there were rumblings of discontent emanating from the Old Trafford crowd. Giggs, it was suggested, was losing his touch; his head had been turned after a period of intense speculation linking him with Inter Milan and it was beginning to show on the pitch. The typical Giggsian response was to remind United’s fans just what he was capable of. There have been no inferences of disloyalty since.

Giggs 5

2) MANCHESTER UNITED 1 Juventus 1, 7th April 1999

Clip available here <http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xy9f95_1999-april-7-manchester-united-england-1-juventus-italy-1-champions-league_sport&start=117>

The Goal: Often overlooked but undoubtedly crucial, Giggs’ finish against Juventus is visually the least impressive impressive on the list although it still takes fine positional work and admirable composure for the midfielder to rifle the ball into the roof of the net.

The Significance: United’s Champions League campaign in their Treble-winning season is often reduced to three moments; the two snatch-and-grab goals in the Final and the epic comeback away at Juventus inspired by the heroics of Roy Keane. Rarely mentioned is the home leg in which the Italians held a damaging 1-0 lead for seventy-five minutes of the game until Giggs scrambled a last-minute equalizer.

So what you ask? It was in United’s nature to score last gasp goals and even had they lost, the 3-2 win in the return leg would have been enough to see them through. Except the only reason United scored a third was because Juventus were chasing the game. Giggs’ goal wasn’t just vital mathematically but in terms of squad morale it boosted the Devils, substantiating the belief that this was their year and reinvigorating them in preparation for the return leg and their cup match against Arsenal.

In moments such as this the United legend was written, not just domestically but all across Europe, and Giggs was so often the man with the pen. Ingrained in the brain are a litany of interchangeable images of Giggs forcing his team forward in the dying seconds, instigating one final surge down the left wing with a hidden reserve of energy and, inevitably, forcing a last gasp goal. Look no further than the final against Bayern for another example as Giggs lays the ball on a plate (albeit inadvertently) for Teddy Sheringham to greedily gobble up in the dying seconds. It’s a microcosm of the Ferguson ethos that Giggs has embodied for more than twenty years.

giggs 2

1) MANCHESTER UNITED 2 Arsenal 1, 14th April 1999

The Goal: ‘It’s a rather weary one from Vieira…Giggs…gets past Vieira..past Dixon who comes back it him…it’s a wonderful run from Giggs!…Sensational goal from Ryan Giggs…in the second period of extra time. He’s cut Arsenal to ribbons and the team with ten men go back in front 2-1!’

Martin Tyler’s commentary is etched into this blog’s collective memory. As is everything about that goal. Vieira’s directionless ball, that inexplicable torrent of pace, the debonair weaving that leads to Keown ending up on his backside, that rocket finish into the roof of the net and of course that iconic bare-chested celebration.

The Significance: In the distant future, on the day Ryan Giggs passes away, instead of an epitaph this clip will just be played continuously for weeks on end. The family of Patrick Vieira will complain but no one else will. It’s equisite, superlative, fully deserving of consideration in the same bracket as Maradona vs England or Zidane vs Leverkusen.

And it’s emphatically Giggs. Once again the Welshman performs best when his team’s back is against the wall. Once again (as above against Tottenham and Juve) he capitalizes on a mistake that he has no right to punish with a goal. Once again he reveals hidden depths of resolve and energy he seems to store deep inside him for such occasions.

This was more than just the goal that took Manchester United to the FA Cup final. It was the goal that broke Arsenal, causing The Professor to retreat to his lab and rejig the formula. It was the goal that made that squad (and us) believe indisputably that the impossible was possible, a self-fulfilling prophecy that ignited the players in times of turmoil and drove them to success. It was a goal that gripped you, shook you and reminded you just why you love the beautiful game. You can keep Zlatan’s gravity-defying overhead kicks, Barca’s eye-watering, fifty-pass team goals;  we’d take Ryan Giggs running directly at a tired, ageing Arsenal backline any day of the week.  

Giggs

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The Gold Club   The Gold Club

Giggs

Ryan Giggs

‘The Immortal’

Our inaugural selection for The Gold Club is Premier League stalwart come human trophy cabinet Ryan Giggs. The Manchester United winger has graced this country’s top division for over twenty glorious years and although his indispensability to The Red Devils has faded over time, he still has the capacity to change the direction of a game, to dazzle and surprise in equal measure.

His longevity and other-worldly consistency place him at the apex of the league. He is timeless but refuses to become a relic; United’s midfield Zelig, not so much reinventing himself as renewing and reproving his relevance to each new Ferguson incarnation. Even at forty years of age you fancy him to snag a goal in United’s remaining games thus continuing his remarkable record of having scored in every Premier League season to date.

He is also obscenely decorated. Among the honours he has amassed over his career are thirteen Premier League titles, four FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues, an Intercontinental Cup, a FIFA Club World Cup, seven appearances in the Team of the Year, a Player’s Player of the Year Award and an OBE for services to football. At no point during his career can you ever accuse Ryan Giggs of being a passenger; a charge you could arguably level at several of his teammates at various points during their illustrious careers.   

Title Winners 2

But success, consistency and an extraordinary work rate, although undeniably key ingredients, would not alone qualify Giggs for a place in The Gold Club. United teammate Michael Carrick has these traits in abundance too and yet he is missing something, an artistic propensity, a flagrant genius which is critical to our understanding of the game as a thing of beauty. Henry referred to it as ‘va-va-voom’; whatever the English term Giggs reeks of it.

As a young man Giggs would centrifugally pivot into space, always asking questions of his marker, questions his marker rarely had answers to. As an elder statesman the Welshman has become the player to exploit these spaces now created by others, threading through eye-of-the-needle balls and delivering pinpoint crosses. Perhaps an understated quality of Giggs’ game is the near-perfect weighting given to all of his passes. Watch the compilation of assists in his Player of the Year campaign below and witness the sheer delicacy and preciseness given to each one, all are exact and instinctive in their measurement. 

Then there’s his dribbling. At his most deadly the ball became an extension of Giggs’ boot, an appendage the winger willed in whatever direction and at whatever speed he saw fit. In another life the Welshman would have made a fine American footballer, guaranteed to gain yards with every mazey run he undertook, dragging his team deeper and deeper into the opposition’s half.  

The ultimate contradiction is that, despite Giggs’ vast career and long list of achievements, he is often boiled down to one moment of on-field excellent. That goal. 

Perhaps it was the timing of the goal (late in extra time for a team playing with ten men), perhaps it was it’s placing in the overall narrative of United’s outstanding treble season or perhaps it is simply the sheer magnificence of it as Giggs weaves through multiple challenges like honey through a sieve before smashing the ball into the roof of the net with a finish infinitely harder than it looks. To this day it still raises hairs on the back of the neck. Breathtaking does not do it justice. If it is the goal Ryan Giggs will always be remembered by then it is a fitting image through which to remember his career.

Ryan Giggs. An unstoppable, vivacious, inspired wizard with an unquenchable thirst for winning. And our first member of The Gold Club.

Title Winners

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