Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs will likely step out for his 1000th game this weekend, but it is 12-and-a-half years since his testimonial game against Celtic. While testimonials are usually used to mark the end of a player’s career, 2001 saw Giggs honoured for a decade of service after making his debut for the club on March 2, 1991. Although a 4-3 win for the Hoops in a feisty game at Old Trafford took the spotlight away from the Welshman somewhat.
After persuading Ryan Giggs to join Manchester United instead of rivals City in 1987, Sir Alex Ferguson could never have predicted what an impact the teenager would go on to make at Old Trafford. Fourteen years later, with seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups and a Champions League trophy among a host of other personal awards, few could argue that Giggs deserved to be honoured by his one and only club.
At the tender age of 28, a testimonial was set up against Celtic at Old Trafford on August 2, 2001. Having won a third successive Premier League title, the champions had just signed Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron and were plotting their assault on Europe once more, but Celtic were also a force to be reckoned with having just claimed the Scottish domestic treble under manager Martin O’Neill.
The testimonial was tinged with more than just a hint of tension, however, as former Rangers and England skipper Terry Butcher explained to Sky Sports before the game: "Celtic will want to win the game at all costs, but even more so given what's happened recently with all the talk of them joining the Premiership with Rangers. They will want to prove they can compete with the likes of United, because people are always deriding Scottish football and saying it's not as good as the Premiership.”
Old Trafford was packed to its then-67,000 capacity and the Guardian's Mike Walker wrote: "Celtic's 15,000 fans were in unsurprisingly loud voice again and nearly got away with a chorus of You'll Never Walk Alone. And that was before the goals."
Two virtually full-strength teams needed no further motivation. Within four minutes, Celtic were 2-0 up as Chris Sutton steered home a Didier Agathe cross after 70 seconds, before Neil Lennon robbed Veron, played a one-two with Henrik Larsson and coolly slotted his shot past Fabien Barthez.
United fought back inside 26 minutes, as Paul Scholes’ lovely dink found Van Nistelrooy in space and the Dutchman pulled a goal back. But the fightback turned ugly. Sutton and Phil Neville, then Lennon and Scholes went toe to toe; David Beckham pushed Jackie McNamara in the chest after a particularly feisty tackle and the England captain was replaced by Dwight Yorke before the hour to save him from himself.
Then, thankfully, a game of football broke out. "Henrik Larsson found Sutton on the edge of the United area, he fed Paul Lambert - 1-3. It was so easy it verged on the comical, though Roy Keane was not laughing. His first Old Trafford outburst at his colleagues duly followed," Walker wrote.
"Just over half an hour later Veron crowned his first appearance with a drop volley to treasure, making the score 2-3. Celtic's ageing but gifted substitute Lubomir Moravcik promptly embarrassed Fabien Barthez with an equally impressive 30-yard free-kick, before Van Nistelrooy struck again."
Eric Cantona - a huge favourite with the Old Trafford fans - had come on for a cameo after 73 minutes, replacing Scholes, but could do little to influence the result. United had lost 4-3; Giggs had been remembered but there was a distinct lack of cohesion among Ferguson’s men.
Ian McGarry in the Daily Mail wrote: "Celtic may only be the undisputed champions north of the border after landing the Scottish treble and this may only have been a friendly but for much of the opening period, the visitors were undeniably better than United. Maybe United were too concerned with paying tribute to the man whose night it was. Ryan Giggs went to bed £1 million richer last night. Celtic, however, were more interested in playing football."
Giggs revealed after the game that he had been more apprehensive before his testimonial than all the cup finals, top-flight games and pressurised situations he had found himself in as a professional player before.
"Tonight I was nervous - the most nervous I've been - but I thoroughly enjoyed it," he said. "The result didn't matter. Both teams played fantastic. I don't normally feel nervous, but I did feel a bit emotional tonight, I have to admit."
The Welshman added in a speech on the pitch: "Thanks for all your support over the last 10 years and I'll try and play my best for you over the rest of my career." Little would the watching fans know that another 12 years later, at the age of 39, he would still be going strong on the famous turf.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-1-1): Barthez; Irwin, G Neville, Stam, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Veron, Giggs; Scholes; van Nistelrooy. Subs: van der Gouw, Silvestre, Chadwick, Yorke, Cole, Johnsen, Solskjaer, Butt, Brown.
CELTIC (4-4-2): Kharine; McNamara, Tebily, Mjallby, Boyd, Agathe, Lennon, Lambert, Petta, Sutton, Larsson. Subs: Gould, Crainey, Burchill, Moravcik, Maloney, Smith, Kennedy, Miller.