Ryan Giggs is the new Wales manager but, while he was a hero at his club, he never had the same relationship with his national team – as Scott Johnson explained in WSC 328, June 2014
15 January ~ Ryan Giggs, Manchester United’s new interim manager, has long been a darling of the mainstream media but he continues to divide opinion in Wales. The fact that Giggs is still impressing at the highest level of club football has only recycled the bitterness associated with his international career and premature retirement.
Giggs was the youngest ever Welsh international when he made his senior debut as a 17-year-old in October 1991, but did not feature in a friendly until March 2000. He scored in a 2-1 defeat by Finland at the Millennium Stadium that was watched by a crowd in excess of 65,000, but missed the previous 18 friendlies. Under no circumstances would someone of his stature in the England side, Wayne Rooney for example, have received such an easy ride.
Giggs has since claimed that playing two games in a week was the cause of niggling injuries and that he decided, along with Alex Ferguson, that missing non-competitive games was the solution. It may have been the solution for Manchester United, but it caused resentment among Wales fans, especially when Giggs would routinely feature in the games either side of an international fixture.
Wales find themselves in a similar predicament at present with Gareth Bale, comfortably the best player in the national squad and a key player at Real Madrid. It was assumed that such a substantial investment by his new club, coupled with a history of back problems, would see a repeat of what happened with Giggs. Instead, Bale turned up and starred in the recent friendly against Iceland, despite featuring in the Madrid derby a few days before. Bale may have an ulterior motive for returning to south Wales, where his family are based, but it was encouraging to see the desire and commitment that was perceived to be lacking from Giggs.
When he played for his country, however, Giggs’s best efforts were never quite good enough. Wales were close to qualifying for a major championship twice in his time with the team. A late Florin Raducioiu winner for Romania in a 2-1 defeat in November 1993 denied them a place at the subsequent World Cup while a flat 1-0 home loss against Russia in a European Championship play-off in 2003 featured Giggs hitting a post.
At a time when the current Welsh side are rich in potential but short on experience or leadership, the involvement of Giggs would have proved invaluable with the team lacking leadership and purpose in the immediate aftermath of Gary Speed’s death. His participation at the 2012 Olympics as the captain of Team GB only made his absence more pronounced.
He is not held in the same esteem as Craig Bellamy, who recently retired having soldiered on despite a series of serious knee injuries, or either Speed and Mark Hughes, who subsequently managed their country with distinction. Hughes famously emphasised his commitment as a player by playing for Wales and Bayern Munich on the same day, flying by helicopter to represent his new club and arriving in time for the second half.
The fact that Giggs is still playing at 40 and has accumulated a wealth of titles and honours would more than justify his decision to bow out when he did. He has only started around a third of United’s games in the last three years, but retains the ability to shine on occasion, as he demonstrated in the recent Champions League tie with Olympiakos. He has also used his spare time to obtain coaching badges and was the first player to earn his UEFA Pro Licence. He was a player-coach at the club under David Moyes prior to inheriting his job and this experience will certainly benefit him when he inevitably returns to the international set-up as Wales manager.
The preferred choice when both Speed and Chris Coleman were hired, Giggs rebuffed the FA of Wales’ advances on both occasions. Coleman recently signed a new two-year deal but was an underwhelming appointment at a difficult time. The general view is he is merely keeping the seat warm for Giggs, who will surely have retired by the time Coleman’s contract expires and is unlikely to say no for a third time. It will be interesting to see how he is received by the Welsh public and to witness the irony of him address withdrawals and high-profile absentees. Scott Johnson
Ryan Giggs’ dedication to Wales was also the subject for the cover of WSC 191, January 2003