Ryan Giggs is a Manchester United legend, but did he really deserve the five-star treatment in Cardiff when he called time on his Wales career? Huw Richards doesn’t think so
John Toshack is clearly more of a sentimentalist than he looks. His decision, born perhaps of his years in Spain where such tributes are a regular feature, to take off Ryan Giggs just before the end of the European Championship qualifier against the Czech Republic allowed Giggs a solo ovation from the crowd for his last appearance for Wales. It fit with the mood of elegiac acclaim that had filled Welsh column inches and airwaves since Giggs had announced his international retirement earlier in the week.
He will go down as one of the outstanding British players of the past two decades. He has been a consistent component in the dominant club side of the era, not only performing the spectacular and the unexpected but evolving from the edited‑highlights specialist of his early days into a truly significant contributor, with a vast collection of medals testifying to extraordinary longevity. He is also, if Noreena Hertz’s testimony from her campaign to get Premiership footballers to give a day’s pay to help nurses is any indication, a decent human being aware of the world beyond the training ground and plush Cheshire residences.
And will that much cited asterisk against his standing – that he has never played in the finals of an international championship – really count for much? It didn’t (and nor for that matter did being a disruptive, egotistical pisshead – something Giggs emphatically never was) when tributes were loaded on George Best. Has regular participation in tournaments done much for the reputation of Giggs’s English contemporaries?
His Wales career has, though, been much less than it might. A lot was made of 64 matches and 16 years of service – such a long time that his debut was against a nation still trading as West Germany. But Wales have played not far off twice as many matches in that time. Those absences are the reason why not all Welsh fans felt inclined to join ecstatic tributes to his greatness.
He isn’t the first Welsh player to have problems getting released for internationals. John Charles played only 38 matches in 15 years and only at the last minute did Juventus allow him to play in the 1958 World Cup finals. That, though, was in an age when travel was difficult and there was no requirement that players be released to other countries for international duties. There have been no such limits on Giggs.
The memory persists of an extraordinary run of withdrawals from Wales squads for friendlies – usually citing a minor injury that would almost invariably have cleared up by the next Manchester United game. The statistical odds against such a sequence were roughly those against winning a National Lottery rollover or Alan Shearer saying something illuminating.
There was a general tendency in Wales to blame Alex Ferguson, but United’s English and Irish players appeared to suffer few such afflictions. You can argue that international friendlies are a waste of time, and that Giggs was usually around for competitive matches, but that misses the point.
If friendlies are for anything, they are to get players in scratch teams on the same wavelength. Wales teams inevitably contain a wide range of abilities and players unfamiliar with each other through playing in different divisions. Giggs, a world-class player accustomed to team-mates of similar talent, needed to establish some sort of understanding with the journeymen who composed the bulk of his Wales colleagues. Failure to play the friendlies was one reason why he so often disappointed for Wales when it did matter – his desperately insipid display in the World Cup match against England at Old Trafford in 2004 being a case in point.
Giggs is entitled to his career choices. And maybe those international absences have contributed to his extraordinary club career, whose length for someone so frequently proclaimed fragile recalls those of centenarians who were called delicate in their Edwardian childhoods.
But they don’t make him the national hero he has been proclaimed in the last few days. Still less do lucrative Nike adverts proclaiming his nationality. A great Welsh footballer? Undoubtedly. But a great player for Wales? Sadly not.
From WSC 245 July 2007