IF YOU ASK FOOTBALL FANS for their opinion of Ryan Giggs the player, the majority would heap praise on the former Manchester United winger. If you ask a Welsh football fan the same question, though, the response is likely to be vastly different. Whilst few would question his quality on the pitch, the majority would question his commitment to the Welsh cause. Whilst the United man played for his club until the age of 40, amassing 672 appearances, he retired from international football seven years before he hung up his boots at club level.
Giggs, the great hope of Welsh football in the 1990s and 2000s, achieved just 64 caps for his country in 16 years. Gareth Bale, the current star of the national side, has already surpassed Giggs’ tally with 68 caps in just 11 years.
Now more than ever, the relationship between Welsh football fans and Ryan Giggs is under the spotlight. After Chris Coleman’s decision to depart the national set-up in favour of a move to Championship club Sunderland, the country’s top job is up for grabs. Giggs is the bookies’ favourite for the job, which has been met with disdain by the majority of Welsh fans.
It is impossible to deny the quality that Giggs possessed as a player. Even arch rivals of Manchester United could appreciate the Welshman’s talent on the pitch. Breaking into the United first-team in the early 90s alongside his Class of ‘92 colleagues Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt, Giggs was a revelation on the left-flank of Alex Ferguson’s famous United sides.
He was a revelation – a true, old-fashioned left-winger, with the ability to beat any full-back who stood in his way and deliver a divine ball to Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, Andy Cole or whoever stood up front for the Red Devils. Trevor Murray, in his article for These Football Times, captured the impact that Giggs had at Old Trafford and the way that he terrorised opposition defenders: ‘A certain Welsh legend used to terrorise defenders; blotting their otherwise peaceful sleep with the harrowing image of a blurred no.11 storming past them down the touchline, seared into their nightmares.’
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His talent whet the appetite of Welsh fans, who had been without a leading figure since John Charles retired from international football in 1965. While the likes of Ian Rush and Mark Hughes were outstanding players, they lacked the global appeal that the Welsh football craved. Ryan Giggs brought that.
Making his debut in 1991, Giggs became the youngest ever to play for the Welsh senior side when he replaced Eric Young in the 84th minute of an away match against Germany. It took Giggs two years to score his first international goal, in a 3-0 win over Belgium in Cardiff, but Wales fans continued to be excited by the talent on display weekly at Old Trafford.
After making his debut against the Germans in 1991, Giggs would miss 18 consecutive friendlies, playing his first friendly match for Wales nine years later in 2000 when the Millennium Stadium opened. This would be the catalyst for a soured relationship between Giggs and the Welsh faithful.
In his autobiography, Giggs claimed his absences were down to injury prevention: “At that time, whenever I played two games in one week I always seemed to pick up an injury, so [Alex Ferguson] and I sat down and looked at it game by game. If the international was a friendly, the feeling was that I didn’t have to play.”
There is little doubt that Sir Alex played a big part in his players’ international careers. In a discussion on BT Sport recently, Rio Ferdinand stated how his relationship with close friend Frank Lampard deteriorated due to a breakdown in communication as a result of his desire to win at club level. Lampard, who sat next to Ferdinand in the studio, joked, “Did Fergie tell you that you can’t speak to anyone?”
Whilst those in the studio laughed at Lampard’s joke, its accuracy was clear. Ferguson, who would do anything to win, wanted players to sacrifice their international careers in order to put 100 percent into their club efforts with United. Some would argue it worked – Ferguson was one of British football’s most successful managers – but it poisoned Giggs’ relationship with his own country.
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When Giggs retired from international football in 2007, there was little disappointment or surprise in Wales. The man that the country had pinned its hopes on was abandoning them once again.
It was a difficult time for Welsh football. John Toshack had taken charge of the national side for the second time and was undergoing a period of transition as he introduced a number of young stars to the senior side. Giggs was 31 when he retired, but played for another seven years at United, further questioning his loyalty and dedication to the Welsh cause. In 2012, five years after his retirement, Giggs turned out for Team GB at the 2012 Olympics in a move that angered many.
Perhaps what killed the image of Giggs as a saviour to Welsh fans was not his early retirement or his lack of dedication or passion for his country, but the emergence of Gareth Bale. As the Telegraph’s James Corrigan argues: “Here [Bale] is a player who is, at the very least, Giggs’ equal – and to many of our minds, his superior – and here is a Welshman who will seemingly do anything for the cause.”
Bale is everything Giggs was supposed to be. He is world class, a global superstar and is supremely dedicated to the cause. The Real Madrid star at times single-handedly guided his country to their first major tournament since 1958 when Chris Coleman’s side qualified for Euro 2016. In France, Bale and co made a whole nation dream as they fought their way to the semi-finals of the competition. It is largely down to Bale that Wales are in the position that they are now. No longer a whipping boy at international level, but a country fit to fight it out with the world’s best.
So with Chris Coleman stepping down as Wales boss in order to take on one of English football’s biggest challenges at Sunderland, this is arguably the biggest appointment the Football Association of Wales will ever have to make. Giggs is the frontrunner in the eyes of the media. Mark Hughes, Robbie Savage and their peers have all come out and backed the former United man for the job. “If Ryan Giggs were to want the job and to get interviewed, to have a legend like him managing the country would be a fantastic opportunity,” Savage told the BBC.
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For Welsh fans, though, the damaged relationship with Giggs continues to loom. Wales fan Tommie Collins told the BBC, “In my opinion, Giggs turned his back on his country” – a view shared by the vast majority of the red wall.
#AnyoneButGiggs has been a common tweet amongst Welsh fans, while Tony Pulis, Craig Bellamy and Thierry Henry have all received more votes in national media outlet Wales Online’s poll on who should be the next Wales manager.
There is a deep-rooted feeling amongst fans that Giggs would be appointed purely because of his reputation, with many arguing that it is not a figurehead that the nation needs. Instead, it is a passionate coach who can continue Coleman’s success and develop the new crop of talent emerging. With the likes of Ben Woodburn, Ethan Ampadu and David Brooks ready to step up, it is an equally exciting and crucial time for Welsh football.
Many of Giggs’ ex-international team-mates have argued that he was dedicated to the cause, with both Iwan Roberts and Danny Gabbidon agreeing that the former United man showed his passion in the dressing room when talking on Ellis James’ Feast of Football podcast. Giggs himself has previously reaffirmed his commitment to Wales, saying: “I’d rather go through my career without qualifying for a major championship than play for a country where I wasn’t born or which my parents didn’t have anything to do with.”
So why is it that Giggs continues to be disregarded by Welsh fans?
Whilst a number of his rival candidates have come out and passionately spoken about their desire for the role, Giggs has remained silent. His managerial credentials are also called into question. The United man took charge of the Red Devils for four games and has spent a short spell on the club’s coaching staff. However, despite leaving the club over 18 months ago, Giggs has not taken another step back into management. While fellow candidate Bellamy has been learning the trade in Cardiff’s academy, Giggs seems happy to wait for a big opportunity that may never come.
In truth, though, Giggs’ lack of commitment to the Welsh cause as a player remains the underlying factor in the difficult relationship between him and Welsh fans. That relationship could prevent him from securing the country’s top job