There was an odd sense of relief when, in May 2007, Ryan Giggs announced his retirement from international football.
Though undeniably one of the greatest talents ever to play the game, Giggs never hit the heights for Wales that he did with Manchester United.
His frequent withdrawal from competitive fixtures and total aversion to friendlies became a running joke. It seemed better for all concerned that Wales move on without their most famous player.
On Monday, Giggs returned to the forefront of Welsh football as the new national team manager. But though it has only been a decade since his final international appearance, the landscape has changed dramatically.
Wales have been to the semi-finals of a major tournament and currently possess a group of players more than capable of qualifying for Euro 2020. Giggs – untested and still every bit the big name – was by no means the people’s choice to succeed Chris Coleman.
It would be wrong to call the public reaction to Giggs’ appointment wholly negative. Ultimately, most fans will give him the opportunity to win them over with performances on the pitch.
But he will not be afforded the kind of grace reserved for legendary players who risk their reputation by returning to their old stomping ground as a manager. It is difficult to recall the highlight-reel moments from Giggs’ Wales career, far easier to remember news of another withdrawal.
And so, far from being perceived as a returning hero, reactions in Wales generally range from cautious optimism to downright pessimism. Many fans sit in between those two emotions: uncertain about the appointment and its wider ramifications, wondering whether the glass is half full or half empty.
Should it go well, this is a chance for Giggs to become the hero of Welsh football that he never was during his playing days. But if it does not, it poses a significant risk to his long-term aspirations in management.
INTO THE UNKNOWN
The pessimism felt by some Welsh fans is perhaps more to do with uncertainty than outright opposition to Giggs.
Though it is little known to the wider world, Wales’ recent success owes a great deal to Osian Roberts, who worked as assistant under both Chris Coleman and Gary Speed and is technical director at the Football Association of Wales (FAW).
Giggs is yet to discuss future plans with Roberts, who applied for the manager’s job and was many fans’ first choice for the position. There are rumours of Paul Scholes being part of the new setup, but the sensible first move from the incoming manager would be to retain Roberts as his assistant. Had Giggs been presented to the world with Roberts sat alongside him, the reaction would have been very different.
There is also a significant question over how Giggs will approach the wider role of national team manager. This is not a job limited to training sessions, matches and press conferences. Coleman toured the country as the torchbearer for Welsh football, appearing at domestic games, town halls and a variety of events.
It is fair to say that Coleman is a more naturally outgoing character than Giggs. He is jovial and self-deprecating, qualities often missing from truly elite players, and so this task was suited to him. Still, he did it with great enthusiasm and it earned him considerable respect.
The very obvious question being asked now is whether Giggs will embrace his role with the same kind of energy. Frankly, it is very difficult to imagine Ryan Giggs speaking at a working men’s club in Merthyr or Caernarfon. Perhaps the best thing he can do at this point is embark on a cross-country tour to speak to his people.
There is also a very understandable concern about hiring a manager with so much history in the game. When Coleman was struggling during the early part of his tenure, the wider world was not especially interested.
If Giggs gets off to a bad start as Wales boss the situation will be very different. His decisions will be under scrutiny from media well beyond his own nation and his team will be burdened with unnecessary pressure. This is not Giggs’ fault, but it comes with the territory as a 13-time Premier League winner.
A CHANCE AT REDEMPTION
Despite these concerns Giggs was an obvious choice for the FAW following Coleman’s departure, with all of the national side’s full-time managers since 1999 being former internationals. That he has very limited experience in the dugout is also nothing new.
All of these appointments had positive aspects, be it in terms of results or laying foundations for the future. Most had their bad points too, though none were out and out mistakes.
Of course, Giggs is a different animal. Despite being among the most talented footballers the country has produced – and by far the most decorated – he has never really been loved by the nation’s fans. He is respected for his achievements, of course, but not adored.
That he played in just over half of all Wales games between his debut in 1991 and his retirement in 2007 is problematic (it’s fair to ask how he would deal with one of his players doing the same and retain any authority).
Various salacious revelations about his personal life do not help, either.
But perhaps some of this would be forgiven, or at least tolerated, if Giggs had appeared a little more engaged during his international career. When he did turn out for Wales he often seemed sullen, playing with only a degree of the fire in his boots that he displayed at Manchester United.
He had his moments of course, but it was as if Wales was a responsibility, whereas United was his passion. Contrast this with Craig Bellamy, his chief rival for the manager’s job, who for all his faults displayed huge passion when playing for Wales.
This lack of energy fed into the idea that Giggs considered his international career to be a mistake, that he wished he had played senior football for England. In truth he was never eligible to do so, though that myth persisted and was reinforced every time he put in a sub-par performance or withdrew from a squad. Perhaps it is just a case of Giggs being an introverted character, but the reputation lingers to this day.
This is an opportunity for Giggs to redefine himself in the eyes of Welsh fans. He cannot go back and play in the friendlies he missed, but he can embrace his new role in a way that suggests he really cares about Welsh football, in the same way that his players clearly do. Of course he considers it a stepping stone – so did Coleman – but that need not prevent him from showing some passion while he’s in the job.
Above all, however, he needs to win football matches.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
It has been said that the Wales job offers Giggs a chance to learn his craft away from the spotlight. This is nonsense: for one thing, Ryan Giggs will never be afforded a chance to work outside the spotlight.
More importantly, he has inherited the most talented Wales team of all time and will be expected to deliver by a nation that has set itself higher standards post-Euro 2016. Qualification for Euro 2020 is now a must.
He will have nowhere to hide should he fail to do so, just as Coleman can’t really escape the failure of the World Cup 2018 campaign. This is a team blessed with a few big-name stars, several very good veterans, and some hugely exciting young talent.
There are gaps here and there, as is often the case in international football, but this is a very capable Welsh side that could become even better with the development of Liverpool’s Ben Woodburn and Ethan Ampadu of Chelsea, to name just two.
This is not just a crucial juncture for Wales. Should Giggs fail to make the most of this opportunity, his chances of managing at the top level will become all the more remote. Having found a Premier League job unattainable with his current lack of experience, he’ll be even worse off should he flop as Wales manager. The job can be a springboard, but it could also be a trap door.
Success would mean qualification for Euro 2020 and a solid showing at the finals. Perhaps that would be enough for Giggs to make the step into club management. It would certainly begin to endear him to Welsh fans, including a new generation that never saw him play.
But if he has it in him to lead Wales to the World Cup for the first time since 1958, Giggs could at last achieve a status that he never commanded as a player. Whether attaining that status matters to him is another question entirely.