Ryan Giggs discuss his two years at the Wales helm and a very bright future
Ryan Giggs describes his two-year Wales reign as something of a rollercoaster. Exhilarating highs of beating Hungary to qualify for Euro 2020, crushing lows like a 4-1 Millennium Stadium bashing by Spain.
A look at the win percentages, however, show that Giggs already has the second best record of any Wales manager in history.
Only Gary Speed, with 50 per cent, eclipses Giggs' own ratio which touches 48 per cent. John Toshack comes next (42%), followed by Chris Coleman and Terry Yorath (each 39%) and Mike Smith and Mike England (38%) from the '70s and '80s.
Going on the statistics alone, it is fair to say Giggs has been a roaring success, whatever the odd early defeat to Spain or one or two other countries might suggest.
Throw in the fact that he has qualified for Euro 2020, and with a new-look team of hugely exciting young players, and the FAW can proudly say they made the right appointment against the backdrop of that #AnyoneButGiggs hash-tag that once went the rounds on social media.
Giggs, as you would expect, has always been dignified in the role and takes a warm glow of satisfaction from his achievements thus far. But you just sense, when speaking to him, the best is still to come - with the World Cup in 2022 always having been the real aim.
Just over two years into the job, Giggs candidly spoke to Wales Online as he reflected on a range of subjects which include:
- THE 'really hard' conversations he's had to have with Euro 2016 stalwarts when leaving them out of the team
- HOW the plethora of young players have re-energised the side and reminded him of his own Manchester United playing days
- SIR Alex Ferguson's worldly words of wisdom that have offered help through the more difficult times
- WHY there are are pros, and cons, for Wales with Euro 2020 being put back a year.
Let's start with the fast-tracking of those younger players into the team, something Giggs concedes he had to be a little 'aggressive' about.
There are so many to mention - David Brooks, Harry Wilson, Dan James, Ehtan Ampadu, Chris Mepham, Joe Rodon, Connor Roberts just a handful of the teens and early TwentySomethings who have quickly established themselves under him.
"When I took over I knew there was a good crop of young players coming through, it was part of the reason I was so excited to take the job," reflects Giggs.
"Obviously it was a case then of seeing what they could do. They can be as talented as you want, but you never know for certain until they actually step up and deliver. And rather than rest on their laurels, they have to keep improving.
"Look, you'll know this as well as anyone, but the stats show that when Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen have played together, results are good. But how do we cope if one, or two of them, are missing?
"That was in my mind too, ensuring we're not over-reliant upon certain players.
"I wanted a bigger squad to pick from, others to share the burden. As such I was quite aggressive, I suppose, in getting the younger players in quite quickly. The Nations League was a good opportunity for that, a new competition, big crowds, competitive games. I was able to see how they could cope.
"I was looking more at the 2022 World Cup, really. We wanted to qualify for the Euros, of course, but I felt this good young crop, together with the senior players I've mentioned and others, would be more ready by the time Qatar came around.
"Not wishing to put too much pressure upon myself, or the players, but by then they'll be a further 18-20 months down the line in terms of their progress, Bale, Ramsey and Allen will still be at the top of their game.
"The World Cup was the one we were excited for, but it was also a real juggling act at times to get the team right to have a proper crack at the Euros."
That meant the gamble of leaving out some seasoned stars who, in Giggs' own words, had provided years of stellar service for Wales.
But these were tough decisions Giggs had no hesitation in making and he drew on his own experiences in the Manchester United dressing room, first as part of the famous Class of '92, then as a senior player, to put the youth revolution to good use with Wales.
"We just needed to get the balance right," explains Giggs. "Some of those senior players you talk of were still playing well, and regularly at club level.
"But at Man Utd we became accustomed to competition for places and I wanted that with Wales, too. Believe me it does make a difference, even in training where everyone steps up, the standard improves and that invariably spills over into matches.
"Look at someone like Dylan Levitt. He's 19, hasn't even played yet, but we've called him into the squad and he's been fantastic in training. Seeing that standard from someone who hasn't started a game can only have a good effect on everyone else.
"I saw the two sides of this myself as a player. First when that group of us came through together in the '90s. You play without fear, but you also quickly improve because you're suddenly next to senior stars, who can see a pass, guide you in the right direction. The environment is good for everyone."
I put it to Giggs that Bale and Ramsey, as Wales' creative forces, have almost been liberated by suddenly having the likes of James, Brooks and Wilson around them.
"I suppose they have been under so much pressure because of what they have achieved with Wales and the sense of expectation, but you can't rely upon them every single time," replies Giggs.
"For one they might not be available, also players do have off days. Even ones as good as them. It's then up to the younger players to take up the mantle.
"I have to say though that Gareth was brilliant for me during the Euro qualifiers, didn't miss a game. In fact, he's been magnificent since scoring a hat-trick in that first game against China.
"And Aaron showed his world-class quality with those two goals in the win over Hungary.
"These two have got a lot more to offer for a number of years, but the likes of Dan James, David Brooks, Harry Wilson, amongst others, have helped share the load a little, and that's only right."
Giggs continued: "What the young players do is energise the whole group. They come in, you're suddenly looking over your shoulder at another player in the squad in your position and thinking 'I'm going to need to up my own game'.
"I also saw this as one of the older players in the United dressing room. I tell a story of how for 10 years I was up against Gary Neville in training. I'm not saying either of us got stale, but we kind of became familiar with one another's style.
"Suddenly Sir Alex brought in Rafa da Silva, a young Brazilian right-back. He was running back at me non-stop, doing different things. My attitude and focus had to change. He made me step up my own game.
"That's how it happens, they energise you.
"I suppose I've noticed the big change at meal times in the two years I've done the Wales job. We tend to have tables of the more experienced players, those in in their mid-20s and then the younger ones. These days there are often 10-12 sitting on the 'younger' table, which demonstrates the increase in numbers. It is good for squad balance."
Of course, with that goes what Giggs concedes were awkward conversations that needed to be had with men who had established themselves in Chris Coleman's team and played a huge part in Wales reaching the Euro semi-finals.
Chris Gunter, Wales' record cap holder, and Ashley Williams, captain extraordinaire, were two of them.
How did he approach that, perhaps the most difficult part of the job to date?
"It's not easy. These can be hard conversations to have," concedes Giggs. "You're leaving out players who are big characters and who have done so much for their country. Sometimes I don't even have an excuse because they've been great when I've picked them and are regulars in club football.
"But you just have to be as honest as you can. Players will not like it, some have been regulars, might expect to play, that's totally understandable. I get that, but sometimes decisions have to be made.
"With Gunts, for example, I explained to him that I just couldn't ignore Connor Roberts' form, the way he was playing for Swansea, and then subsequently with Wales.
"But I don't have a single word to say against Gunts. He has been fantastic, really stands out in XI v XI during training, doesn't moan, I don't need to say too much. Sometimes he's really disappointed, which is fair enough, but he's a good person to have in the squad.
"With Ash the conversation was a bit different, in as much there are two centre-back positions and he's been the captain for so many years. But again, I couldn't ignore the form of Chris Mepham and James Lawrence, or Joe Rodon coming through so well.
"Tom Lockyer, too. When he first came into the side he was playing regularly for Charlton, whereas Ash didn't have a club. And Tom did well enough to deserve to keep his place. Ash has been fully understanding of that.
"In fact, if you were to ask me for my personal unsung aces, the ones who don't get the headlines, I'd say every single one of the players who aren't necessarily in the starting team.
"As I say, we do XI v XI in training, mirroring the opposition, and some of those not starting are going to feel sorry for themselves. It's only natural. On a couple of occasions I've had to stop sessions and say something, but not often. And that's a credit to the players.
"I know how difficult it can it can be for them. When I worked with Louis Van Gaal at United, part of my job was to manage that opposition XI, help prepare the first team for match day. Many of those might have thought they were going to start on the Saturday, weren't necessarily happy about it, so I understand what the feelings are and had to manage it then.
"But the truth is everyone is in this together, everyone is important. We can't perform without the help of the whole group. This is why, for me, those not playing are as vital to any success we have as those who do start."
Giggs admits he he actually backtracked on a couple of decisions previously, but won't be letting that happen again.
"On a few occasions, and I won't mention them, I picked a team against my gut instincts," he says. "Let's just say things didn't go right in the games concerned and I don't want to put myself, or more importantly the team, in that situation again.
"I've quickly learned that the decisions I usually get right in this job are the ones I have a gut feel for."
He smiles: "Even some of my staff are wondering 'What on earth are you doing this for?' Let alone the fans, or media, or anybody else, but I've stuck to my guns and generally I'd like to think I've been proven right.
"This is definitely something I learned from Sir Alex. He was so decisive. I was in the dressing room at times wondering 'What's he doing with a particular decision?' Yet invariably it worked out, we won and no-one says anything afterwards.
"That's how you have to be as a manager."
As he reflects on his highs and lows, Giggs cites wins over Hungary, Ireland (twice) and his 6-0 debut game against China as bright spots, countered by losses to Albania, Croatia, Hungary and the first 30 minutes of that Spain game in front of a 50,000-plus crowd, Wales' biggest for years, at the Millennium.
But the most magical moment, of course, came last time out when two Ramsey goals led to wild celebrations at Cardiff City Stadium as Wales qualified for the Euros.
Asked how that night compared to winning the UEFA Champions League with Man Utd as a player, Giggs outlined why it was so ultra-special.
"In football you don't actually get the opportunity very often to celebrate big moments like that in front of your home crowd," he says.
"When I won Premier Leagues with United, very often we'd clinch the title away from home. Obviously finals are played on neutral territory.
"But this was everybody doing it together as one at Cardiff City Stadium. We were able to celebrate with our home crowd, in our own country, a wonderful, really special feeling.
"As a player you celebrate for yourself, but as a manager you're responsible for everybody - yourself, your staff, the players, our brilliant fans, your employers.
"You put yourself under so much pressure and then come out with a night like that. It was incredible.
"I've always said my first Champions League final, when we beat Bayern Munich, was the best feeling I have had on a football pitch as a player. Just amazing. You're caught up in a whirl.
"The second time we won it, I was able to take it in a bit more. That night I was able to step back a little and watch Ronaldo, Rooney, Ferdinand, Vidic, truly great players who had never won it before, enjoy it like I had done back in 1999.
"I thought Hungary was a bit like that. It was great to see the younger players, who had probably watched Euro 2016 on TV, actually being out there making it happen and loving the moment."
The well done messages quickly started pouring in.
"Lots of them. Many of my old United team-mates got in touch, people I'd not spoken to for a while."
And Sir Alex?
"Yes, he was on congratulating me too," says Giggs. "But some of them, including Sir Alex, were also there for me during the low points, telling me to keep my head up, offering advice, that sort of thing.
"I actually lean on my staff mostly. Albert Stuivenburg, who I worked with at United, has been fantastic with the things he suggests, Osian Roberts when he was with us, I spoke to Chris Coleman a few times about different matters. I tend to keep it internal when I can.
"But it would be silly of me not to utilise the experience of Sir Alex, who has so much knowledge of how to deal with different scenarios.
"He's been there to help me when necessary. It's not so much football, he doesn't tell me what tactics to use or anything like that. But he does offer guidance on how to deal with certain situations, how to be decisive, that sort of thing."
So, having had that Hungary high, what does Giggs make of Euro 2020 being put back a year and whether that hinders, or benefits, Wales?
"We had momentum behind us, six matches unbeaten, a lot of planning had gone into this summer. In that respect it's disappointing," he says.
"I've been to Baku, where we were due to play twice, FAW staff have been to Rome. Different departments have been working really hard behind the scenes and our preparation as a team had actually started a year ago with a training camp in Portugal. That's where we were going to be based.
"But then you look at the other side of it. Joe Allen would have been out, David Brooks hasn't had a lot of football. For those reasons, and the younger ones getting more game time behind them, playing it next year might be a good thing for us.
"Ethan Ampadu will be more developed, Joe Rodon will be another year on at club level, Connor Roberts too, Neco Williams is coming through at Liverpool. There are plenty of others.
"It's swings and roundabouts, you can argue it either way I suppose.
"What I do know is I was going to find it really tough whittling my squad down to 23. I'd obviously scribbled names down, then worked on other options and I realised how hard it was. I tend to pick squads of around 27-28, it'll probably be even harder next year."
That is actually the beauty of the strength in depth Giggs is creating.
So, who would win a game between his team, and the sides he played in - first under Terry Yorath, then Mark Hughes, who each possessed stellar names and came within a whisker of qualifying under more difficult circumstances?
"I think this current side has more balance, players in the right positions," he says. "When I first came into the team we had a fantastic team spirit and great players, particularly up front. But it meant Mark Hughes, one of the best strikers we've produced, had to play in midfield. That can't happen, you have to put players in their rightful position as much as possible.
"I've seen that many times with Wales over the years, a needs must kind of thing with players out of position. We're trying to create greater options with the current squad to avoid having to do that.
"I was young back in 1993 when we lost to Romania. It was devastating, particularly after we'd come back so strongly from a poor start to the campaign and had momentum, but I just thought I'd get more World Cup chances. Of course, there weren't any.
"There was probably greater balance to the team under Sparky. We had a fantastic captain in Gary Speed, Big John Hartson up front, Craig Bellamy's speed and penetration out wide. We could have caused teams lots of problems, but we just ran out of steam in the end. We'd put so much into the first Russia play-off game, we had nothing left for the return.
"Hopefully that's where this current side would have the edge in that kind of situation. I'd be able to change it around, fresh legs, and not weaken the side.
"We're not quite there yet, but I want two players per position where we could pick either of them and it wouldn't really make any difference. That's the aim with squad depth."
Wales will need that depth as they head from the Euros, straight into World Cup qualifiers and then, hopefully, the one we have been waiting for since 1958 - the Dragons on the global stage at Qatar 2022.
The World Cup proved a step too far for Coleman, Toshack, Hughes, Yorath and England. If Giggs achieves it and his team shine in the finals, in time he may yet become regarded as Wales' finest manager - and not just statistically speaking.