THERE was almost no appetite for Ryan Giggs becoming Manchester United manager in 2016 to replace Louis van Gaal.
Giggs was preparing to take over when the Dutchman’s contract expired in 2017. He’d passed his coaching licence while still a player – no mean feat – he’d learned much under Sir Alex Ferguson and Van Gaal. The players respected him and many wanted him to get the job permanently in 2014, but United went for Van Gaal’s experience and in 2016 they went for Jose Mourinho’s ‘guarantee’ of success.
The fans – over 85% – overwhelmingly wanted Mourinho. Support for Giggs to be the main man was at 6%. Why? He’s probably one of United’s greatest ever players, he knew the club and the players inside out, he’d done some scouting, he felt ready for the job. Yet sitting on the bench next to Van Gaal damaged his stock. He was associated with failure and dull football. Giggs didn’t agree with everything Van Gaal did, but he didn’t want be seen as undermining his boss by saying so.
Van Gaal's and Ryan Giggs' reaction to Javier Hernandez missing the penalty was priceless pic.twitter.com/1H2Q1Y6a9Q
— Footy Jokes (@FootballMemesCo) August 27, 2015
Giggs left United in 2016 and put himself about to get his first job in management. In the meantime he kept himself very busy watching his son play football, being a part owner of Salford City and having interests in hotels and education in Manchester. A job finally came in January 2018 to manage the Wales international side and he signed a four-year contract.
The man who played 64 times for his country has now been in charge for 17 games with a record of won seven, drawn three and lost seven. That’s okay, though expectations surged after Euro 2016 when Wales reached the semi-finals after knocking out Belgium with a stunning 3-1 win before they were were eliminated by eventual winners Portugal. Failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals by drawing too many games served as something of a reality check.
With Giggs in charge, Wales finished second to Denmark in Group B of the Nations League. They beat the Republic of Ireland home and away, but lost both of their matches with Denmark. Wales are currently ranked 24th in the world. They were 19th when Giggs took over, but positions can shift quickly. Given their ranking they really should be qualifying for Euro 2020 which will feature 24 teams. Qualification in 2016 was only their second-ever international finals after the 1958 World Cup.
Giggs, who never played in a World Cup or a European championships, still lives in Manchester but he’s a frequent visitor to Wales and is desperate to lead them to the finals. He and his team have a momentous four days in front of them. Wales, who sit fourth in the five-team group, have two huge games. Qualification isn't quite in their own hands, but if they beat winless Azerbaijan in Baku on Saturday and then win the big one at home to Hungary at the Cardiff City stadium on Tuesday they should be through.
This would leave the Welsh on more points than Hungary, who defeated Wales 1-0 away. That 80th minute goal could be very costly, but then an 84th minute winner by Gareth Bale at home to Azerbaijan saved Wales from great embarrassment. Qualification is further complicated because Slovakia are also above Wales. They should beat Azerbaijan at home but play their final game is away to group leaders Croatia.
If Wales finish on equal points with Slovakia they would advance because of their superior head-to-head record against them. So, if Slovakia beat Azerbaijan as expected they need to draw in Croatia so that Wales can go through if they win both games. If all else fails there is yet another way for Wales to qualify.
This week, we've had Bale prioritising Wales over Real Madrid, and now Aaron Ramsey giving Welsh language interviews. Incredible, positive effect this team is having on their country. Absolute heroes.
— Phil Stead (@ffwtbol) November 15, 2019
While twenty of the 24 teams will be known from the 10 groups, the remaining four will come from play-offs according to how they did in the Nations tournament. Thanks to their decent performance in that competition Wales should fit the play off selection criteria and could get another chance.
This is important. Leading Wales to the finals would represent a success for Giggs. Finishing behind Croatia is one thing, but finishing behind Slovakia and Hungary would be underwhelming, especially for a team with the talents Giggs has at his disposal, especially in attack – Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, Juventus' Aaron Ramsey.
The pair haven’t played together for Wales for a year, with either of them injured. The Spanish media took a sarcastic line about Bale training with Wales. Zinedine Zidane maintains that Bale is not fit enough to play for Madrid, Giggs think he’s fit enough to play for Wales and that it could be good for Madrid if he does. One Wales fan had a cheeky Bale related flag made stating: “Wales. Golf. Madrid…in that order”.
Then there’s Dan James, who Giggs recommended to Manchester United. James is thriving at Old Trafford. Tom Lawrence, to whom Giggs gave his Manchester United debut in his brief spell at caretaker manager, has withdrawn from the squad with illness.
Giggs prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation, he’s not been afraid to promote youngsters like James either, yet the lesser names are among the more popular players. Kieffer Moore, who fractured his skull in February playing for Barnsley, is back and has played well since Giggs selected him for Wales. Ethan Ampadu is a 19-year-old playing at Red Bull Leipzig on loan from Chelsea.
Giggs needs all of these and others to perform at the top of their game. If he’s to get the United job one day it would help greatly if he could take his country to the finals. Timing is important in football and it went against him with Van Gaal at United when it all seemed set up for him to become United’s next manager.
At 45, Giggs is still young enough to have a long career ahead of him in management, but this next week is crucial for his fledgling career.