Despite being the greatest-ever player to hail from Wales, Ryan Giggs was a controversial appointment by the nation’s governing body in January.
Throughout a phenomenally successful playing career for Manchester United, Giggs was a serial dodger of international duty. He appeared in just 10 of the 40 Wales friendlies between his 1991 debut and final appearance in 2007, calling his commitment to his country into question.
His coaching experience before taking the role was another point of contention with Welsh supporters. He assisted the ill-fated stints of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal at United, then complained of “too many foreigners” keeping him out of work after an apparently underwhelming interview saw Bob Bradley get the Swansea City job instead.
But it’s been going rather well for Giggs. Wales hosts Denmark at Cardiff City’s abode on Friday, with a win enough to secure promotion into the Nations League’s elite tier. Wales did lose to the Scandinavians in October, but that was sandwiched between two victories over the Republic of Ireland – one a comprehensive 4-1 win, the other a dull yet vital 1-0 triumph in Dublin – that got fans believing that the downturn near the end of Chris Coleman’s tenure was a mere blip during continued progress for the Dragons.
There has been significant turnover since Wales’ run at Euro 2016. In the starting XI against Ireland last month, only four players – goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, center-backs Ashley Williams and James Chester, and artful midfielder Joe Allen – survived from the semifinal loss to Portugal. Seven of Giggs’ starters in the Irish capital were aged 25 or younger.
Although Giggs’ hand was a little forced through the absences of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Chris Mepham, Ethan Ampadu, and Neil Taylor, the retired winger’s willingness to thrust youngsters into the Welsh setup deserves praise. Ampadu, 18, has showcased his precocious talent, vision, and maturity since electing to represent Wales over England, Ireland, and Ghana. David Brooks is establishing himself as a mainstay in the lineup and is enjoying a fruitful maiden Premier League term with Bournemouth. Fellow fledglings Mepham, Connor Roberts, Tyler Roberts, and Harry Wilson – the latter of whom notched the winner in the one-goal victory over Ireland with a lush free-kick – have all made telling contributions during Wales’ Nations League campaign.
These players have promise, but the ease in which they appear to have transitioned into the international game may have been skewed by the fact that only three Nations League matches have been played and, chiefly, the ineptitude of the competition. Martin O’Neill is Ireland manager but has instead been more of a mediator: his players and media on one side, and on the other, Giggs’ former club teammate Roy Keane, who has been his typically abrasive self.
Ireland has won once in its last 10 outings and clung onto a goalless draw with Northern Ireland on Thursday thanks two athletic swats from goalkeeper Darren Randolph. Considering the Republic’s toils, too many conclusions have been drawn from Wales beating Ireland twice.
Giggs was helped by what preceded his first competitive match. Eleven months prior to Ireland’s September visit, a confrontational Irish side trumped Wales by a 1-0 scoreline in a vital World Cup qualifier. Then the Republic’s slump followed. Yes, Ampadu and Allen may have swarmed the midfield in the 4-1 win in Cardiff, but Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick’s anonymity in Ireland’s stifling system must be taken into account. The midfield battle was Wales’ to win.
Then in last month’s return clash, Ireland simply didn’t have the quality to topple a Welsh outfit that was unbalanced and undermined by a string of enforced changes. Aiden O’Brien and Callum Robinson were both withdrawn from Ireland’s attack within an hour after mustering no shots on target between them, contributing to a run of five total goals over the eight matches their country has played in 2018.
Aside from topping Ireland twice, Wales has lost 2-0 in Denmark and was flattered by a 4-1 friendly defeat to Spain since the club season restarted.
The development of inexperienced members of the squad and passages of play in the first match against Ireland are positives early in Giggs’ reign. However, they are not enough to believe something akin to Coleman’s achievements can happen again – particularly when Christian Eriksen is picking at seams in Wales’ rearguard on Friday.
Sorry, Wales supporters: the sample size is too small, and Ireland is too bad.