Football: Giggs revives tradition of svelte Celts on the wing: Manchester United's Welsh prodigy seems to take everything in his stride. Ken Jones reports

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The Independent Online
SINCE the era of Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney the most brilliantly effective wingers in British football have been Celts: George Best of Manchester United and Northern Ireland, Cliff Jones of Tottenham Hotspur and Wales, Jimmy Johnstone of Celtic and Scotland. Now another: Ryan Giggs.

To watch Giggs at work for United and against Belgium at Cardiff Arms Park last week in his first full match for Wales is to be taken back in time. Perhaps a case can be made for John Barnes, but certainly no other winger since Best, Jones and Johnstone has revealed more decisive potential than the apparently nerveless young Welshman.

When Giggs excitingly applies the blend of speed, touch, competitiveness and imagination that is quickly making him famous, comparisons with Best are inevitable. And given the professional footballer's sometimes tedious addiction to sobriquets, it comes as no surprise to discover that he is known as 'George' among his team-mates.

It can be assumed this probably aggravates the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, who remains anxious to shield Giggs from the sort of concentrated attention that unquestionably contributed to Best's downfall. So far he has kept the predators at bay, but the task will become increasingly difficult now that Giggs has made a considerable impact in the Welsh national team.

Until last week Giggs had been used sparingly by Wales's manager, Terry Yorath, who was introduced to important disciplines, on and off the field, when recruited as a teenager by Leeds. Asked why Giggs had previously been kept on the substitutes bench, Yorath said, 'I didn't think he was ready.'

If that policy was in deference to Ferguson's fretfulness, it can no longer be maintained. Giggs came of age in Cardiff, his thrilling virtuosity bringing a victory that renewed Welsh hopes of qualifying for next year's World Cup finals.

Significantly, Giggs was the outstanding Welsh player against Belgium who took the field at the Arms Park with an impressive record of five victories and a draw from their last six matches. He stood out above Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Dean Saunders, raising such excitement on the Welsh bench that Yorath and his assistant, Peter Shreeves, were on their feet whenever the ball reached him. 'I can't think that anybody has made a more impressive international debut,' Shreeves said afterwards.

Doubtless Giggs will lose the innocence that shows in his reluctance to go down when unfairly tackled, and he still has plenty to learn. For the time being, however, it is enough for his mentors that he appears to be blessed with exceptional gifts.

The comparison with Best can be misleading. A different shape, slender where the Ulsterman looked freakishly slight, he is less likely to employ bewildering feints and sudden braking to outwit defenders than smooth acceleration reminiscent of the great Welsh wing threequarters. 'One moment he's 20 yards away with the ball, the next he's on top of you, coming like an express train,' said Shreeves last week after attempting to mark Giggs in training. That disorientating directness would be seen to full effect when Giggs retrieved the ball behind the Belgian left-back after giving him a 15-yard start. By then he had already given Wales the lead with a devastating free-kick.

Skill apart, what Giggs most obviously shares with Best is a marvellous temperament for the game. He sat quietly in the dressing-room at the Arms Park, displaying none of the nervousness you might expect in a teenager making his international debut. It is said that Ferguson draws comfort from what he sees in Giggs's cool eyes, and there was nothing in them to trouble Yorath and Shreeves. 'Good luck, George,' one of the players said, and he just nodded.

Harold Riley, the distinguished painter from Salford who appeared in the Manchester United youth team some 40 years ago, and probably would have turned professional but for gaining a scholarship to the Slade School of Art, recently sketched Giggs from the touchline at Old Trafford. The drawings reveal something about Giggs a picture could not show.

'In motion, Giggs appears to wave his body over the ball,' Riley said. 'It isn't an obvious movement, not anything deliberate, but it must be terribly disconcerting for defenders. His upper body appears to be swaying like a reed in the breeze, and so beautifully balanced. I've sketched George Best hundreds of times, and it is difficult to think of any other player whose movements were more exciting. I can't imagine that anyone better will come along in British football, but Giggs is a tremendously thrilling prospect.'

Riley remembers Giggs's father, Danny Wilson, turning out at stand- off for Swinton, as does the former Warrington and Welsh international, Mike Nicholas. 'Danny was a silky player, a terrific footballer who would have made a big name for himself in a better team,' Nicholas said. 'I don't know what went wrong, but you can see where this kid gets his skill from. It's all there, the touch, the balance. Put the pace in and you've got some player.'

Inevitably it keeps coming back to Best whose career foundered after Manchester United won the European Cup in 1968. Maurice Setters, now assistant manager of the Republic of Ireland team, was in the United team when Best made his debut. 'A lot of people have an opinion about why George went wrong but in my view it began to happen when senior players left the club. I don't know what the influence in the dressing- room is like, but in view of the trouble that overtook George I suppose Fergie's attitude is understandable.'

To emulate one of the great players in history, Giggs would have to go beyond the mere statistic of the 179 goals Best scored in 466 matches for United. In every way it is an impossible task, but people will go on making the comparison, forgetting that Best is unique in the British game.

When Giggs was substituted with only a few minutes left to play in Cardiff last week, the expression on his sallow features was that he had taken on to the field. Giggs understood that Yorath was simply using up time, and took the praise in his stride. 'Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, running down the wing' . . . little more than a boy he is already a Welsh hero.

(Photograph omitted)