Football: Shadow over the prince of Wales

Trevor Haylett feels that Giggs must dispel doubts before achieving his destiny
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The Independent Online
CONSIDERING Ryan Giggs combines an outrageous gift for playing football with an easy charm, it is a wonder that he has any detractors at all, especially those sharing his Welsh allegiance.

For all that a proud, if underachieving, nation is truly grateful to have a world-class talent as one of their own, there remains a lingering resentment that when the next friendly comes around Giggs will yet again go missing. It was in October 1991 that the most dazzling of all the starlets to have graduated from the Manchester United school of learning, made his first appearance in his country's colours as a substitute against West Germany. At 17 years and 322 days, he rewrote the record as the youngest Welsh international.

On Saturday as Wales begin another attempt to scale their Everest - every qualifying campaign - Bobby Gould's chances of masterminding an upset over Italy in the "home" European Championship tie at Anfield live and die with the 24-year-old Giggs. Yet in those intervening seven years the Principality have played 26 friendly fixtures and he has failed to appear in any of them.

It explains why there have been some dissenting Valley voices to the Giggs legend. After putting on record last year his ambition to lead his country, he then performed another disappearing act for the following game, a friendly against the Republic of Ireland. To some Welshmen that was nothing short of an insult from a player who covets the captain's armband. In a classic case of "cutting off your nose to spite your face" there were even calls for Gould to exclude Giggs from his plans altogether.

Of course it would be grossly unfair to dump even the majority of blame for the situation at Giggs's door. Alex Ferguson's protection of his young players is well documented and explains his resistance when Terry Yorath first wanted to include the fledgling star.

There has long been a cynical reaction in Wales to the medical bulletins from Old Trafford detailing yet another hamstring pull or groin strain, which always seem to have cleared by the time United are next in action. Also there is some justification in giving Giggs a break from his demanding schedule rather than carting him off to turn out in a meaningless friendly.

The unarguable truth in all of this is that Wales can never contemplate leaving out Giggs. First because of his outstanding skills. There are other exciting players at Gould's disposal such as the brash and brilliant Craig Bellamy at Norwich and the West Ham powerhouse John Hartson but a Welsh team without Giggs is no more potent than the ageing swinger denied his Viagra. The second reason is that to spend only a few minutes in his company is to be convinced both of his personal integrity and also of his desire to do his best for his country.

Yorath, the most successful Welsh manager of recent times, says there is a benefit to be had from including Giggs that extends beyond what he can offer the team on the field. His presence in the dressing-room, he says, inspires more confidence and resolution in a team that because of their lack of resources is always battling long odds.

"If you are being realistic, there are not many Welsh players that other countries will have heard of but they know all about Ryan. Apart from the lift he gives your own players when he is playing, his presence will put a doubt in the other team.

"He's a world-class talent, there's no question that the term is an exaggeration where he is concerned. Ryan can do things that other players will never achieve. With him in the side you have someone capable of creating something out of nothing, of relieving the pressure on your defence with a moment's magic that could win the game.

"I was fortunate to have three great forwards in Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Dean Saunders. If one was unavailable I could always call on the other two, but if I lost Ryan I was in trouble because there just isn't anybody to replace him."

The man who took Wales within a crossbar's width of the 1994 World Cup finals says there is nothing that Giggs needs to make himself a better all-round player. Early criticism about his crossing weaknesses or the strength of his right foot has long since disappeared.

However, Yorath predicts even more gloom for Premiership and international defenders when he says: "Ryan's best is still to come. He has been around so long that people forget he is only 24. As he gets older he will become even more of an influence and now Alex Ferguson has the option of being able to use him in a more central position rather than just out wide."