Home from home as Giggs sparks hope

Wing wizard used to cheer on his hero Hughes - now the roles are reversed for a massive game

The Welshman whom Sven Goran Eriksson should fear most in next Saturday's World Cup qualifier at Old Trafford played nine times as captain of England Schoolboys but would prefer to forget that one of the seven victories in that highly successful season was by four goals to nil against his native Wales at Swansea.

Not that there is any mention of R Giggs in the record books for 1988-89. In those days he was Ryan Joseph Wilson, who only adopted his mother's maiden name after his father left home and he himself left school to join Manchester United. Successive England coaches have asked how England ever allowed Giggs to slip through their grasp. The truth is that they never had a chance of keeping him from Welsh clutches once schooldays were done and the serious stuff began.

The first seven years, as Jesuits have long known, are the important ones, and those years were spent in Cardiff, where he had been born in November 1973. It was a very Welsh household, the head of which, Danny Wilson, played stand-off for Cardiff while his wife, Lynne, shed tears of pride every time the anthem was played before a televised rugby international. Not until Wilson Snr switched rugby codes to join Swinton did the family cross the border, where the young Ryan toughened up by playing for Salford Schools at league as well as football; having inherited his father's pace, he excelled at both and only reluctantly gave up the former.

When there was any time at weekends in between playing, he used to stand on the Stretford End, cheering his hero Mark Hughes. Eventually they would play together for United and Wales, though only after Giggs had been rejected by Manchester City at the age of 14. Now the wheel has come full circle, and on Saturday it will be Hughes on the Old Trafford sidelines urging on Giggs rather than vice versa.

"I'm excited at the prospect of the game being played at Old Trafford," United's senior servant said last week. "There is nowhere else I would rather play. It's obviously on my home ground against players I have played with for over 10 years. It's going to be strange being on the visiting team, but that's something I've got to get on with."

Hughes was in the side when Giggs made his spectacular full debut for United against City 13 years ago, scoring the only goal, and in the Welsh team too when he first appeared against West Germany later the same year as the country's youngest international. Although sorry to lose him as manager, Giggs says: "Sparky did a brilliant job for the country and took us from a pretty low point to a stage when we are capable of beating anybody. He stabilised the squad and improved all areas of the national squad from top to bottom. I think every Welsh player and fan has a lot to thank him for. I will be as sad as anyone to see him leave Wales, but in my eyes Blackburn Rovers was too good an opportunity for him to turn down."

So important is Giggs to the side that their whole approach to planning the fixtures in the current competition was based around scheduling two of the easiest games first, while he was suspended for having retaliated to a Russian challenge in the Euro 2004 play-off a year ago. That proved rather presumptuous when Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland both earned draws. "Watching was frustrating," he admitted. "It lessens the frustration if you get a good result, but drawing the two games wasn't what we were looking for, because we wanted a better start." Frustration is a familiar feeling for everyone associated with Welsh football as so many successive tournaments have come and gone without a place in the sun. For Giggs, defeat in that first game in Nuremberg, after beating West Germany at home, meant a failure to qualify for the Euro 92 finals. Two years later, all that was required to reach the United States World Cup was a win at home to Romania, but poor Paul Bodin missed a penalty and Wales fell to a 2-1 defeat.

The last campaign, ended by Russia's solitary goal in Cardiff, was as disheartening as any; Giggs, though often perceived as an international absentee, played in all 10 games, and has therefore taken part in four European Championship qualifying competitions and three in the World Cup. In contrast to his club achievements, he will be looking at an unenviable record of failure if Wales, with Robbie Savage serving a ban, take nothing from Saturday's set-to. "It's a massive game for both teams," he said. "There's been a lot of hype about how important it is for Wales but it's massive for England as well, and it's up to us to realise that. We've got a good chance but only if we perform like we were a year or 18 months ago. We need to reach that level again if we are to get a good result. Sav's a great character on and off the pitch and will be missed."

Savage's first 50-50 with Master Rooney would certainly have been something to see. As it is, young Wayne's barely believable debut alongside Giggs at Old Trafford last Tuesday has even the latter admitting: "It's a scary thought. I'd much rather be on his side than against him. I just hope he has an off-day next week."

Not that Wales have any sort of inferiority complex, the ball-artist formerly known as Wilson insists. Are you looking forward to being up against your mate Gary Neville, Ryan? "Yes!"

MATCHES OF THE YESTERDAY

22 October 1938: Wales 4 England 2

Winning the Home International Championship three times made the Thirties Welsh football's most successful decade. This victory was one of four over England in the space of six seasons, watched by 55,000 at Ninian Park. They saw Wales pegged back twice, when Tommy Lawton (penalty) and Stanley Matthews equalised goals by Dai Astley of Derby County and Brentford's Dai Hopkins. But Bryn Jones scored a third for the home side and Astley secured victory.

27 October 1955: Wales 2 England 1

Having not managed to beat the English since 1938, Wales achieved another triumph with a family connection harking back to the previous one; Bryn Jones's nephew Cliff, then a young Swansea winger and later a stalwart of the Tottenham Double side, headed the winning goal. Derek Tapscott of Arsenal scored the other one. England, despite having Matthews and Tom Finney on the flanks, with Nat Lofthouse in between them, managed only an own goal in reply.

16 November 1966: England 5 Wales 1

The World Cup-winning team, though they were not to know it, played together for the last time in a comfortable victory featuring two goals by Geoff Hurst, one each from the Charlton brothers and an own goal, Wyn Davies replying for the visitors. It was England's 19th match without defeat, a run that would be ended a few months later when Scotland won 3-2 at Wembley and proclaimed themselves the new world champions.

24 January 1973: England 1 Wales 1

It did not seem to matter much at the time, but failing to win this World Cup qualifying tie would prove as costly for England and Sir Alf Ramsey as the more famous draw at home to Poland later in the year. John Toshack put the Welsh ahead early on, Norman Hunter equalising just before half-time, after which his Leeds United team-mate Gary Sprake kept England at bay. It was little consolation that England won 3-0 in the home-international game the same season.

17 May 1980: Wales 4 England 1

Mike England began his career as Welsh manager with a stunning victory at Wrexham over a team who had just beaten the world champions, Argentina, 3-1. Paul Mariner put England ahead, after which a defence in which Larry Lloyd had been inadvisedly recalled after eight years was taken apart. Mickey Thomas equalised, Ian Walsh headed Wales in front, Leighton James scored a third and Phil Thompson put through his own goal to complete Ron Greenwood's heaviest defeat in 55 games as manager.

5 May 1984: Wales 1 England 0

England having announced that they wished to discontinue the home internationals, Wales were fired up for what would be the last meeting between the countries until next Saturday's. A sparky young striker named Mark Hughes crowned the occasion, and his debut, by outjumping another international novice, Mark Wright, to head the only goal. A red-top tabloid (no prizes) immediately issued lapel badges reading "Robson out, Clough in".

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