Ryan Giggs’s tenure as Wales manager is only eight games old and he has lost more matches than he has won, but his side’s maiden Nations League campaign, which ended with a 2-1 home defeat by Denmark on Friday, has given some indications as to the manager he may yet become.
If there has been a motif to Giggs’ matches at the helm to date, it has been the fearlessness of youth.
He has awarded first caps to talented teenagers such as Matthew Smith and Tyler Roberts and given players like 18-year-old Ethan Ampadu and 21-year-olds David Brooks and Harry Wilson opportunities that they have seized with both hands.
Some have sunk, most have swum, others have merely splashed around, but all have been granted the indulgence of being allowed to make mistakes.
Ampadu, Chelsea’s preternaturally composed midfielder-cum-defender, is a case in point. He produced a magisterial display in the 4-1 win over Ireland in September, but was then given a lesson by Christian Eriksen in Wales’s 2-0 loss in Denmark.
Returning to the fray as a 50th-minute replacement for the injured James Chester in Friday’s return fixture against Denmark, he slotted in seamlessly at centre-back alongside Ashley Williams, a player 16 years his senior.
Giggs’s mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, famously likened the former United winger to “a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind” and the Wales manager speaks about his own players with similar starry-eyed pride; a simple spectator, fleetingly, rather than a supervisor.
Ampadu and Brooks, he said, are “players that excite the fans and excite me”. On Bournemouth’s Brooks, who upstaged even Wales’s goal-scorer Gareth Bale against the Danes, Giggs said: “He is a player that I want to watch. He can be anything he wants to be.”
Like Ferguson, Giggs seems energised by youthful promise, emboldened even. He has thought nothing about parachuting young players into his starting XI – Ampadu against Ireland in Cardiff; Smith, the 18-year-old Manchester City midfielder who is on loan at FC Twente, against Ireland in Dublin; Roberts, the 19-year-old Leeds striker, away to Ireland and at home to Denmark.
The stalwarts from the Euro 2016 campaign still provide the core, but around them, the team’s future has already arrived.
With youth, of course, comes inexperience and it was Wales’s callowness that Giggs pinpointed as he tried to explain what separated his side from Age Hareide’s streetwise Denmark in the Cardiff City Stadium press conference room.
“There are things we can learn from and things we can do better,” he said. “You can't score every time you attack. You have to be patient. You have to know when to give cheap fouls away.
“You learn from getting over the line. You can’t just play attractive football.”
Ferguson’s great Manchester United teams had a physical edge to counterbalance their effervescence and Giggs admitted that he had enjoyed seeing Ampadu exact revenge upon Kasper Dolberg after the Ajax striker barged him into an advertising hoarding late in the game.
Ampadu’s teammates, led by Connor Roberts, angrily swarmed around Dolberg, who was booked. Ampadu waited for his moment before blatantly slamming into the Denmark substitute from behind, leaving him in a crumpled heap. He, in turn, was booked. The Wales fans in the Ninian Stand roared their approval.
On the touchline, Giggs exchanged angry words with Hareide. Inside, he was thrilled.
“I was proud of the players, how they reacted. That's how it should be,” he said. "I want to see it, as long as they don't go overboard. It shows they are not going to get bullied."
Giggs will make changes for Tuesday’s year-ending friendly in Albania and has confirmed that Chris Gunter will win his 93rd Wales cap, taking him past Neville Southall as his country’s most-capped player.
Beyond that, in next year’s Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, Giggs will continue to allow his young bucks to lead the way. And to hope for a little more punch amid the precocity.
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