Ryan Giggs, Wales and a Golden Generation
Ryan Giggs’ first competitive home game in charge of Wales was primed with a poetic quality from the get-go.
Successful forays into China and Mexico in the 11 months since Wales last played in front of a home crowd had helped to ease the agony of missing out on the World Cup. Yet memories of that painful night refused to recede, manifesting themselves in drawing The Republic of Ireland - who condemned Wales’ World Cup dreams a little under a year ago - in the Nations League. In the build-up to that do-or-die clash, then Wales boss Chris Coleman argued that his squad had earned the “Golden Generation tag”.
At the time, it was hard to argue otherwise. Who could forget how ferociously the Dragon roared in France? Surely, however, to truly warrant that 24-carat accolade, success has to be consistent. The post-mortem to that defeat was a messy affair; some factions of the Welsh contingent felt cheated by the brutal and agricultural approach employed by the Irish, others rued dropped points at home to Serbia and Georgia, some deplored absentees, but those brave enough to lift their head above the parapet saw the campaign for what it was. Shortly, an indictment on Coleman’s refusal to evolve. It may seem harsh to accuse Coleman, who led Wales to an unprecedented semi-final finish in the European Championships, of failing, but he did. Wales should have qualified, or at the very least finished 2nd, in a group that contained no real stand-out countries.
While it is far too early to produce any real comparison between Giggs and Coleman, one thing is clear. Wales’ current crop of players has the potential to exceed what came before. Just as Wales’ 4-1 dismantling of the ‘Boys in Green’ was a product of bravely adventurous football, Giggs’ team selection was equally daring. Gone were stalwarts Chris Gunter, James Chester, Joe Ledley and Sam Vokes, relegated to the bench and in were youngsters Connor Roberts, Ethan Ampadu, David Brooks and Chris Mepham. It would be disingenuous to suggest Gunter and co. are not in Giggs’ plans, but it does suggest that the Wales boss is willing to experiment and crucially, develop his side.
The biggest compliment you could pay Ampadu, Mepham, Brooks and Roberts is that they did not look as though they were making their competitive debuts. Ampadu may as well have worn smooth-velvet slippers such was the way in which he sauntered through the Irish midfield, spraying arching passes and combining well with Joe Allen - importantly, too, he was unafraid to ‘do the dirty’ and his assist for Wales’ third goal was a reward for intelligent pressing. Mepham and Roberts defended well throughout, with Roberts capping off Wales’ rout through a crisp volley with his weaker foot. Brooks, the subject of frequent interest from England, brimmed with zest and creative endeavour, foiling well with Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale and Tom Lawrence.
It is no knee-jerk reaction to suggest Giggs may have the best Welsh squad for a generation: a useful blend of seasoned pros and the impish delight of youth, spearheaded by the best British player in decades in the form of Real Madrid star Bale (whether he is the best ever, is a debate for another time). With the game fizzling out into an exhibition match, Giggs was able to hand valuable minutes to yet more promising talent. Mathew Smith, on the books at Manchester City and now on-loan at FC Twente, replaced Ampadu and impressed with maturity and craft on the ball, whilst Tyler Roberts of Leeds United produced a lively cameo. Ben Woodburn, the teenage sensation who sparked Wales’ late fight for a World Cup spot a year ago failed to even appear from the bench; Harry Wilson, also tied with Liverpool, kept him company.
Wales now have a squad full of technically gifted players. This may not seem like a grandstand point, but it is significant - all of the emerging talent are blessed with quick feet and footballing intelligence. Previous generations have not be found wanting for grit and passion, but apart from a select few players, the majority of Welsh internationals were limited technically speaking,
It is all well and good blowing away Ireland, who were ravaged by injuries and are mediocre at the best of times, but the aim must now be to replicate such devastating performances on a regular basis. That starts with Sunday night’s second Nations League fixture against Denmark, who have resolved their player dispute and will field their strongest team. Regardless of the chaos that has engulfed the Scandinavians, this will be a bigger test for Wales. The Danes humiliated Ireland 5-1 in their own back-yard in the World Cup play-offs and were knocked out in Russia by finalists Croatia on penalties. The Welsh must play with the same sense of adventure and penetration if they are to make it two wins out of two.
Though Coleman’s men gave a nation memories to cherish for a lifetime, labelling them the ‘Golden Generation’ is premature when Giggs’ current squad have so much more potential. They may not replicate Coleman’s achievements, in which case, the class of 16’ should warrant such acclaim, but the promise that bubbles under Giggs will keep such titles in check for now.