Saturday 21 October 2017

Football: Ryan Giggs takes centre stage

Ryan Giggs
Ryan Giggs

Ian Herbert

Ryan Giggs didn't look much at home with 'God Save the Queen' when he stood on the Middlesbrough pitch for his Great Britain debut last Friday, and it will clearly take something other than the anthem to summon up that passion in him which Wales knows as 'hwyl'.

But the captain of Stuart Pearce's side will tackle the last unfulfilled ambition of his playing days -- international achievement -- when he takes the GB side out to face Senegal tonight on the turf which he has called home for 21 years.

It is easy to assume, as Giggs sits down to discuss the game in an Old Trafford suite -- adorned with framed images of Manchester United's European conquests, in two of which he holds the European Cup -- that the Olympics cannot hold a torch to all that.

But the disappointments of Giggs' Wales career are more crushing than many realise.

"I'm still disappointed I never got to a major championship with Wales, but we weren't good enough to get to a European Championship or World Cup," he said, and it was not just the despair of the last-gasp defeats in Romania and at home to Russia -- which denied him a place at the 1994 World Cup finals and the 2004 European Championship respectively -- but the sheer, maddening amateurism at times.

Giggs remembers the day the squad arrived at Stansted, early in the Mark Hughes era, to find that they were fully a ton and a half over their excess baggage allowance. Hughes had to ask 13 fans if they would mind catching a later flight, to allow the team to get all their gear on board. That was the same season Wales called up Ipswich's David Johnson, only to learn he had already played for England 'B'.

But it is another unhappy Wales occasion in Giggs' mind this week: the 2006 World Cup qualifier against England at Old Trafford, the only time he has played here in colours other than United's.

"It is going to be strange," he said. "I have only done it the once and it was (especially) strange that day because I was in the away dressing-room."

Don't get Giggs started on that October afternoon against the English. Robbie Savage was suspended, experienced centre-half Alan Melville was injured in the warm-up and England lined up with three strikers -- Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe -- which Hughes, already juggling Wales with his new job at Blackburn Rovers, had not expected.

Gary Neville kept running past Giggs and making him chase. Nutmegging Neville and Nicky Butt were his only good moments in a 2-0 defeat.

Giggs now seems unburdened in a way that he never was with Wales. The encounter with Kelly Holmes at the Olympic Village two weeks ago was particularly inspiring for Pearce's older players, with their greater sense of perspective.

And, of course, there is not the presence of Alex Ferguson on his shoulder, brooding at the sight of him playing too much football. That factor explained one of the more bizarre statistics of Giggs' Wales career, which began in 1991 but didn't include a friendly until March 2000.

"Right from the start, he (Ferguson) wanted me to be a part of this," Giggs said.

International captaincy seems to fit him better now. His three experiences of it for Wales all brought defeat, not to mention his first ever dismissal -- a bitter 3-2 defeat in Oslo.

Pearce, by naming Giggs in his squad, effectively left himself no option but to exclude David Beckham, as two players of that generation would not be the selection of any manager seeking gold.

The captain, deployed in central midfield against Brazil on Teesside, provided GB's one opportunity of the 2-0 defeat -- a dangerous free-kick which Manchester City's Micah Richards could not convert.

But Pearce will need more tempo from those deployed around him if GB are to defeat a Uruguay squad equipped with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, in Cardiff next Wednesday, and set up a quarter-final against the runners-up of Mexico, South Korea, Gabon and Switzerland, three days later. (Senegal tonight and the UAE on Sunday really ought to be regulation wins).

Giggs' compatriot Joe Allen looked perhaps Pearce's sharpest player against Brazil, though that feeble performance put medal aspirations into perspective.

Giggs has reached an international finals tournament at last, however, and he won't deny himself the indulgence of discussing medals.

"As a footballer, you don't start out in your career hoping to win the Olympics," he said. "This is different but (any kind of medal) will rank highly." (Independent News Service)

Great Britain v Senegal,

Live, BBC 1, 8.0

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