Ryan Giggs is discussing how a wave of talent has revitalised Wales, eroding the reliance on Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, when he draws a comparison to the arrival of a chirpy and tenacious Brazilian teenager at Manchester United. “I played against Gary Neville for so long in training, then all of a sudden Rafael da Silva comes in and he gives you a new lease of life,” he says. “I’m up against someone who wants to smash into me, wants to run off me, wants to make it as difficult as possible for me and I have to up my game. That is the competitive nature I want in training and in the camp.”
Giggs believes the emergence of such a vibrant group, coupled with the progress of players such as Daniel James and David Brooks in the Premier League, has helped Bale and Ramsey to thrive for Wales.
“Maybe the [prior] frustration for Gareth and Aaron is that they had to go looking for the ball, and it is something I experienced a little bit, because you’re doing things that you wouldn’t do at Real Madrid or Juventus because players can find you or make the runs. Now we have got players who can take the burden off the likes of Gareth and Aaron and complement them, and give them that energy and enthusiasm of seeing what it was like to be a young player again.”
Beyond Bale and Ramsey, there is now an exciting underbelly of players, many of whom have amassed minutes in key matches, including Joe Morrell, the Bristol City midfielder who played alongside Daniel James and Harry Wilson at youth level. Others, such as the teenagers Neco Williams and Dylan Levitt of Liverpool and Manchester United respectively, are likely to make their senior international debuts when the Nations League returns in September.
“There’s a real crop of young players and a lot of them know each other as well, which is great,” Giggs says. “I experienced that with the Class of 92 at United and it does help when you come into the squad. It is fascinating to see because when I took over, when they sat down for dinner or lunch there were maybe two or three ‘more experienced’ tables but now they are all trying to cram on to the young players’ table, and there are about a dozen of them.”
But for a global pandemic, last Sunday would have marked the final of Euro 2020 and, when the tournament finally kicks off next June, Giggs is optimistic Wales will arrive in rude health. “If everyone is fit we will be a match for anyone because we have so much talent. We are getting to that stage where we’ve got a couple of players in each position, which Wales have probably never had in regards to strength in depth. When I was playing, if a couple of key players got injured you were really struggling and scraping around to replace them.”
Wales will take on Italy, Switzerland and Turkey in Group A and Giggs acknowledges the gaze on his team has shifted, largely owing to the work of his predecessor, Chris Coleman, who guided them to the semi-finals in France four years ago. “What Cookie did made people sit up and take notice. It also has had an effect on fans in Wales and expectations because expectations have gone up. I’ve experienced that; you’re expected to win every game and blow teams away at home, certainly against the not-so-big countries. It’s about managing that but the perception has definitely changed. What the country has done over the last four or five years probably deserves that status of being feared and being taken seriously.”
It is an intriguing mix of players; in 2013, the year Bale made a then world record £86m transfer, Kieffer Moore, the striker now of Championship side Wigan, was juggling playing part-time for Dorchester Town with weekday duties as a lifeguard and personal trainer.
Whittling the squad down to 23 names next summer, Giggs says, is going to be an “absolute nightmare”, but citing Ben Woodburn and Ethan Ampadu, he raises the importance of players getting regular game time. Woodburn, on loan at Oxford, has struggled for form and fitness since eclipsing Michael Owen’s record as Liverpool’s youngest goalscorer four years ago, while Ampadu, who has started four of Wales’ past five matches, failed to start a league match for Leipzig on loan from Chelsea.
“Ethan’s had a few knocks and growing pains but has done brilliant for me. Leipzig had a great start to the season and he just couldn’t quite get in. But away at Tottenham, when he was fantastic, he showed the quality he’s got. If Ethan plays regular games, you’ve got a top, top player on your hands. I’ve seen a big difference with Harry Wilson since he joined Hull [on loan in 2018] because before that he was struggling to get into the rhythm of games when he joined up on camp. That is the only problem I have with all of these young players.”
Giggs is at home in Manchester, where he has spent the lockdown enjoying bike rides with his children and “mastering every type of way to cook an egg” in between being awarded the “One-Club Man” accolade by Athletic Bilbao as a nod to his 963 appearances for United. “With me, it was my team: United,” he says. “Marcus [Rashford] could do it and Trent [Alexander-Arnold] could do it but yeah, it’s getting less and less. Definitely the influence of agents in the game [has had an impact] and also I had the stability of one manager [Sir Alex Ferguson]. If another manager had come in when I was 30 and maybe not fancied me, then I probably would’ve gone elsewhere.”
We touch on the partnership of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, as well as United’s prospects of rivalling Manchester City, and Liverpool, for whom the 19-year-old Williams has impressed since his Premier League debut. “He has got someone like Trent [Alexander-Arnold] in front of him, who is a brilliant player, but to come on and show the manager: ‘Listen, I’m ready if you want me,’ I was really impressed. I was in a similar situation when I was coming into the team at United.
“Lee Sharpe was in front of me, he had just won PFA young player of the year and I was thinking: ‘There’s no chance I’m going to get into the team.’ He got injured – now, of course, I’m not wishing Trent Alexander-Arnold gets injured – but I think what he [Williams] has shown is that, if anything happens, he is ready to come in.”
Last week Ole Gunnar Solskjær said United were “not too far away” from being title contenders and Giggs believes they are “two or three players” short. “If [Anthony] Martial can carry on scoring, and with [Mason] Greenwood, Marcus, Dan James, you have got some real dangerous players. And the bench is looking strong as well.
“Ultimately, you’ve got to get to the likes of Juventus and Bayern [Munich]. When you see those teams playing in Europe and you see the bench, you forget about the players that they have got, players that would walk into any other team, and we need to get that status.”
Giggs is excited by the promise of the Pogba-Fernandes midfield axis. “What Fernandes has shown is the consistency. Every game he looks like he’s going to do something; he’s going to shoot from 30 yards, create something and he is going to test the opposition. Pogba is capable of doing that but has perhaps done it for two games and then been quiet for a game and not quite had that consistency. Of course he has got the skill but he now needs to add that. He hasn’t got that excuse any more that perhaps he was looking around and thinking he hasn’t got the players around him. Now he has got a player of equal status and quality to take the burden off his shoulders.”
Roy Keane has been stinging in his criticism of United’s goalkeeper David de Gea. Is the Keane we see seething on television the real Roy Keane? “It’s the real Roy in regards to how fierce and much of a winner he was and how much he was prepared to say to players if they were not pulling their weight. But you’re only seeing 5% of Roy and 95% is great company, intelligent, funny, clever, caring and I think everyone focuses on the little outbursts, but he’s a good guy … I first came across Roy in 1993-94 and he’s not changed. Ninety-five per cent great company but he’s got a temper, like all of us have. Roy lets it be known and there is no compromise.”