Euro 2020 qualifiers: Ryan Giggs' emphasis on youth pays off as Wales edge past Slovakia
Euro 2016 semi-finalists take step towards 2020 in absence of injured Aaron Ramsey
It felt a symbol of how the torch has been passed to a younger generation.
When Dan James struck in the fifth minute, it was Wales’ earliest goal in a competitive international since Ryan Giggs scored against San Marino in 2007. James was nine years old then. Twelve years on, he earned Giggs three points for the first time as Wales manager.
Like Gareth Bale’s 13 years ago, James’ first international goal came against Slovakia. Yet if Wales have looked dependent on their record scorer and Aaron Ramsey for attacking inspiration in recent years, a futuristic occasion suggested that reliance will be reduced.
The Euro 2016 semi-finalists took a step towards Euro 2020 in the absence of the injured Ramsey. Wales’ generation game meant a talisman was not missed.
“I am proud,” Giggs said. “There were so many outstanding performances.”
Despite the slenderest of margins, and Slovakia would have secured a point but for Wayne Hennessey’s fine save from Albert Rusnak, it ranked as a hugely encouraging afternoon for the most experienced of managerial rookies.
Giggs made 1,017 competitive appearances as a player and, while he had four games as Manchester United’s caretaker manager, this was a first meaningful match in the dugout. A 14-month introduction to the job had brought mixed results in friendlies.
But he has brought a progressive feel to selection, a graduate of the Class of 92 perhaps fashioning his youthful group for 2020, and he won something with kids. “We have got a great group of older players and younger players,” Giggs said.
The latter outnumbered the former. Only three starters featured in the Euro 2016 semi-final. Only four of the players in his initial 11 have more than 10 caps. If Chris Coleman had a battle-hardened side, the same cannot be said of Giggs.
It is part choice, part circumstance, but the decision to drop Wales’ most successful captain Ashley Williams, albeit after a stark, undignified decline, showed an unsentimental bravery.
The veteran came off the bench. “Ash saw us home,” added Giggs, who switched pragmatically to a back five but he had in effect begun with a front four that gave Wales a vibrant feel.
Smaller countries usually face the question of whether success is a one-off and a golden generation is followed by an altogether less glittering group. Not on this evidence: Bale, reinvented as striker and skipper, was outshone by James and David Brooks.
Few teams contain as many players capable of thrillingly direct running. Slovakia’s defence will not be alone in being tormented and it was telling they collected seven cautions for either dissent or illegal attempts to halt Wales.
James, in particular, was irrepressible.
His rise has been remarkable. He was not granted an appearance during a loan spell at Shrewsbury last season but he almost joined Leeds at the end of the winter window. He troubled Manchester City last week. This was another display to suggest he will not be at Swansea much longer.
The forward’s startling pace invariably catches the eye. Yesterday, after a winding solo run from Brooks, James was quick to win the ball back and dispatch a low shot past Martin Dubravka.
“Luckily it went in,” said the self-deprecating scorer, who found the net on his first competitive start, though an admiring Bale called it “a great strike".
The elusive Brooks was the most mobile of No 10s and twice came close to doubling Wales’ lead. Harry Wilson also spurned two chances. The substitute Tyler Roberts proved another quick, dangerous runner.
“With the talent we have got in the squad, we are always going to create chances,” Giggs added. “We could have scored more.”
Perhaps, though, the lack of a proven goalscorer other than Bale was a reason why Wales did not double their lead.
It meant they ended up hanging on.
“We had to dig in,” James conceded. “In the second half, they had a lot of the ball.”
Yet if victory was marred by cautions for Brooks and Joe Allen which may come at a cost later in the campaign, it could prove pivotal. Croatia are the favourites to win Group E. With away games against the World Cup finalists and Hungary next, it was imperative Wales won.
Updated: March 24, 2019 09:26 PM