Ryan Giggs: Wales manager's reign begins in earnest

Wales manager Ryan Giggs talks to his players as he prepares for his first competitive game in charge
Wales manager Ryan Giggs has gathered his squad in Cardiff ahead of their Nations League games

As Wales look to a new future, they must first draw a line under the past.

After three friendly games on foreign soil, the Ryan Giggs era begins in earnest in Thursday's Nations League opener against the Republic of Ireland.

The first competitive opponents of the 44-year-old's reign proved to be the final ones of Chris Coleman's.

While England dreamt of 'football coming home' from Moscow, Wales' players could only fantasise about Russia from afar.

Martin O'Neill's men denied Wales a crack at the World Cup and a second summer adventure after Euro 2016.

"I managed to watch a couple of games in the World Cup," admitted defender James Chester.

"I had club mates out there so I made sure I texted them to wish them luck and let them know how envious I was of them, being sat at home and them out there.

"Our experience of the Euros was one of the main reasons it [October's defeat by the Republic] was so difficult to take. The success we'd had made us hungry for more so to miss out on the biggest stage was tough."

A feeling shared by many.

"The disappointment lasted a while, we were all hurting a lot," says captain Ashley Williams, summing up the mood in both the camp and the country.

"I don't think, if we win that would erase the pain of that night. We missed the World Cup, that's gone. We want to win but not to put that right but for many other reasons."

The Republic of Ireland celebrate their winning goal against Wales last October
James McClean's strike against Wales last October in Cardiff secured the Republic of Ireland's place in a World Cup qualification play-off match against Denmark

One, says the defender, is to impress a new manager.

James McClean's goal at Cardiff City Stadium last year did more than just end Wales' World Cup qualification hopes, it also it brought about the end of Coleman's time in charge.

Although Coleman remained at the helm for two further friendly games, he opted for an ill-fated spell at Sunderland soon after, pleas from players to stay falling on deaf ears.

With change came apprehension, from both supporters and squad. What would a Giggs Wales look like?

"The success we had with [Coleman] and how well we all got on with him, we were all sad to see him go and we weren't sure what the future would bring," admits Chester.

"But it's an exciting time with the new manager and with a lot of young players and talented players in the squad, it can only be exciting for us and something to look forward to."

Before he left, Coleman capped a string of youngsters such as Ethan Ampadu, David Brooks and Ben Woodburn, something Giggs has followed up by making plain his own faith in bringing through talent.

Unsurprising for one of the most iconic graduates of Manchester United's famed Class of '92, all are set to be involved against the Republic of Ireland.

"I was at United as a young lad and you saw Ryan and the other lads who'd come through," says Aston Villa defender Chester, once an Old Trafford trainee.

"It was great for me to see how they prepared, how they acted around the training ground on the pitch.

"As a manager, you can still see how hungry he is and the will to win he had through his career and brought him all the success.

"You can see how important this job is to him and how successful he wants to be. He's pleased with the progress we've made but he's made it clear it's not enough and he wants us to get better and keep improving."

Wales youngsters Ethan Ampadu and David Brooks
Wales' Ethan Ampadu and David Brooks both made their debuts in a friendly against France in November

Giggs' three games in charge - a 6-0 win over China, a 1-0 defeat by Uruguay and a 0-0 draw with Mexico - have not made it obvious how his new Wales will set up, even if he has talked about encouraging players to express themselves.

Yet his limited time in charge has quickly prompted an awareness that a new era could bring new stars and old heroes having to watch their back.

Williams, 33, has been told he will remain captain, but has spoken of knowing he needs to prove he deserves to start ahead of the likes of Brentford's Chris Mepham and Newcastle United defender Paul Dummett.

West Brom striker Hal Robson-Kanu is among those to have stood down, Aston Villa defender Neil Taylor has been omitted, while record cap holder, 29-year-old Reading defender Chris Gunter, is being asked questions of his place by the form of Swansea City's Connor Roberts.

"I've got a good balance between players who have done so much but I want it to be competitive, young players to push experienced players," says Giggs. " I was a young player who had a chance but I also played until I was 40, so age doesn't matter.

"We have the older players to show the way, show what it's about on the international stage.

"But young players have given us that freshness and we have players looking over their shoulder having been given a push. I wanted that competitive edge because competition is good, and it's about whether you rise to that competition or you fall by the wayside."

As he waits to make his competitive bow as manager - walking out with a Wales team at home for the first time since retiring as an international player 11 years ago - the same can be said of Giggs.

Against old foes, Wales - and Giggs - now attempt to move on from the past, as a new era really does begin.

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