Perhaps there is a whiff of irony in that one of Ryan Giggs’s most recent public appearances came at Wembley, the home of England. Less than a fortnight ago he was in the stands watching the Papa John’s Trophy final alongside Gary Neville and Paul Scholes as Salford City, in whom he owns a 10% slice, toasted their first piece of silverware as a Football League club, but Giggs remains the elephant in the room when it comes to Wales, who on Wednesday kick off a World Cup qualifying campaign minus their manager.
By the end of this month Giggs, who is on bail until May having denied allegations of assault and actual bodily harm, will have missed six successive Wales matches and not taken charge of his national side for almost six months. At that point the Football Association of Wales chief executive, Jonathan Ford, the subject of a vote of no confidence last month, will officially depart and the European Championship finals will be little more than two months away. For now Robert Page, the former Port Vale and Northampton manager, will again deputise, together with Albert Stuivenberg, one of Mikel Arteta’s assistants at Arsenal.
Page insists the team have not moved on without Giggs. “It is still Ryan’s group, it’s still Ryan’s camp, it’s Ryan’s players,” Page said last week. “Ryan’s key principles when he first took over the job are no different and whether he is here or not, the lads will know [them] and we will reiterate that message, myself and Albert.
“We will give that continuity of the key principles and how we go about our jobs. He might not be here physically but the lads know exactly how we expect them to play regardless, with our key points and values.”
It is hard to quantify the cost of Giggs’s continued leave but Page has been at pains to say it is “business as usual” before another triple-header of games beginning against Belgium, the No 1 team in the world. Wales, of course, memorably triumphed against Belgium at Euro 2016, when Hal Robson-Kanu’s sensational swivel and finish propelled them into the semi-finals, and the striker is one of seven players in the squad from that day in Lille. “We are all hoping we can get a taste of something similar this summer,” Joe Allen said this week.
Giggs will again stay in touch with Page, who debriefs to the 47‑year‑old via a “five-minute conversation” after training and will communicate with him on a daily basis, as they did in November. On Sunday evening Page addressed the squad upon their arrival in Cardiff. “I’m here as the frontman at the minute but Ryan will have an input as he did in November, and rightly so,” Page said. “He’s an international manager who is not on camp. We have got a good group of players that reacted in a positive manner in November and I expect exactly the same from them now. We are playing against a Belgium team that has got quality in abundance and we have got our work cut out.”
A vibrant Wales side seem in a healthy spot on the pitch, and Giggs must take credit for that, but the federation is in limbo off it, with officers at the head of the FAW council, overseen by the president, Kieran O’Connor, now making the key calls, namely the search for Ford’s successor. Angela van den Bogerd has left her position as “head of people”. Until last week, both men’s and women’s teams were, in effect, managerless but Gemma Grainger has since replaced Jayne Ludlow.
The music has not stopped and so Wales soldier on amid a backdrop of instability. Gareth Bale’s glimpses of form are a boon, and the return of Allen, back in the squad following injury, is another plus. Meanwhile Chris Gunter, Wales’s most-capped player, is set to hit a century of appearances either against Belgium or in Saturday’s friendly against Mexico. “When you look at some of the players that have represented Wales over the years who haven’t got anywhere near it [100 caps], it shows just how big an achievement it will be,” Allen said. “It is incredible. I am going to be really proud when he gets it.”
A daunting task has not been made any easier by the Juventus midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who has started three of Wales’ last 20 games, being ruled out and Ben Davies also being absent through injury. The St Pauli defender James Lawrence will link up with teammates in Leuven only on Tuesday owing to cross-border quarantine restrictions and will return to Hamburg after the match, missing the games with Mexico and the Czech Republic.
Wales expect to get answers after this camp on whether they will be based in Baku, as expected, for Euro 2020 but question marks over who will lead the team against Switzerland for their Group A opener on 12 June linger. “For everybody, it’s [about] having that sort of clarity on what we are doing moving forward,” Page said. “My priority at this moment in time is getting a squad assembled and in the right frame of mind to compete in three difficult games.”