As far as first days of the rest of his life go, Thursday couldn’t have gone much better for Ryan Giggs. A Gareth Bale hat-trick, and a 6-0 defeat of China in Nanning was a fine way to start life in charge of the Welsh national team.
Ahead of kick-off, Giggs had admitted the difference of life as a manager compared to the gilded existence he enjoyed as a Manchester United player during the club’s most golden of ages. “I never really got nervous as a player,” he said. “Coaching and management is completely different.”
Giggs, after 18 months or so spent as a low-key TV pundit and focusing on the various business interests he shares with his former “Class of ’92” colleagues, has thrown himself into the great wide open, a world beyond the cocoon that Alex Ferguson created for his players.
Ferguson protected and provided for Giggs, first when the quiet Salfordian was the flop-haired “new George Best”, then later trusted him with the responsibility of being a senior player who could augment the team’s spirit. He ended up lasting several decades under Ferguson’s aegis before then becoming the often visibly bemused assistant to David Moyes and then Louis van Gaal.
If Giggs wants the United job, his previous candidacy having been denied by Jose Mourinho’s charm offensive, he ought not to be under any illusions. The road will be long, and full of pitfalls, as the experiences of his former teammates would show.
Business partner Gary Neville has now sworn off ever becoming a manager again after mistakenly taking on a suicide mission at Valencia and achieving only embarrassment. He arrived in Spain without being able to speak the language and was a fish flapping out of water. When Neville attempted some Ferguson-isms in his dealings with the press, he made himself a laughing stock rather than a figure of fear.
Just this week, Jaap Stam, Giggs’ 1999 Treble-winning colleague, lost his job as Reading manager. Twelve months ago, Stam was hailed as a hero in the Thames Valley, his team lauded for playing the best football in the Championship. Losing on penalties to Huddersfield in the play-off final was the beginning of the end. Reading have won one league game in 2018 and the length of time Stam was given to turn things around suggested the club’s execs were possibly afraid to give the “big Dutchman” the bad news.
Like so many of Ferguson’s players, Stam got nowhere close to emulating his United boss’ achievements as a manager. Among the 20 current bosses in the Premier League, only one served under Ferguson, and that was Mark Hughes, one of United’s very best, and the pair never exactly enjoyed a close relationship. In any case, Hughes was only given the Southampton job last week.
Ferguson’s tentacles continue to reach across British football, with Phil Neville now managing England’s Lionesses team and both Wales and Scotland managed by his players in Giggs and Alex McLeish, but a previously overbearing influence has faded a tad. Five years on from the vacation of his United throne, it has become clear that Ferguson’s managerial genius is not replicated by his abilities as a kingmaker. The selection of Moyes as a “continuity candidate” to succeed himself at United just about killed stone-dead his reputation in that sphere.
McLeish and Gordon Strachan, the previous Scotland boss, are two long-time survivors from the Ferguson school, graduates from his Aberdeen days and both have had their ups and downs, while Steve Bruce will celebrate 20 years in management this summer. In terms of English football, Bruce has been Ferguson’s most successful protege yet has never landed the grandest jobs, instead making his reputation for a specialism in getting clubs out of the Championship.
The current Aston Villa’s manager has presided over four promotions to the top division after two each for Birmingham and Hull, achievements that make him a valuable commodity. He possesses a record that Bryan Robson for example should be envious of yet bangs his head against a glass ceiling.
And as for those players who followed Bruce at United, management has proved tough for the likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, sacked by Cardiff after another Ferguson recommendation went awry, Henning Berg, sacked by Blackburn after two months and Teddy Sheringham, sacked by Stevenage.
Ferguson favourites Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes, independently wealthy men whose involvement in football is largely restricted to the pundit’s cushioned chair, are yet to launch themselves into a world where so many friends and colleagues have failed. Their manager bred them to be winners on the field but none has yet has been able to match his alchemy from the sidelines and in the dressing room.