A blog on the Welsh and Irish legends that failed to make it to the biggest international stage.
Qualification for EURO 2016 has highlighted many similarities between Wales and Northern Ireland, but the comparisons extend to the past as well as the present. It is fitting that Wales and Northern Ireland should meet in preparation for UEFA EURO 2016 considering that both teams are set to embark upon their first European Championship finals this summer. The similarities and comparisons between the two teams and the two managers has made for an interesting sub-story, but there is as much to discuss about their respective past as there is about the present. While the current crop of players bask in the spotlight that comes from making such high-profile history, there are many greats of yesteryear who also enjoyed such international privilege, but there are many more that did not.
Wales’ qualification for the 1958 World Cup set the marker for all future generations, but only Chris Coleman and his squad have emulated that achievement. However, while senior team attentions are now firmly-fixed on France, the pathway system in place throughout the intermediate teams has its own target set upon future tournaments, and there is clear progress being made to suggest that qualification will not be another 58-years away. But the modern game demands such foresight and professionalism throughout any international set-up, and Wales are not unique in implementing a future-proof plan to compete against the very best.
The renowned Welsh legends of 1958 include the likes of John Charles, Cliff Jones and Ivor Allchurch, and all had the honour of representing Wales in their one and only appearance at the finals of a major tournament. Ian Rush, John Toshack, Neville Southall, Mark Hughes, the late Gary Speed, and many others, did not. Former manager Terry Yorath almost guided Wales to the 1994 World Cup, but he was denied a privilege that has to date only been bestowed upon Jimmy Murphy. Now, Chris Coleman will lead Wales to France, and with it exorcise the ghosts that have haunted his predecessors over the course of the last 58-years. In addition, the talismanic figures of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey will thrive upon the opportunity to perform on an international stage that their world class talent deserves to be showcased upon.
By comparison, Northern Ireland qualified for the World Cup finals of 1958, 1982 and 1986, and their success also allowed their greats of respective generations to play international football at the highest level. Goalkeepers Harry Gregg and Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong, Danny Blanchflower, Sammy McIlroy, Martin O’Neill, Jimmy Nicholl and others all represented their country against the very best, but just like Wales, there were many more that were left to wonder what might have been. And as Wales and Northern Ireland prepare to warm-up against each other in preparation for competing against Europe’s elite, their respective success serves only to highlight yet another striking similarity in the careers of Ryan Giggs and George Best.
As a schoolboy, Ryan Wilson played for Manchester City and England. This starting point in a career that would see him become the most decorated player in the history of the game could not have been further removed from that of the starlet that would later change his surname to Giggs, enjoy unparalleled success with Manchester United and represent Wales. It was in 1991 that Ryan Giggs emerged as a teenage sensation, but it was in 1961 that a shy, homesick and raw teenage prodigy from Belfast returned home after a two-day trial at Old Trafford through homesickness. Two years later, George Best would make his Manchester United debut, and over the course of the next decade he would become a European Cup winner and scoop a host of individual honours that included the prestigious FIFA Ballon d’Or.
It was only natural that Ryan Giggs’ emergence at Old Trafford would bring comparisons to George Best, but the additional scrutiny proved to be an unwanted distraction. However, lessons had inevitably been learnt from experiences of the past, and Giggs was afforded far better protection from the public attention that eventually proved to be an unshakeable curse on Best’s personal and professional life. A genius for his club, Best made only 37 appearances for Northern Ireland between 1964 and 1977, scoring nine goals in the process. By comparison, Giggs represented Wales 64 times between 1991 and 2007, finding the back of the net on a dozen occasions. Neither played in the finals of a major international tournament, but that particular fact could have been very different if they had not both been regular absentees from international duty.
And there were opportunities for both players to make an impression at a major tournament. Wales narrowly missed out on a place at EURO 1992 following a qualification campaign that saw Ryan Giggs make his international bow and Ian Rush score the only goal in a famous win over then world champions and eventual group winners Germany. Giggs was an established international by the time Romania edged past Wales in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, and he played in both legs of the EURO 2004 play-off defeat to Russia under Mark Hughes. Meanwhile, George Best was in the starting line-up when Northern Ireland beat Switzerland in Belfast in 1964, but the Swiss would eventual finish a point above the Irish and qualify for the 1966 World Cup at their expense, while Italy served the same disappointment by edging above Northern Ireland in qualifying for the same tournament four years later.
Ryan Giggs and George Best played in different generations, and while many elements of the game that they experienced would have been alien to the other, the entwined similarities of their club success and international disappointment has never been more poignant than with Wales and Northern Ireland heading towards their first European Championships. How Giggs and Best would have fared at such an event cannot be determined, but if an exceptional talent like Gareth Bale can be the catalyst to Wales progressing through to the latter rounds in France, then fans of Wales and Northern Ireland can only imagine what could have been achieved in tournaments past if they had been graced by the likes of Giggs and Best.