The wild odyssey that took Chris Coleman to the Wales hot seat

The wild odyssey that took Chris Coleman to the Wales hot seat

It is the 89th minute, and Miralem Sulejmani, a Serbian substitute, directs a low drive which deflects and loops over the hapless Boaz Myhill, condemning Wales to a pitiful 6-1 defeat. It is a bitter blow to Wales’ hopes of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. Reflecting on the night, Chris Coleman described it as the “worst of his footballing low points”, a game which left him “distraught”. On this darkest of nights, the small flame of hope was extinguished – Welsh football was damned.

Fast forward three years. The final whistle blows on Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 Wales, but this time it is a victorious defeat. Indeed, for Coleman, the whistle signals more than Wales’ qualification for the European Championships of 2016 – it signals a change in fortunes on a personal level. Here is a man whose late career has been racked by persistent and crushing difficulty; a career-ending car crash in 2001 that he was fortunate to survive, a ragged series of short-lived managerial jobs taking him as far afield as Greek second division club Larissa, and the beginning of a seemingly impossible Wales job in the aftermath of Gary Speed’s death. And yet, through adversity, Coleman has emerged as something of a Welsh icon, leading Wales not only into their first major tournament since 1958, but guiding them to a historic semi-final.

Reflecting on events, Coleman has himself acknowledged the reality that he has had “more failures” than he has “had success”. However, to conform so dutifully to this fairy tale of victory against all odds would be to neglect what was not an unreasonable playing career.

Coleman’s first professional season, in 1987/88, for hometown club Swansea proved a fruitful one, cementing his role as first-choice left-back at the age of just 17. His time at Swansea coincided with two Welsh Cup final victories against Kidderminster Harriers and Wrexham respectively, as well as entry into the Third Division Team of the Year in both the 1988/89 and 1990/91 seasons.

Despite relative stagnation in the league, Swansea had found something of a gem in the young Coleman, who would go on to make 160 appearances for the club, and later be sold to Crystal Palace for a reported £275,000. His four seasons at Swansea had highlighted a budding talent, one destined to move on to greater things.

It was at First Division Palace that Coleman made the transition to centre-back (and on occasion centre-forward), a role he positively thrived in as his aerial prowess came to the fore. His time at Palace was a tumultuous one, suffering two relegations, but also experiencing the highs of a promotion and reaching semi-finals in both the League Cup and the FA Cup.

Read  |  Gary Speed and the lasting legacy of a special football man

While at Palace, Coleman played his first game for Wales – a proud occasion for a man who had always dreamed, even as a young child, of representing his country. In fact, the story could have been so different. Coleman received a “tentative phone call” before the 1994 World Cup encouraging him to represent the Republic of Ireland, a position he was eligible for through his Dublin-born father, Teddy. Nevertheless, to a patriot who had grown up adoring the splendour of the Gower Peninsula, this was never in consideration. Coming on as a substitute against Austria in April 1992, Coleman’s dream debut was completed when he turned in a low cross from close range as the game finished 1-1.

As his international career began to peak, so did his club one, with Blackburn Rovers the next to come calling, offering £2.8 million for the centre-back in 1995. It was a sign of his undoubted ability that the reigning Premier League champions were keen to acquire his services. Though his time at the club was short-lived, making only 28 appearances, his leadership qualities were becoming increasingly apparent, a trait which impressed his fellow teammates and would prove pivotal in his later managerial successes.

Reality did not elude Coleman for long. He was struggling at Blackburn and made the difficult decision to drop two divisions to join Fulham in 1997. Here, an ambitious project was taking shape, perhaps reflected in Coleman’s transfer fee – at £2 million, this was a record for the Cottagers. His decision paid off, with Fulham winning promotion to the First Division in the 1998/99 season, and then to the Premier League two years later, though the latter campaign would prove bittersweet for the Welshman.

It was in January midway through that 2000/01 season when Coleman’s career was shattered in an instant, as he lost control of his Jaguar and smashed through a metal fence into a tree. The damage was irreversible – a broken fibula and tibia in his right leg – but he was equally fortunate; the car was a smouldering wreck, and he was close to having his foot amputated. It was a cruel way to cut short the career of a footballer in his prime.

Having been a fan favourite at Fulham, a towering ever-present who captained the side to consistent success, Coleman’s early retirement at the age of 32 sent shockwaves around the club. His association with Fulham would not end quite yet, though, as it was here that his managerial career would be launched. Taking over on an interim basis in April 2003, Coleman tasted immediate success, gaining 10 points from 15 and guiding the Cottagers away from the drop.

His next season was equally as impressive, leading Fulham to their highest ever finish of ninth, only four points off Newcastle in fifth. The youngest manager in the Premier League was making major strides in a managerial career that looked destined for greatness. There were early signs of tactical ingenuity, too.

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In March 2006 Fulham faced Chelsea at home, and while Coleman’s charges were on a four-match losing streak, José Mourinho’s men were storming to the title. For relegation-battlers Fulham, it was an insurmountable peak that they had to climb. Yet a tactical decision, a quite simple one at that, devastated Chelsea’s game plan.

As Michael Cox explains in The Mixer, Coleman, realising Chelsea’s exertion of dominance was entirely dependent on the extraordinary influence of defensive midfielder Claude Makélélé, utilised Steed Malbranque atop a diamond in a bid to nullify Chelsea’s key man. “Every time we play against Chelsea and every time we’ve watched them play, everything goes through Makélélé and he starts the attacks … we told him [Malbranque] to go where he liked when he had the ball but, as soon as he didn’t have it, Makélélé was his man.”

The result was startling in its effectiveness; Mourinho made two substitutions after only 25 minutes, as well as changing formation twice over the course of the 90 minutes. Coleman had forced one of the greatest managers of our time into a frenzied panic. Mourinho’s counter-tactics proved ineffective and Fulham seized a 1-0 victory.

This was an early indication of the potential Coleman had, but he was not yet experienced enough to achieve such results on a consistent basis. However, it is clear to see that, 10 years on, far from relying on Gareth Bale, Coleman is a manager of pragmatism who seeks to nullify the opposition first, as he did with Fulham against Chelsea. Deprived of players like Bale and Aaron Ramsey while in charge of the Cottagers, losing Louis Saha amongst other key players proved costly, and the approach had limitations. However, with Wales, Coleman has placed a generation of talent into a system which has maximised their potency; a 3-4-2-1 – or variation thereof – which has allowed the talismanic duo of Bale and Ramsey to roam, culminating in unprecedented success.

Coleman was sacked as Fulham manager in April 2007 following a seven-match winless run. His departure from Fulham would prove to be a pivotal one. Where so many managers use their first club as a stepping stone to greater opportunities, Coleman faltered. The next five years would not be kind to the Welshman, as his path was littered with obstacles that would either destroy or define him.

His first step was at recently-relegated Real Sociedad where he lasted a paltry 21 games, and departed in bizarre fashion. Having arrived 90 minutes late to a press conference, Coleman proceeded to blame his absence on a faulty washing machine which had flooded his flat. The actual reason for his tardiness was rather more serious; a night of partying. It was a stain on an otherwise unblemished canvas, and would prove costly. This transgression, in combination with a new club president who had drastically different ideas to Coleman, had created a somewhat ill-fitting project for the Welshman, who departed just months after his appointment.

Read  |  Gareth Bale: the man who redefined Welsh football’s future

Reeling from failure abroad, Coleman stepped back into reassuring familiarity. Coventry was his task, and it proved a formidable one. In his first season, in 2008/09, Coventry finished 17th in the Championship, and he was sacked in May 2010 with the club sitting in 19th. His time at Coventry was heavily criticised due to a conservative, unadventurous style of football which had alienated the fans and brought no success. It was a case of the wrong manager at the wrong time, although Coventry has been a notoriously difficult job in recent times.

Two successive failures had done little for Coleman’s prospects. The path was disintegrating before his very feet, revealing a gaping chasm of darkness below. Only a tiny stretch remained – a lifeline. On the advice of Sir Alex Ferguson, who had encouraged him to “take the next job that comes up”, Coleman jumped forward and landed in Greece, finding himself at Larissa. It was a valuable albeit difficult experience for Coleman, though he did an admirable job in his short stint, leaving the club two points off top spot.

Whilst at the Greek side, Coleman was “paid hardly anything at all”, as the club was in a dire financial situation, which would ultimately force him to leave. The timing was purely coincidental, and contrary to the reports of some media outlets, had nothing to do with the availability of the Wales job. When invited to take on the Welsh hot seat, though, it was an offer Coleman could hardly refuse. Indeed, Gary Speed’s death was particularly hard on Coleman, given they had been close friends for 30 years. Consequently, Coleman’s appointment as Wales manager was bittersweet.

The appointment was greeted with relative dissatisfaction from fans. Yet now written into Welsh history, Coleman has proven his doubters wrong. Wales’ astonishing rise to prominence is not something that needs more documentation, as remarkable as the story is. Suffice to say, Coleman’s journey has been a rocky one, and his image as a Welsh legend is a far cry from the managerial failure he had come to be recognised as some five years ago.

What does the future offer for Coleman? A return to the Premier League? Or perhaps another stint abroad? Regardless of his destination, he can approach the job with a new-found optimism, and an invaluable wealth of experience.

Coleman will have no shortage of drive either. “Motivation has to come from within the individual first,” he once said, a sentiment spoken with an honesty that only experience can provide. In the aftermath of Serbia, one could have forgiven Chris Coleman’s resignation. Indeed, it is a testament to his character that he gritted his teeth and envisioned a brighter future, showing the sort of tenacity that had come to define his career; an insatiable desire to better himself, even from the early days at Swansea, and even in the face of adversity. Coleman has not had a decorated career, but it is his tremendous self-motivation which has ensured he has made a success of it, and will continue to do so

By Euan Rice-Coates  

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