“I’ve played for Wales myself and I preferred playing for my country than any club I’ve played for. I can promise you that I love Wales, I’m very patriotic and that will never change.”
Not for the first time, Chris Coleman cut a forlorn figure. Then manager of Championship side Coventry City, he had been accused of betraying the country he had represented 32 times as a player. The delicate relationship between managers of nation and club had been strained over the most innocuous of things: the international availability of Freddy Eastwood.
‘Coleman ‘not interested’ in Wales’ reported BBC Sport at the time. Such headlines can damage reputations. They warp opinions and breed negativity. For a Welshman as proud as Coleman, it must have hurt to have his allegiances questioned. Here stood an individual torn between his job and the staunch loyalty he felt towards his country. He could not win.
Three-and-a-half years later, the proudest moment of Coleman’s career came to pass. It was also a moment of undoubted regret, unbridled pain and uninhibited emotion, not only for Coleman, but for the country as a whole. On January 19, 2012, the former Fulham boss was appointed Wales manager. He would replace Gary Speed, his close friend of 30 years, and the man who had taken his own life just two months prior.
On Wednesday, ‘Cookie’ Coleman leads Wales into the most important match of his 13-year managerial career, and the most important in the country’s existence: a European Championship semi-final against Portugal. It is easy to forget that the circumstances he faced when appointed were unprecedented. “No-one wants to be here, least of all me,” he noted at his first press conference. He was charged with battling the tragedy, and simultaneously continuing Speed’s excellent work. Succeed, and much of the credit goes to his predecessors. Fail, and the finger of blame is pointed in only one direction. Again, he could not win.
Certainly not initially. The first five games of his tenure ended in defeat, curtailing hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup before they even had a chance to materialise. The fifth in that sequence – a 6-1 defeat away to Serbia in September 2012 – left his future in considerable doubt. One journalist wrote how Coleman ‘never seemed less than weighed down by the size and nature’ by the task laid ahead of him, and that ‘the PR gloss had faded’. The dream job had become the impossible job.
Matters would not improve instantly. Upon the extension of Coleman’s contract in late 2013, the president of the Welsh FA, Trefor Lloyd Hughes, admitted that some fans “were against” the manager, and unhappy that he would remain in the post. Twelve months after the humiliation in Serbia, he was booed by his own support in successive home games. Many were demanding that he be replaced. It seemed certain that he could not win.
Just as it did to have his national pride questioned at Coventry four years earlier, the perceived failings will have hurt Coleman. The 46-year-old had already enjoyed and endured a multitude of managerial careers in one – from the positive start culminating in his sacking at Fulham, to his ill-fated spells abroad with Real Sociedad and Larissa, with an unsuccessful return to familiar surroundings at Coventry sandwiched in between – before the opportunity with Wales fell before him. He had displayed courage and ambition, but had he really earned this chance?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Coleman looks back on the lowest ebb during his time as manager with fondness, not regret. “I feel like the last four years have been good for me,” he said earlier this week. “I have had to change quite a bit about myself and that is probably maturity as well. When I was 32 I’d look back to when I was 20 and think, ‘Why did I do that; that was stupid’ and, equally now, I look back to when I was 32, 33 or 34 and think, ‘I can’t believe I did that’.”
One particular instance during his six months at Real Sociedad – when he blamed his late arrival for a press conference on a faulty washing machine flooding his flat, before being forced to apologise after Spanish newspaper Marca gleefully presented pictures of him partying until 5am the night before – comes to mind.
The 46-year-old was not done remembering the difficult times: “For a period, I was getting worse as a manager, but I made some serious choices to make me a far better manager. I have to raise my own game to manage the team we have got, because it is a good team.”
“A good team” is one way of describing the Welsh side Coleman has cultivated; an immense unit and a country united would also suffice. Together Stronger. With the help of their manager, they have made a mockery of claims they are a one-man team. Gareth Bale is the Galactico among mere mortals, but not in the traditional sense. The 26-year-old would arguably not rank in the top five in terms of Wales’ star performers so far this summer, but has been the arbiter, the magnet to deflect burgeoning attention from both opponents and the media.
In his stead, Aaron Ramsey has excelled. Coleman has been mainly credited with managing the morale of this side and keeping spirits high, but ensuring the Arsenal midfielder enjoys as much freedom as possible has been a genius tactical move. Similarly, removing the burden of captaincy from the 26-year-old and handing it to Ashley Williams four years ago was a masterstroke – both have shone in their new roles. Ramsey will be sorely missed against Portugal, but Williams, Joe Allen, James Chester and Hal Robson-Kanu have proven themselves more than capable of stepping up to the challenge. Each of those individuals are performing above themselves. In terms of man-management, the 15th highest-paid and second youngest coach at Euro 2016 has been an unrivalled success.
Coleman has also benefitted from the power of a tightly-knit core group of players. Eight have featured for at least 434 minutes of a possible 450 this summer; no member of the five-man defence has missed a single minute. Leicester proved that even the most apparently limited set of players can achieve against the elite through togetherness.
It is testament to the extent to which Coleman has exceeded expectations that, while Speed, John Toshack, Brian Flynn, Osian Roberts, Ryland Morgans and countless other individuals played key roles in Wales’ historic run to only a second major tournament knockout stage in its history, the 46-year-old has earned praise in his own right. This is a side covered in many fingerprints, but the main set belongs to him.
“He initially wanted to try and not change too much, too soon,” Bale said last week. “He had a difficult start but since he’s put his own stamp on the team he’s been absolutely incredible.” Changes have been made not for the sake of changes, but in the unrelenting search for progress.
Appointed for just two years initially, Coleman was never truly intended as a long-term solution. Yet, instead of merely preserving the foundations for his eventual successor, he built upon them; he improved them. Toshack supplied the materials, Speed built the car, and now Coleman is behind the wheel.
Even now, it is unclear whether Coleman is actually anything more than an average manager, whether this is just a glorious anomaly. Two of his four club spells have ended in sackings, he boasts no silverware and he has lost more games (138) than he has won (118). At Wales, he has both won and lost 15 matches. The general feeling is that he was the right man in the right place at the right time, the perfect individual to unify a fractured nation and get each party – the players, the staff, the fans and the media – pulling in the same direction.
As far as paths to redemption go, Coleman’s has been arduous. A selection of the fans who will roar ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ at the Stade des Lumières on Wednesday will have been among those who asked for his sacking three years ago. He has learnt from the frustration at Fulham, struggles in Spain and conflict at Coventry, and has helped the promising blueprint he inherited to realise its potential.
Amid the unattached strikers and Reading right-backs, it is the identity of Wales’ manager which is most surprising. Chris Coleman’s career renaissance from traitor and failure to national hero has been quite incredible. Against majority expectation, the Cookie hasn’t crumbled.