Wales’ European Qualification campaign has been one to remember thus far. They find themselves on top of their group after taking 4 points from 6 against the fancied Belgians. Chris Coleman had the unenviable task of replacing Gary Speed and truth be told, many wanted him out after a difficult start. Matthew Harrison was one among the many, but he’s delighted to be proved wrong.
Chris Coleman – I owe you an apology.
#ColemanOut. I’ll own up right here, right now. I was all over this hashtag three years ago. I’d had inklings that Chris Coleman was not the man for the Wales job following his appointment as the new manager of the national team, but being forever the optimist (you have to be supporting Wales) I buried my doubts. That was until one September night out in the Balkans.
Unlike the good times of football, when I can get a bit carried away and giddy, I consider myself fairly reasoned and rational when things are not going well for me in the realms of football. So, for me to take to Twitter and launch a visceral, hate-filled diatribe regarding our national team boss, something bad must have happened. It had. Wales were being comprehensively torn apart by a Serbia team who had failed to score in 8 of their past 10 games. 6-1 was the final score – a superb freekick from Gareth Bale was the only consolation on a pitiful evening for Welsh football. A 6-1 hammering and 5 losses in a row – for me, this meant Coleman out. It seemed a little hasty, but it also seemed so startlingly obvious. How wrong I and many, many others were. I’m sorry Chris Coleman, but let me put why I need to apologise into some context.
I had plenty of sympathy with Coleman, as he had stepped into one of the most uncomfortable managerial hotseats in world football at the time. After a decade or so of “Next time will be our time to qualify” and excuses of “We’re a young team learning” under John Toshack, Gary Speed became national team manager. I was ecstatic, as growing up Speed was my favourite Wales player – a true leader, committed and ultimately a very, very good footballer. After a slow start, Speed was beginning to mould his young team and suddenly we were starting to look like a good team again, even if we had a fairly modest squad. Some of the football played under Speed’s tenure was the finest I’d seen in a long time supporting Wales. We were riding a wave of momentum and the future looked bright. Then, tragedy struck. The phonecall I received from a fellow Welsh fan and friend trying to tell me through his choked up voice that Gary Speed was dead was one of the most harrowing I have ever received. We had lost a true Welsh icon and a personal hero of mine and the subject of new managerial appointments were a long, long way from my thoughts.
The man eventually assigned the role of taking over from Gary Speed was his former national team mate and good friend Chris Coleman. Following on from Speed and following on in such tragic circumstances was always going to be a tough task for anyone and Coleman acknowledged this himself, but vowed to battle on for ‘Speedo’ and continue the good work he had put into the national team.
People forget what an excellent job Coleman had done when thrown in the deep end at struggling Fulham after Jean Tigana’s sacking. Coleman went rapidly from coach to manager and led the team away from relegation and then to 9th place in his first full season in charge. Sadly, the rest of his career has been less stellar with brief, underwhelming stints on the continent at Real Sociedad and Larissa in Cyprus bookending a poor stint at Coventry City. It was not exactly the most glittering CV to take on a national team job.
My doubts seemed to come to fruition as Wales sleepwalked their way to 5 straight losses culminating in that night in Novi Sad, Serbia. But then the tide began to change.
Gareth Bale. Possibly the two greatest words in Wales. When it comes to Welsh football, the man is superhuman. For any criticism Bale gets over in Spain, he is worshipped and venerated in his homeland. As well as being a colossus in terms of talent, Bale gives his absolute all for his country every single time – even showing up to training camps when unavailable to play in friendlies (perhaps unlike another well-known left-footed Welsh winger). With Wales losing 1-0 to Scotland in Cardiff just one month after the Serbian hammering, and with Coleman potentially edging close to the door, up stepped Bale and his herculean abilities in the last few minutes to score a penalty and a barnstorming 25 yarder to win the game. Elation for Wales, relief for Coleman. This is where the ascendancy begins.
Post-Serbia Coleman admitted that he had tried too hard to emulate Speed’s style to build on the successes under him, but admitted it wasn’t working. Coleman had to be his own man and vowed to do things his way more and it clearly worked in Cardiff against the Scots. Undoubtedly, central to Coleman’s new tactics was making Bale the talisman of the team. And who can blame him? Bale’s form for Wales is phenomenal and you’d be hard pushed to find any manager who wouldn’t make Plan A ‘give the ball to Gareth’. 8 goals in 14 competitive games since Serbia away is justification of this; remember, he’s not a striker either.
Since that victory over the Scots, Wales’ record has been staggering, especially for a national team associated largely with inconsistency. After losing 6-1 out in Serbia, Wales have only lost 5 of the 19 games since, 2 of them out in Eastern Europe to Macedonia and Croatia, and another only marginally to an astute Holland team in Amsterdam, just a few weeks before they claimed 3rd place in the World Cup. Not bad at all. More impressive has been the nation’s form in the current Euro 2016 qualifying campaign with the Welsh now undefeated after 6 games. A large pat on the back has to go to Coleman here, as he has come on leaps and bounds as manager of Wales.
Firstly, Coleman deserves a lot of credit for improving our defensive record. Wales have generally deployed a 5 at the back system this campaign with the full backs pushing on. However, it has been in the heart of the backline where Wales have looked so tough with newly- nationalised James Chester, who has been so impressive, partnering captain Ashley Williams alongside either James Collins or Chris Gunter. Wales’ defence has been imperious at times – just look at the fact that a Belgium team consisting of Eden Hazard, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne amongst many others struggled to penetrate the stubborn Welsh rearguard. Wayne Hennessey and his backline have conceded just 2 goals during the current qualifying campaign. I’m never going to use the word ‘minnows’ to describe Wales (unlike some parts of the media), but we are certainly not a footballing powerhouse, so a sturdy backline is integral for us to garner any sort of success, something Coleman seems to have recognised.
Coleman has generally always been dubbed a ‘defensive manager’ and some have labelled Wales a ‘long ball’ team and prone to ‘parking the bus’, but I think this is downright unfair. Wales desperately needed some stability at the back, but that has merely acted as a platform to develop the rest of our play. After all, we do have a midfield consisting of quality footballers like Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey, as well as the more pragmatic, yet handy, Joe Ledley. Undoubtedly, we have become a more counterattacking team, but Coleman has obviously noted that this is the system which best suits the players at his disposal. A stable defence, astute passers like Ramsey and Allen and a speedster like Bale – counterattacking is always going to be the way forward for Wales. This was perhaps best demonstrated during Wales’ impressive and clinical 3-0 dismantling of a very accomplished Israel in their own backyard. Israel were allowed to have the ball, but Wales’ toughness at the back halted them from causing any real damage and the highly efficient nature of Wales’ surges forward (plus, a magical freekick from Bale) led to maximum damage, as the scoreline showed.
If there is one thing that has driven us on more than anything and if there is one aspect of Coleman’s tenure that must be lauded, it is the spirit he has created within the Wales camp. This is definitely the most driven group of Wales players I have had the pleasure of watching. Arguably, there may not be as many talented individuals as the classes of 1992-1994 or 2002-2004, but their character is the best I’ve known. The Welsh FA have vehemently drilled home their current slogan of #TogetherStronger this past year, but the slogan could not be more fitting of these players and also the fans as the inter-city rivalries and squabbles, once so prevalent at Wales’ games, seem to be becoming a thing of the past at Wales games. This brings me onto the night that Coleman brought Wales to their current peak.
Wales’ most famous win in the modern era has to be their 2-1 victory over Italy in 2002, but Welsh fans will talk about the 12th June 2015 with just as much fondness for years to come. Wales 1-0 Belgium. On the night, the Belgians showed that they are a far superior footballing team with their fluid play being particularly evident in the opening 25 minutes. A Wales team of previous years would have succumbed and buckled against opposition of such class, but not this team. When Bale scored (who else?) to put the Welsh 1-0 up, the sell-out Cardiff City Stadium exploded. The nation was very much behind the team again and by golly could they be heard too. Once again, well done to Coleman and co. for developing such a team that the fans feel they can get behind it unequivocally. Players throwing themselves in front of every shot; players sprinting back to cover out of position team mates; and the relentless energy of unsung heroes at the top of the pitch, such as Hal Robson-Kanu, battling for every cleared and loose ball. The work rate was astronomical from minute 1 to minute 90.
I received a tweet shortly after Wales’ triumph over the Belgians claiming that the Welsh deployed ‘awful tactics’, a comment which didn’t quite make sense to me. Surely the tactics we had used were the opposite? They were perfect. We had taken 4 points out of 6 from the supposed 2nd best team in the world and group favourites Belgium, got ourselves to the top of the group and found ourselves undefeated after 6 games. I’m a Swansea City fan, a team constantly associated with ‘good football’, and I love watching them play their much lauded passing style, but I am just as infatuated with the current Welsh crop purely for their attitude towards the red shirts. Wales have demonstrated that they can be a neat, tidy, passing team at times, but generally that’s not Wales’ game. My chest bursts with pride watching this Wales team not because of their possession stats, but because they work so hard for the shirts, for each other and for us fans. Ultimately this is what I want to thank Chris Coleman for more than anything. Thank you for forging a team that has captured the imagination of the Welsh public again and a team that we are extremely proud of. #TogetherStronger
(Note: I did not mention France 2016 once, as I am a Wales fan and I know never, ever to get carried away not matter how good the situation is looking).
Written by Matthew Harrison