Wales’ run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 has been as inspiring as it has unlikely. Whilst Gareth Bale has happily hogged the headlines and the key contributions of Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams, Joe Allen, Ben Davies and others have also been acknowledged, the one man who has been happy to let others bask in the adulation is the one who arguably deserves the most praise.
When Chris Coleman took over as Wales head coach in January 2012, he did so in unfathomably difficult circumstances, replacing his friend, the late Gary Speed, who had committed suicide two months earlier. Whilst he had landed his dream job, it was an uncomfortable position for Coleman to be in, as he admitted in the press conference that followed his appointment:
“I’ve already spoken with the FAW members… and I said ‘excuse me if I don’t seem that excited, I am excited, I’m just a little bit subdued because of the circumstances. On one hand it is the proudest moment of my career but on the other hand, with the circumstances I was very close friends with Gary for 30 years.”
Putting to one side the grief that Welsh supporters, players and staff were dealing with, from a purely footballing perspective, there was little cause for optimism when Coleman was announced as Speed’s successor.
His previous job at Greek side Larissa had ended in ignominious circumstances. The team were two points off top spot in the Super League but Coleman walked out, citing the club’s financial problems as the reason for his departure. In return, Larissa announced on the day of Coleman’s unveiling as Wales boss that they intended to pursue legal action against the Football Association of Wales for what they regarded as the tapping up of their manager
A paucity of viable alternatives explains why Coleman was given the Wales job. Whilst he may have been proud of his achievements in Greece it’s worth remembering that Coleman’s most recent role as a British club manager resulted in him being sacked by Coventry City at the end of the 2009/10 season after leading the Sky Blues to 19th in the Championship – at that point, their lowest league finish in 45 years.
Prior to that, Coleman had a short spell in Spain, though his time at Real Sociedad didn’t exactly end well either, Coleman resigned less than a year after being appointed and despite the team having lost just once in 11 games, citing a difference in vision with the club president.
His time as national coach got off to a rocky start. A 2-0 defeat in a friendly to Mexico in his first game in charge set the tone for a troublesome first few months which included a 6-1 shellacking away to Serbia in qualification for World Cup 2014 – a result which prompted Coleman to consider whether he was the right man to take Wales forward.
After becoming the first Wales manager to lose his first 5 games in charge, shoots of recovery finally became visible in October 2012 when Coleman claimed his first win, thanks to Gareth Bale’s brace in a 2-1 success against Scotland.
Whilst they missed out on a place in Brazil, Coleman eventually stumbled upon a system and squad which he could mould in his own image, rather than that of his predecessor. The decision to replace Aaron Ramsey with Ashley Williams as captain was particularly inspired and Wales qualified for Euro 2016 with something to spare.
Far from being happy just be in France, Wales have been arguably the standout team. The anomaly of the England defeat aside, Coleman’s side have, to a man, been colossuses. The coach too has shown his chops. His tactical outmanoeuvring of Marc Wilmots in the Quarter Final was hugely impressive and one has to wonder what’s next for Coleman. At 46 years of age, he could have another 20 years of management left in him. Coleman signed a 2 year contract extension just before the Euros and the FAW will be mightily relieved they got him to put pen to paper before this extraordinary campaign began. It would surely have cost at least twice as much to retain his services had the level of success been known beforehand.
Coleman might well be tempted to try his hand back in club management sooner rather than later but he ought to treat such a move with caution. Having worked tirelessly to rebuild his reputation, perhaps the best option would be to stay where he is. For now at least, Chris Coleman Wales are a match made in (bread of) heaven.