Chris Coleman on verge of history in rebuilding Wales and reputation

Wales can qualify for France 2016 with victories over Cyprus and Israel but their manager says it is laughable how certain people have jumped on the bandwagon

Chris Coleman could have flat-batted the question and trotted out that tired cliche about looking no further ahead than the next game but the Wales manager knew he would have been kidding nobody. Wales are savouring the view from the top of Group B, within touching distance of qualifying for their first major tournament since 1958, and for the man on the verge of writing his name into the record books it is impossible not to dream.

“I don’t actually think about going down in history. I only allow myself to think what it would be like if we were playing in a full house at the Stade de France,” Coleman says. “I was out there watching Belgium beat France and I thought: ‘What I would give to be here with Wales.’ We know what our fans are like. We would take thousands. I do think like that and I can’t help it. I am a human being and you can’t help but imagine what it would be like.”

Nothing, however, is being taken for granted. Wales take on Cyprus in the sweltering heat of Nicosia on Thursday night before hosting Israel in Cardiff on Sunday and Coleman has been involved in football long enough to recognise the perils of getting into a discussion on the six points in 72 hours that would seal qualification for Euro 2016 with two fixtures to spare.

At the same time the former Fulham manager can be forgiven for allowing his mind to wander during a friendly in Paris on a Sunday afternoon, especially when the path to France for Wales seems like the road to redemption for him. Sacked by Coventry City in 2010, Coleman was working in the Greek second division when the Wales job became available in such tragic circumstances following the death of Gary Speed, his friend and former international team-mate, in November 2011.

The response to Coleman’s appointment was lukewarm at best. “A lot of people didn’t want me. I think there is also the Swansea-Cardiff thing, so a lot of people will never like me – I understand the geography behind it,” says Coleman, who was born in Swansea and played for the club. “It took me a lot of time as well to really man up and start doing things how I wanted to do it. I was doing things the way I thought Speedy wanted. I got burnt badly by that and slowly it has gone well since.”

The first few years were tough. There was a humiliating 6-1 defeat in Serbia in September 2012 and 12 months later Coleman was caught up in an embarrassment of a different kind after he lost his passport before a game in Macedonia and was unable to fly out with the team. Even this campaign started with boos when Andorra took the lead and Wales risked becoming the first team to fail to beat them in 45 competitive games until Gareth Bale – who else? – scored late on.

Everything, however, has spectacularly clicked into place for Coleman and Wales since, culminating in that memorable 1-0 victory over Belgium at a raucous Cardiff City Stadium in June, when Bale’s goal opened up a three-point lead at the top of the group and made a nation believe something truly special was happening.

Ranked 117th in the world four years ago, when they were sandwiched between Haiti and Grenada, Wales are now ninth. Optimism abounds and Coleman, pointing to the “Together Stronger” marketing slogan that has become much more than a throwaway line, is keen to stress that it has been a collective effort. What he finds hard to accept, however, is the idea that anyone and everyone can lay claim to relighting the flame of Welsh football.

“Even when Wales are in the top 10 in the rankings and top of the group with four games to play, I still see certain people want to take credit for things – people who haven’t been with us for a long time,” Coleman says. “I never saw anybody wanting a piece of it when we weren’t winning. I never saw anybody stepping forward saying: ‘I am responsible for this’ when we lost 6-1 to Serbia. I never saw anybody say: ‘It is down to me’ when we finished fifth in the last campaign. Now it has been reversed and we are top – we still haven’t qualified but good things are happening – and certain people want to take a little stake. Let them get on with it.”

It is tempting to wonder if Coleman is referring to Bobby Gould, and possibly John Toshack as well, given that both men managed Wales and have recently spoken about their part in the nation’s emergence from the wilderness. “Just take a look. I am not going to mention names,” Coleman says. “It doesn’t make me angry. It makes me laugh how people quickly jump on a bandwagon where not so long ago everyone was under the radar.”

What is indisputable is that Coleman has rebuilt his own managerial reputation after losing his way following such a promising start at Fulham. His dismissal at Coventry was a particularly low ebb. “I could sit here and tell you a story about Coventry and how they let me down financially, not me personally but investing in players like we agreed, but when I really think about it, it’s a sob story. Whatever they did, that was up to them. I shouldn’t have let that affect me, and I did,” he says.

“I then went to Larissa in Greece, thinking they were going to be in the Super League. They got relegated but because of corruption they said they were going to retain their status. But when I got there, there were three different court hearings and eventually they did get relegated. So from three years previously being in the Premier League, I was in the second division in Greece. You think: ‘How does that happen? Three years ago I was manager of Fulham against Chelsea.’”

In many ways Coleman and Wales have helped to put each other back on the football map. Older and wiser, Coleman says he has “matured more in this job than in any other” and he also talks about how he has learned to manage the balancing act between home life – he got married to Charlotte Jackson, the Sky Sports presenter, in May and they have an eight-month-old son together – and football.

“Through experience I try as much as I can not to let the football side of it dictate my happiness, whereas maybe once upon a time it did a lot more,” he says. “If I had done that in my first campaign, God knows where I would have ended up. There were a lot of bad times and bad defeats. I tried to stay as stable as I can. Don’t get me wrong, I do go into fight mode, Charlotte will tell you building up to a camp that my mood changes and my demeanour changes. I can’t help that. But as much as I possibly can I try to hang on to a little bit of normality.”

While the majority of the Welsh public have now warmed to Coleman, he knows from the ambassadorial work that comes with the job that he is fighting a losing battle with some die-hard Cardiff fans. “In most cases 99% of people are fantastic. But we have been to one or two places where there has been an element within the establishment who have been looking at me as if I have stolen their children,” Coleman says, smiling.

“I get the Swansea-Cardiff thing, I was a Swansea player, I loved playing against Cardiff. But when I played for Wales and played with Jason Perry or Nathan Blake, I never saw them as blue and white and me as black and white. We were playing for Wales, that was all finished, and it was all about getting a result. But some people will never ever get over that unfortunately and that is a shame for them.”

It is a measure of how much Coleman has turned things around that his own future, and whether he stays on for the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign, is now high on the agenda. “I never played in a World Cup. I wasn’t good enough. I never played in a European Championship. I wasn’t good enough. So to have the opportunity and to have a crack at that, I think it would be difficult for me not to [take it], if I am honest,” he says. “But because there is so much at stake right now, I haven’t even thought that far.”


Stuart James

The GuardianTramp

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