I remember the first time I met Chris Coleman. I was waiting outside Craven Cottage having been dropped off from school hours before a League Cup tie. The Fulham captain as he was then wondered through the gates, stopped and came back to ask what I was doing. ‘If you’ve got time to kill,’ he said in that extremely chatty Welsh manner, ‘come and sit with us up in the Cottage. Soon I was sitting between Kit Symons, Coleman and Simon Morgan as they argued over whether to have Bovril or coffee and quizzed me about which of them was the more mobile centre back.
The next time I saw Coleman was under entirely different circumstances. Fulham had invited me in to their Motspur Park training ground as I continued to recover from an operation related to my cerebral palsy. My doctors thought that seeing my heroes up and close and person – and their commitment to fitness – might encourage me to be as active as possible. On the bike next to me in the gym was Coleman, right at the start of the long road back following that horror car crash at the start of the millennium that almost cost him his life.
I was struck then by how chipper he was – chatting away to physios and encouraging me to pedal faster and faster – and there seemed no doubt in his mind that he was going to return to peak fitness. It was little surprise that the driven defender pulled on both a club and Welsh shirt again, even if Coleman had to eventually admit that he’d never again be the classy, ball-playing centre back whose arrival at Fulham had signalled that one of London’s sleeping giants was really stirring under the stewardship of Mohamed Al Fayed.
Nobody quite knew that the Coleman story was only just beginning then. He was always the life and soul of the party, a lively conversationalist, and someone with strong opinions. Unlike many of the modern footballers, he had never lost sight of where he had come from – the heart of the Swansea valleys – and just how lucky he was to be earning a living from the beautiful game. That’s what gave him such an affinity with the fans. When his remarkably successful playing career came to such a heartwrenching and premature end, Coleman turned to the next challenge – coaching – after being offered the opportunity to learn his trade under Jean Tigana.
It seems obvious now that ‘Cookie’ as he’s universally known would succeed Tigana when the weight of the French maestro’s falling out with Al-Fayed looked likely to cost Fulham their Premier League place. It was quite a surprise at the team when the club, still homeless and in the midst of a very public battle between the fans and the decision-makers over whether they would ever return to the Cottage, decided to make Coleman – initially on a short-term basis – the Premier League’s youngest-ever manager. But the Welshman was confident he could do it and he kept the Whites above the drop with such aplomb – winning three out of five games – that his promotion to the permanent position, ahead of the likes of Louis van Gaal, Klaus Topmoller and George Burley, was merely a formality.
The pundits weren’t convinced and many tipped Fulham for the drop ahead of the novice’s first full season in charge. Nobody gave a new look defence, which included the unheralded Jerome Bonnissel and Arsenal loanee Moritz Volz, much of a chance of keeping the best in the Premier League at bay. Plenty of seasoned observers felt Louis Saha had been found out and, when both Sean Davis and Steve Marlet started to agitate for moves away, those doomsday predictions tumbled in. Coleman revelled in proving the ‘experts’ wrong – devising a 4-5-1 system that protected his defence, whilst simultaneously showcasing the unique talents of Luis Boa Morte, Steed Malbranque and Saha. Fulham famously recorded a first league win at White Hart Lane, breezed past Manchester United at Old Trafford, humbled Leeds and held Arsenal’s invincibles at Highbury. Coleman’s side occupied a Champions’ League place in December and would certainly have finished higher than a club record ninth had they been able to hold onto Saha, whom the Welshman initially insisted would be leaving ‘over my dead body’.
Despite bringing Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra across from the United States, blooding the likes of Liam Rosenior and Collins John, recruiting Papa Bouba Diop and Jimmy Bullard, the various Coleman sides sparkled only sporadically once Fulham returned home the following year. There were famous home wins over Arsenal, Liverpool and – of course, Chelsea – but, as Al-Fayed’s interest waned and the big-money that had accompanied Fulham’s rise gave way to a steadier hand, warding off relegation became the major ambition. As a manager who was still learning his trade, Coleman paid for his loyalty to Steve Kean and what appeared to be too cautious an outlook, eventually being sacked in April 2007 after a seventh successive game without a win saw the Whites pummelled at home by Manchester City.
For a while it seemed as if Coleman’s passion for the game would remain cruelly unrequited as a manager. He endured horrendous spells overseas at Real Sociedad and Larissa and a struggle with Coventry that saw him replaced after the Sky Blues recorded their worst league finish in 45 years. The turning point came in the face of an unspeakable tragedy after his closest friend in football, Gary Speed – then on the brink of a major breakthrough in charge of Wales – took his own life. Coleman stepped in his great mate’s shoes but his first campaign – a wretched attempt to qualify for Euro 2012 – saw him struggle to reshape a squad still in mourning and face serious pressure over his future.
Coleman eventually resolved to do things his own way and impose his own playing style on his country. He revamped his backroom staff and decided to take his players back to their roots, instituting a number of community events to remind them just how many people – as well as an impressionable next generation – were rooting for Welsh success. Together Stronger wasn’t a clever marketing strap line, it was intended to tie a talented group of footballers to something more substantial than 90 minutes. Coleman’s commitment to those ideals shone through in his support of the laudable work of the Gol! Cymru charity set up by supporters who follow Wales abroad.
Coleman didn’t shirk away from the tough footballing decisions either. He stripped Arsenal playmaker Aaron Ramsey of the captaincy, entrusting the inspirational Swansea centre halve Ashley Williams with the armband, and liberating Gareth Bale in a free role in attack. Ramsey, who had been publicly critical of the FAW’s decision to appoint Coleman so soon after Speed’s shocking death, delivered some of the best football of his career. Bale came up with two late goals to beat Scotland in Coleman’s first win – and there was once again some hope at the heart of Welsh football.
Qualifying for Euro 2016, emerging from a tough group containing the well-fancied Belgians, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel, was ‘the best thing I’ve ever done’ said a delighted Coleman pitchside in Zenica, a sentiment he was soon to rethink as the Welsh went on to make magnificent history in France at their first international tournament for 57 years. You could tell something special was stirring from when Hal Robson-Kanu struck a late winner over Slovakia in Bordeaux, but the completeness of Wales’ dismantling of Russia in Toulouse nine days later made the world sit up and take notice.
If some still hadn’t paid attention, they were rubbing their eyes in disbelief when the Welsh matched their Cardiff qualification victory over Belgium with an even more dominant display as Williams, Robson-Kanu and Sam Voakes wrote their names into folklore on a magical night just outside Lille. Coleman’s spine-tingling speech after the final whistle – where he told watching television viewers, ‘Don’t be afraid to have dreams,’ showed that the banal platitudes mouthed by many a manager just weren’t for him.
This is a man who strives for perfection but is honest enough to admit he often falls short of that lofty goal. Tonight, Wales go in search of something close to sporting immortality – that would be back-to-back qualifications for major tournaments – as they face the Republic of Ireland in a crunch World Cup qualifier in Cardiff. Coleman has come a long way since he stepped off the Millennium Stadium bench to win the last of his playing caps as an injury-time substitute in the famous win over Germany back in 2001. He’d be the first to say sentiment doesn’t win points – but there are plenty who are very proud of how the charismatic Cookie cracked it in management.