Fulham boss Chris Coleman was sipping mulled wine and discussing the lights he put up outside his house but he does not pretend he will be great company over the festive period. Training beckons tomorrow and, with a heavy fixture list, the Fulham manager will have work on his mind. “My wife and children are used to me being grumpy over Christmas,” he says. “They won’t have any change there. If Christmas was celebrated in June I would enjoy it like everybody else but unfortunately it’s not.”
Coleman is not complaining, though. At 35 he is in charge of a Premiership club and on Boxing Day his team have one of their most keenly anticipated games, the derby at Chelsea. At an age when he might still be playing but for a car crash, Coleman says management has restored “the buzz” he missed when forced to retire. He is doing good work on slim resources but treats his job so seriously that grumpiness this week is inevitable.
“Coming towards the end of my first season I was talking to another manager,” Coleman recalls, “and he said ‘Make sure you have a good summer, Chris. Switch your phone off’. But I couldn’t and I haven’t been able to since. It’s been 24 hours, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. It goes on and on and on. Maybe as I get older and have more experience I will be able to switch off a little bit but at the minute I can’t.”
There is no sign of stress as he talks eloquently about life at Fulham, who have won more home points than Manchester United but whose dismal away results mean they cannot be sure of staying up. He enjoys working with the squad but matches are no fun.
“Ninety minutes of football is absolute agony as a manager,” he says. “That’s the only way to describe it. When I first was doing it, it was great but now I can only describe it as agony. It’s a strange situation. You look forward to the game and you’re excited but then you’re either looking at your watch because you are one or two goals up and you want the ref to blow or you’re a goal down and chasing.
“I can only describe it as an addiction. When you win you don’t celebrate so much as a manager; you are relieved and concentrating on the next one. If you lose, you can’t wait for the next one to arrive to get rid of that horrible feeling of losing.”
Coleman says he feels like “the king of the world” after a Fulham victory and describes the addiction: “The winning and the feeling you get when everything you’ve planned and worked on with the players has come off. Especially now that this is my team. I’ve brought players to the club and the team are playing the way I want. The flip side is when it doesn’t come off.”
He takes defeat badly. “I can’t describe how much I dislike it,” he says. “After we’ve lost I’m not a very nice person to be around.” He puts on a happy face at training but says secretly it takes him a long time to get over a bad result. What is he like at home, then? “A nightmare, and I’ve got four young children. My boy’s 12 and I’ve got three daughters all younger and sometimes they have to take the brunt of that.”
They would welcome a positive result at Chelsea. Coleman managed a draw there in April 2003 while Fulham’s caretaker manager after Jean Tigana left but a repeat looks tough, particularly with regulars injured. Then again Coleman’s demise has been regularly and wrongly predicted. Far from getting the sack from Mohamed Al Fayed, he has just received another Christmas hamper.
“Many people looked at me when I first came into the job and wouldn’t have given me a cat in hell’s chance of surviving a season,” Coleman says. “Maybe they were right. Maybe it was my arrogance that I took the job and thought I could do it. Even now people look at me because my first job was in the Premiership and think, ‘what does he know?’ I’ve not done the normal system of managing in the lower leagues or reserves. I was in the right place at the right time.
“That was over 100 games ago. For me it’s all right being studious or good with figures or doing your homework. But if you can’t tell what a dressing room needs and you don’t know what buttons to push with people, I don’t care how good you are in your office. It’s more about assembling a team and getting them to perform.
“I think maybe my strongest attribute, without blowing my own trumpet, is I think I get a good feeling for situations, certainly in a dressing room and judging people.”
iIt says much about Coleman’s man management that Luis Boa Morte signed a contract extension and Steed Malbranque turned down a move. The experiences of Sean Davis and Louis Saha show that life is not necessarily brighter away from Fulham. Once Al Fayed aimed to make the club the Manchester United of the south but expectations have been reined in with the spending. “Staying in the Premiership is a good year for us,” says Coleman. It is no longer possible to envisage Fulham’s outlay oustripping Chelsea’s but Coleman says he is not jealous. “Jose Mourinho has still got one of the toughest jobs in the game,” he says, “because the expectations are higher than anywhere else.”
Coleman has needed to be astute and struck gold with the Senegal midfielder Papa Bouba Diop, who has been linked with Arsenal and Manchester United and is estimated by the manager to be worth 10 times what he paid.
“There’s a perception of Fulham that we’re still big spenders but the big spending happened before I took the job and we got into a little bit of trouble where we were hovering near the relegation zone,” says Coleman. “I’m proud of my record, certainly in the transfer market. Money has been brought into the club and we’ve not shelled out. I knew what the job was before I took it, so I never complain or bang on the chairman’s door and say ‘You’ve got to give me money.'”
Coleman enjoys the challenge and, despite the agony and relentlessness of the job, he cannot imagine letting go. “Football has been in my life for as long as I can remember and I don’t think that will ever change,” he says.”I sometimes complain to my missus and say ‘That’s it, five more years and I’m out. I can’t do this forever.’ But I’ll probably be doing it for as long as I can.”