I’ve been meaning for a while to put together a piece on Moritz Volz’s spirited defence of Chris Coleman.
Let me begin by saying that I’m still a big fan of Coleman. He was a splendid footballer who took a massive risk by dropping down the divisions to sign for us from Blackburn just as the money was rolling in under Keegan and Wilkins. He was a classy, ball-playing centre half who looked far too good as we waltzed the Second Division – notwithstanding a patchy debut – and our Championship-winning side as well as our top flight planning was dealt a severe blow by that horrible car crash in the New Year. Not many people would have showed the character and determination to come back from such a devastating leg break to play again for their country and continue to be as chirpy and cheerful as Coleman.
He didn’t shirk the tough decisions either. He could easily have told Mohammed Al-Fayed to look elsewhere for a caretaker-manager once the board decided that they couldn’t wait until the end of the 2002-03 season to part company with Jean Tigana. The force of his personality and leadership skills had were the main reasons why we pulled ourselves clear of the relegation zone towards the end of that season, recording vital wins over Newcastle and Everton and claiming a memorable point at Stamford Bridge. Some of the players he brought to the club played a massive part in our Premiership success – the likes of Niemi, Bullard, McBride, Davies and Dempsey proved key parts of the side that outlasted their manager.
But there were some serious problems with the Coleman regime. Even if he didn’t think so, he seemed worringly indifferent to our wretched away record, which continued to hinder our progress in the league (and confined us to lower mid-table at best in the latter years of his reign). There were questions to be asked about handing over control of a large amount of first-team affairs, like coaching and tactics, to a largely unproven assistant manager in Steve Kean. The persistence with a 4-5-1 system that perfectly utilised the talents of Saha as a lone striker once the Frenchman had gone was baffling as was the use of Brian McBride as a substitute. Tomasz Radzinski was played out of position on the right when we thought he had been bought to solve our goalscoring problems and Carlos Bocanegra and Volz both had a go in central midfield during an injury crisis. Then there was Kean’s laughable disclosure in one programme that there were happy to give possession to the opposition in their own half, only pressing the ball once they entered the middle third. You won’t find that one in any coaching manual.
But perhaps the most damning indictment of the Coleman era was the way in which we regressed both as a team and as individuals. Coleman inherited a squad of real quality, with which he should have arguably done better than finish ninth in 2003-04 (even without Saha for the last four and a half months of the season). He was forced to sell key players (Finnan, Saha and van der Sar being prime examples) but by the time he left the club our attractive, easy-on-the-eye game had been replaced by percentage football that wasn’t even winning matches. We’d had become a team of battlers and grafters which can only get you so far in the top flight.
Just as worrying was the waning of some of our brighter stars. The likes of Volz himself as well as Collins John, who for a brief while couldn’t stop scoring in a Fulham shirt, as well as Papa Bouba Diop, Liam Rosenior and Tomasz Radzinski all went backwards during Coleman’s tenure. He didn’t seem to nurture or trust the younger talent he himself had brought to the club – witness how Bjorn Runstrom and Gabriel Zakuani swiftly faded from the first-team picture. Fitness levels deteriorated alarmingly not helped by a training schedule that looked positively tame when compared with Tigana’s strict physical programme and two session a day approach.
These are thoughts echoed by Sylvain Legwinski, who fell out with Coleman, and felt he had been living on borrowed time at Craven Cottage long before his dismissal.
It took him two years to realise how physical preparation in pre-season is vital in the Premiership.
The work was different when Tigana was in charge. It was more intense – but under Coleman the training sessions were shorter, he did not work us as hard and we were given more days off.
I found it very strange because I wanted to work harder and the players lacked fitness.
“But no one senior in the club was keeping an eye on him or seemed to know what it takes to run a football team.
The man-management side of Coleman, who proved such an inspirational motivator in his early years, also cost us the services of Malbranque and his stubborn refusal to appoint a more experienced coach probably ending up losing him his job. If this reads as a harsh critique of a man who I professed to like earlier, then that’s probably because it is. Cookie did his best on a shoestring budget and kept us above water admirably for most of his time at the club but there was a distinct lack of a long-term plan and by the time of his exit, it was clear he had run out of ideas.
So, why do you ask am I saying this now? Watching our performance against Middlesbrough and surveying the Premier League table, I think we are in a similar position to where we were at the same stage of Coleman’s first full season in charge. A lot depends on whether we can hang onto our key players, something which we dismally failed to do then (and the blame for that can’t be laid at Coleman’s door). But I feel we have a vision for our future, a clear footballing philosophy laid down by an experienced coach and a stronger squad than the one Coleman left us with.
As I’ve said before, Hodgson quickly recognised that we needed a commanding centre back to instill confidence in the defence. He went out and got Brede Hangeland for what now looks like a pittance just weeks into the job, whilst Coleman relied on Ian Pearce, big on effort but short on execution, and a combination of the chronically unfit Philippe Christanval, the error-prone Zat Knight and Carlos Bocanegra. Roy has also got the team believing in themselves again (no mean feat after the Sanchez disaster) and has us back on the right path.
The jury’s still out on Coleman as a manager. Political pressure and the weight of expectation forced him to abandon his Spanish adventure with Real Sociedad, whilst his spell with Coventry sees him regularly dipping into his reserves of inspiration. I wish him well and thank him for the memories, but the Coleman reign now leaves me with a more than a slight sense of frustration.