I don’t have much time for Iain Dowie. Setting aside his QPR associations, he introduced the cringeworthy ‘bouncebackility’ into the game’s lexicon during a doomed spell in the Selhurt Park dugout. In one of his numerous attempts to be funny on the telly, he suggested that Chris Coleman acquired his ubiquitous nickname because ‘when he came up against me, he crumbled like a Cookie’. Everyone in the Sky studio, including Coleman (who was out of work at the time) cackled at the ingenious hilarity but Dowie’s humorous aside couldn’t be further from the truth.
Tomorrow afternoon represents the first time that Coleman, who made over 200 appearances for Fulham after dropping down two divisions in a sign that Mohamed Al-Fayed was serious about awakening the little team by the Thames, has sat in the opposite dugout against the Whites. Lesser men than the likeable Welshman would have been broken by the horrific car crash that shattered his leg, but Coleman not only came back to represent his country, he then took the first steps in a coaching career under Jean Tigana. When the Frenchmen’s reign came to abrupt end with Fulham in serious danger of losing their Premier League place, Coleman took the reigns. It might have been temporary – but Cookie doesn’t do anything to keep the seat warm and, after astonishing initial success, took charge of the Whites for 176 games.
Coleman’s drive remains one of his most alluring credentials. Not for him the reflected glory of leading Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 – ending half a century’s wait for a place at a tournament finals. He could very easily have carried on as country of the country he loves, despite narrowly missing out on a trip to Russia this summer, but he decided to try and revive the beleaguered Black Cats instead. The task appears herculean, with Ellis Short taking pelters from one of the loyalest fanbases in British football, but Coleman’s mixture of motivation and tactical acumen is already paying dividends – Sunderland held the league leaders Wolves to a goalless draw last week, despite playing the final half an hour with ten men after Lee Cattermole picked up two bookings in 60 seconds.
The Cottage records of both Coleman, who rescued the rudderless side he inherited from Tigana having come from behind to beat Newcastle inspired by a screamer from Sylvain Legwinski, and Kit Symons, who has joined the Sunderland coaching staff, are deserving of some reexamination. Coleman coaxed the very best out of Louis Saha, rediscovering the pace, power and athleticism that terrorised the First Division, and devised a system that allowed the mercurial Luis Boa Morte and the peerless Steed Malbranque to wreak havoc on top flight defences. Had Saha not departed for Old Trafford – when the Whites were implausibly challenging for the Champions’ League places – that side could have achieved something incredible.
As it was, Coleman had to deal in the lower end of the transfer market after that. He unearthed some gems in the transfer market – most fans were pretty underwhelmed by the arrival of unheralded Brian McBride after Saha departed, but the American striker left Craven Cottage as a genuine club legend. Then there was the purchase of Clint Dempsey from the New England Revolution in 2007 for £1.5m – which, after 50 Premier League goals not to mention that unforgettable chip to cap the comeback against Juventus, seems like a snip. Coleman also plucked Moritz Volz from Arsenal’s reserves, persuaded Papa Bouba Diop to try life by the Thames and snared Simon Davies from Everton.
The more and more you look at Coleman’s performance in his first job at the sharp end of football mangement, the greater it holds up in retrospect. The football was dire by the denouement, with his loyalty to Steve Kean costing Coleman dear, but the good times were very good. That win at Old Trafford – where Fulham seemed to have the freedom of Manchester against the English champions – ranks pretty highly even alongside the Whites’ first-ever top flight defeat of Arsenal on a special night at Craven Cottage.
But Coleman’s crowning glory has to be the tactical masterstroke that saw a Fulham side, short on form and confidence, shock Jose Mourinho’s all-conquering Chelsea in 2006. Steed Malbranque sat on Claude Makele preventing Mourinho’s men from enjoying the shield at the base of their midfield and, after Luis Boa Morte’s glorious finish, Fulham carried the more potent threat with the Portuguese winger smacking the woodwork with a free-kick. Mourinho’s men lost their composure, culminating in a shocking tackle from William Gallas seeing the defender dismissed, and several of their supporters on the field after the final whistle.
Coleman’s remarkable achievements in charge of Wales are already well documented. The script of how an out-of-work manager hauled a side still traumatised by the death of their young manager – Coleman’s closest friend in football – from obscurity to the last four of the European Championships probably belongs in a Hollywood movie producer’s office but it played out for real in front of our eyes. His move to Wearside isn’t the first time Coleman’s taken on a challenge – you have to look at how he was prepared to try and propel Real Sociedad and Larissa back to their former glories to see that.
There’s a personable side to Coleman that those not fortunate to have got to know him won’t fully appreciate. I was lucky enough as a teenager, recovering from a serious operation as a result of my cerebral palsy, to spend some time with Coleman, when he was beginning the long, hard road back from the aftermath of that horrible car crash, in the gym and physio sessions. His optimism, energy and infectious sense of humour – even at what must have been a deeply dark time for him personally – inspired me to keep going. He won’t find it difficult to motivate underperforming footballers and there are signs that his methods are beginning to take shape at the Stadium of Light.
All of which doesn’t bode well for Fulham tomorrow. Coleman knows just what it’s like to face a side who have been a year scrapping for a home win. He was in the visiting dugout when Sunderland last broke a barren run at the Stadium of Light, although he’d be the first to point out that defeat came only after the original fixture – which Fulham were leading through a McBride strike – was abandoned due to snow. Coleman’s time at Fulham should afford him a rousing reception from the away end tomorrow afternoon, but they’ll be no room for sentiment in his mind – the only satisfication he’ll take on Saturday will come from three points.