Chris Coleman is on the cusp of something remarkable. His young Wales side, who face Cyprus tonight as they approach a pivotal point in their Euro 2016 campaign, stand on the brink of reaching a major international tournament for the first time since 1958. The success of his managerial reign has revitalised Welsh football – after the low ebb that followed Gary Speed’s tragic passing – and the turnaround in Coleman’s own fortunes, barely a year after he could well have been hounded out of the national team job, is bewildering. It is a tribute to his own self-belief as well as a searching reappraisal of his own coaching credentials that has put a previously perilous managerial career back on track.
The prospect of a beaming Coleman leading out his Welsh side at the finals in France next summer would be rapturously received in SW6. For Fulham fans, there has always been a special connection with ‘Cookie,’ as he’s affectionately dubbed by his friends across football. As a player, Coleman took a serious risk – dropping two divisions to become Mohamed Al-Fayed’s first marquee signing in a time before that horrible phrase was to enter the footballing lexicon – and quickly became the heartbeat of the Fulham side that was so startling upwardly mobile. A classy, ball-playing member of the back four, Coleman helped Fulham achieve two promotions and, perhaps just as importantly, remained engaging and open with the fans. Widely regarded as the best defender outside the Premier League, Coleman was cruelly denied the chance to test himself again in the top flight by a car accident in 2001 that effectively ended his career, but could have cost him his leg where it not for some quick thinking by an on-the-scene doctor.
Coleman’s upbeat persona wasn’t diminished by such a huge setback – or, at least, it didn’t appear that way to outsiders. He threw himself into a punishing fitness regime at Motspur Park and, when a return to top level football proved ultimately beyond him, began taking his coaching badges. His blossoming into a manager came far quicker than anyone expected as he was thrust into the white heat of a relegation battle once Al-Fayed chose to dispense with Jean Tigana when Fulham sunk dangerously close to dipping out of the Premier League. It is easy to forget now that Fulham were barely above the drop zone when Coleman took over with five games to go, without a win in three.
You sense his sheer-bloodymindness helped steady the ship. A nervy 2-1 win over Newcastle United at Loftus Road, secured by a superb strike from Sylvain Legwinski that remains a particularly fond memory, was one of three crucial wins that secured both Fulham’s top-flight status and Coleman’s position as permanent boss, the youngest – at just 32 – in the league’s history. He beat off some illustrious names, including the likes of Klaus Topmoller and Louis van Gaal, and then set about proving his first six weeks in charge were no fluke. A subtle tweak to Tigana’s formation – switching to a 4-3-3 to effectively utilise the artistry of Steed Malbranque and Luis Boa Morte in tandem with the pace of Louis Saha – saw Fulham surge into European contention before Saha’s protracted departure to Manchester United at the turn of the year. Coleman still guided his side to their then record-highest placing of ninth place, with famous wins at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane and a pulsating draw at Highbury.
Coleman’s reign coincided with an emotional return to Craven Cottage and you wonder what may have happened had he been backed by the chairman in the manner enjoyed by the likes of Kevin Keegan and Tigana. His fiery passion was never undimmed and he battled to keep the club in the top flight, often working on a budget, whilst still trying to develop as a young manager. He unearthed the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey from America, whilst also bringing in Jimmy Bullard on a free transfer. Whilst he could never repeat those heady days of 2003-04 or escape the looming threat of the drop, there were plenty of happy moments, not least the day Fulham finally beat Chelsea – a result secured by asking Malbranque to nullify Claude Makele’s influence at the base of that all-conquering Mourinho midfield.
A seven-match winless run saw Coleman sadly finally relieved of his duties at Craven Cottage – and his refusal to bring in a more senior coach than Steve Kean probably sealed his fate. For a while, a promising managerial career looked destined to tail off. A spell in Spain with Real Sociedad was undermined by a change in club president and Coleman still claims that he was offered assurances that the Coventry board never delivered on in his next job. When he stepped down from an ill-fated period as boss of corruption-engulfed Larissa in January 2012, few could have seen his rebirth as an international boss coming – and that Coleman had the courage to take over from best friend Speed, and then to implement his own ideas, speaks volumes about his own character.
A win in Cyprus tonight will propel the Welsh above Roy Hodgson’s England in the FIFA world rankings and, far from relying on old-timers, Coleman has built a young squad around the supreme talent of Gareth Bale. Wales move the ball intelligently and work hard without it – the likes of Ashley Williams and Aaron Ramsey have blossomed beautifully under Coleman’s tutelage. He has prioritised training ground work ahead of friendlies throughout this improbable qualifying campaign and remains frank about his own limitations. There’s a diligence and a discipline to Coleman’s work that reflects his own frustration in not being able to reach the top level of international football as a player – something he was searingly honest about in pre-match interviews prior to tonight’s fixture – and taking Wales to France would be a fitting reward for such a likeable man. Together stronger is far more than a clever marketing line, it seems.