Chris Coleman cornered after failing to build on Gary Speed's Wales revival
Less than a year into the job the Wales manager faces mounting criticism as side goes into reverse
It is 18 months, and yet an eternity, since Gary Speed marched up past the golf trolleys into a Vale of Glamorgan clubhouse and from a press conference seat conveyed the unmistakeable sense that he was taking Wales somewhere new.
Ryan Giggs was about to drop into the team camp, the opera singer Courtenay Hamilton had started teaching the players "Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" ("Land of My Fathers") and Aaron Ramsey had just become the youngest permanent captain in the nation's football history. It did not even matter that Wales were singularly unimpressive in the game against England, 48 hours later. "We don't want to sit here in five years, saying 'remember England,'" Speed had said before the game, an observation which is so haunting to read back now.
There was certainly a lot more to remember when Speed's life was cut so terribly short, eight months later, with the 4-1 thumping of Norway in Cardiff, perhaps the best evidence from his four wins in five that Wales were progressing. Speed was dead within 15 days of that win and his successor Chris Coleman – who has no wins from four, which excludes the game staged in his predecessor's memory – has never seemed less than weighed down by the size and nature of his formidable inheritance.
When he set out, in January, Coleman could only embrace the passing style of football Speed had bestowed. He gave a very good impression of a man who had undergone a Damascene conversion from the direct game he brought to Coventry City when, with the nation's First Minister Carwyn Jones in attendance, he helped launched a Football Association of Wales blueprint for the future, in his first week as manager. "Gorau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae" ("Best Play is Team Play") was its motto.
Then the PR gloss faded, results were Coleman's judge and even before the 6-1 annihilation in Serbia 29 days ago which left him broken and not far from tears in the Novi Sad press conference room, the survivor's instinct led him to begin casting off Speed's creed and doing things his own way. The long ball returned, Coleman's talk turned to "getting stuck into them" and, after Wales' worst defeat in 16 years had left his immediate future hinging on a result against Craig Levein's Scotland in Cardiff on Friday night or else in Croatia next Tuesday, he removed Speed's young captain, too.
It was no judgement on Ramsey that Wales need the more "natural" leadership qualities of Swansea City's Ashley Williams, Coleman said. But removing the 21-year-old was a deeply controversial decision.
It felt like a heavy-handed one, too, from a man to whom the Wales players and nation have not warmed terribly much, as they still grow accustomed to the idea that the optimism and adventure of the brief Speed era were an insubstantial pageant.
The respect Speed commanded without trying was perhaps learned from his old friend Sir Bobby Robson – of whom he once said: "He didn't know he was doing it; he was such a natural leader" – and it dragged some wonderful performances from Craig Bellamy, who mourned him deeply.
It is less elementary for Coleman, who is desperate for Bellamy's contribution but tired already of the uncertainty surrounding his availability. "We need to know from Craig, 'Are you coming and joining us or are you staying?' And if he's not, we've got to move forward and move on," Coleman said last week. Bellamy finally withdrew from the current squad on Monday, citing a knee injury, and at 33 may play no more for Wales.
Coleman has pointed out personnel problems which rarely seemed to exist for Speed. "Ten pull-outs [in the defeat to Belgium] and people don't care about that. Seven missing against Serbia – no one has interest in that. What about the result? You lost. You got smashed up in Serbia – six. That's what people talk about," he said after the Novi Sad debacle, though that's not the full story. Joe Allen, who played while recovering from a virus and when just 60 per cent fit, was overrun in Serbia, while in his desperation to make things happen Ramsey lost his discipline and Coleman looked unsure how best to fix things. Neither is he in possession of that inestimable quality of inculcating confidence, which Speed always had in spades.
"I was told this is the golden generation. Well let's see it," he said after Serbia. "If it's me and my method I take responsibility but we haven't changed our game plan, so why the difference in performance?" Hardly words to ease the battered spirits of a young side in need of something to feed off.
On Monday night, Speed's father Roger called for the Welsh nation to throw its support behind his son's successor. "They were mates," he said. "I've known Chris since Gary and Chris were playing together. I wouldn't like the job he's got to do, to take over after Gary, because I think Gary was doing an absolutely tremendous job. I really, really feel for Chris because some supporters can be a little bit fickle. So because things are going down, it's no good sacking of him. Get behind him. Get behind Chris for me and Gary."
And then Mr Speed went on to say that his family were still struggling dreadfully to come terms with their loss. The same goes for the rest of Wales. Coleman knows that.
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