Survival of fittest ignites Coleman's Cottage industry

For Chris Coleman, running a Premiership team involves 'putting out little fires' but, Sam Wallace writes, the Fulham manager wants to succeed on his own terms
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At about 2.15pm, Coleman took what in retrospect might be described as the first managerial decision of his career: he told his team-mates to put on their kit. Five minutes later, he made the second when he told them it was time they went out to warm up. Only when the Fulham players had returned to the dressing-room and the clock said 2.55pm did Tigana show up at last. "He put his head round the corner and just said, 'Good luck boys'," Coleman recalls. "Unbelievable."

For the Premiership's youngest manager, Tigana, with whom Coleman developed a good relationship, was the last stage in an education that took in all ages of the game. From the old school, as exemplified by Terry Yorath at Swansea City - "he was very aggressive and that worked for me" - to the "introverted" style of Steve Coppell, the understated manner of Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan's relentless enthusiasm and finally the silent hand of Tigana. Which of these has become Coleman's way is the obvious question to ask him and his answer is emphatic: none of the above.

It is a measure of the quiet confidence of Coleman that he has resisted comparison with any of his own former managers as resolutely as he has resisted Fulham employing a more senior man to oversee their 35-year-old manager's progress. It has not always been easy but more than 100 games have passed since Coleman, aged 32, was summoned into the Harrods boardroom - "I never felt I belonged in places like that" - to be asked whether he would take over for the last five matches of the 2002-2003 season. When he won three of them the good news came direct from the chairman Mohamed Al Fayed. " 'It's yours', he told me," Coleman says, "and he just said, 'Look after my club'."

Few would dispute that Coleman has done that. Last season Fulham struggled at times to match the ninth-place finish of 2003-2004 which was a record high for the club and this season they are 17th with six points from nine games although a little stability has come from the draw away at Charlton on Monday. Today Fulham face Liverpool at Craven Cottage and the belief of their engaging, honest young manager in his team's potential remains utterly unshakeable.

He knows his mind and is not afraid of passing judgement, admitting that when he took over as Fulham manager he wanted to "fight" many of the football agents with whom he crossed paths, so frustrated was he with their dealings. He has battled to keep his best players, losing Louis Saha, who left for Manchester United in January 2004, but retaining Luis Boa Morte, who he signed to a new five-year deal this summer despite Newcastle's attentions. He has transformed his players' fitness with an Australian rugby league conditioning coach and yet he still retains that youthful capacity to be surprised.

"At the start of the season I was at an League Managers' Association meeting and I spoke to Big Sam [Allardyce]. So bearing in mind the success he has had at Bolton and how well he has done I asked him what his aims were this season. And he said for a club like Bolton all he is asked to do is keep them in the division. I was like 'Wow' because bearing in mind what he had achieved he was very realistic.

"Unfortunately at Fulham there is a different perception. At one point we did spend a lot of money but that was before I had the job. We haven't spent a lot of money since I have been in charge and we are very conscious of making sure that we are sensible. We have 20,000 crowds and it's a great atmosphere. I can't promise our supporters top 10 but it is possible. It's going to be difficult. I am confident we can go on a run of four or five games unbeaten."

He is rueful about last season and the malaise that affected his team that Coleman prefers to describe, as "a bit easy-osy" when players - and himself included, he admits - were occasionally guilty of "taking their foot off the gas". As Fulham struggled, Coleman decided that in the summer there would be change and recruited the coach Steve Nance from the Brisbane Broncos to revamp pre-season training. One that Coleman admits, without regret, had some of the players "going nuts" in the first week.

"Big heavy weights, loads of running, boxing, it was everything you can think of," Coleman recalls. "The players were going mad. Players like Claus Jensen who are gifted players, they don't want to be doing that. Claus was the first complaining about it, but since the start of the season he has been outstanding, he has been stronger and fitter and that is because of the training.

"Our ProZone statistics, where we can measure the running, say that 95 per cent of the games this year we have worked harder than the opposition... And we have played better football, we have created a lot of chances but we haven't finished them. The work ethic has been the best since I have been the manager and is as good as the season when we finished ninth."

That training, Coleman hopes, will take care of the fitness of a team who know that they will have to be at their best physically to match better-resourced sides. What has proved more difficult for the Fulham manager has been judging the right approach to his relationship with his players, some of whom he was scarcely older than when he took the job. He searched his experience as a player and made a decision. "I picked up more of what I wouldn't do, the things I didn't like. You can't copy anyone else because you get found out. I get asked so many times who are my influences? And do I want somebody in who is more experienced to help me out? I say no, if I fail at this job it will be because I did it the wrong way and if I succeed it will be because I did it the right way and I won't have any arguments. I can't say I should have done that or I shouldn't have listened to him. I only listen to myself and make my own mind up.

"People expect managers, maybe those of yesteryear, to make a big speech every team-talk, loads of points, screaming and shouting. The game has changed, players have changed. They don't all respond to that. There is a time to do that and the art is to know when exactly is the best time. You have to talk to players, they know what is expected of them and you have to be clear because you can give players too much information."

The team-talk, as even Tigana will know, is only a fraction of the story. Mention Papa Bouba Diop, who has become the latest Fulham player to be coveted by a bigger club - Arsenal in this case - and Coleman talks in more general terms about the managerial art of "putting out little fires". They can ignite anywhere, he explains: "Something in the press, someone said that, the phone rings and - oops - there's a little problem, you have to deal with.

"Our best players will always be linked with other clubs and if it is in our best interests to sell our best players then we will do that and that's the only reason we'll do it. The only reason we sold Louis Saha was because it was a lot of money and it was in the best interests of the club. It helped us go back to Craven Cottage which is where we belong and that's the main thing. Our big-name players will always be linked, whether or not we sell them is up to us."

The tale of Saha is a cautionary one that Coleman may well be moved to explain to Diop one day. Bought by United for £12.82m, he has been prevented by injury from making more than 21 starts for the club. At the time he left the Frenchman had scored 15 goals already that season, his manager was convinced he would get 10 more at least, Fulham had gone as high as fourth place and Saha had broken into the France squad for Euro 2004.

"I thought we would lose him in the summer if I was honest and I was desperate to hold on to him until the end of the season," Coleman says. "We had to let him go for that money but I said to him, 'There is a chance you won't get the games at United, you are in great company'. But he was confident he would play. And unfortunately for Louis he has had injuries as he had with us. With us he had a good run of games, scored goals and got his confidence back. In Manchester he's had injuries, it has cost him his place in the team and it will be difficult to get back in."

It was in those early days of management that Coleman talks about when he says that he was on the "verge of fighting half the agents" that he encountered. It is with some world-weariness that he says he did not understand "some of the dishonesty and the way it works". He says that now he has learned to live with the more ruthless practices in transfer dealings, that he has found some agents who have won his trust although there are some he would "walk past in the street because they are not honest". There is a touch of innocence about a man christened " Mowgli" by Alan Shearer at Blackburn Rovers - for his passing resemblance to the Jungle Book character as rendered in the Disney film - but Coleman is quick to defend his club and his right to manage at such a young age. He does not have time to see everything written or broadcast about Fulham, his 12-year-old son Sonny keeps him up to date, but he has a message for those who doubt him.

"I see what certain people say about my club - ex-players and pundits - and I don't even blink an eye at all the negative things that are said," Coleman says. "They have either tried to be managers and failed or they haven't had the balls to try in the first place. So it makes me smile and it makes me and my players stronger. And that is probably arrogance because people said I was too young to do the job. I'm 35 and they said I was too young and too inexperienced. That's not the way I see it.

"I know that if I wasn't a manager at Fulham I would be a manager somewhere else. If I had to I would go down to the third division or whatever. I'll manage somewhere and I'll always manage. It's not something I want to do for two minutes, it's long-term for me to be a manager. I've been at Fulham for nine years and it is in my blood but if it doesn't work out I'll go somewhere else. And if I have to work my way up I'll do it. I won't just knock it on the head for an easier life."

It is that kind of passion for his work that caught the attention of Jose Mourinho who, the story goes, recommended the manager of his local rivals to Benfica when they were searching for a new manager last summer. "Hand on my heart, it's flattering," Coleman says in response to the praise that he has been given in public from Mourinho although he never heard from Benfica. He turns a discussion of giving young British managers a chance in the Premiership on its head - Coleman would, he says, like to manage abroad one day and does not understand why more in this country do not.

"I know John Toshack very well and I am always picking his brains about what it was like when he was there," Coleman says. "You don't see many British managers going abroad, it is always the foreign guys coming to our country and, yes, of course there are loads of good managers and coaches in the lower divisions and I am sure they could do a job in the Premiership. It's just that clubs go for big names and they don't get the chance - that doesn't mean they aren't good enough."

Should Fulham's young manager be lured abroad one day then there might be a protest raised in the Coleman household where his son and three daughters, aged 10 to five, see their father too seldom. There are, Coleman says, " sacrifices" to be made to be successful as a Premiership manager - be it the youngest or the oldest - and they affect upon his family as well. As he considers those sacrifices he is drawn back to a recent disagreement with Christy, his oldest daughter.

"She's a very talented dancer and she has a chance to go to a specialist dancing school but she would have to board there," he says. "There's no way, I don't like that. I may be old-fashioned but I don't believe in that. So she said to me, 'Why won't you let me go to boarding school? You're never at home anyway, I never see you.' And she's got a point."

Young, gifted and British: Other home-grown managers making their mark

* STUART PEARCE (Manchester City, age 43)

Won 78 England caps at left-back. Took over as caretaker from Kevin Keegan in March and lifted City to within a goal of qualifying for Europe. Briefly player-manager at Nottingham Forest in 1996-97. No longer answers to 'Psycho'.

* ADRIAN BOOTHROYD (Watford, 34)

After an insignificant playing career, dedicated himself to coaching. Joined Watford, having been an assistant coach at Leeds, in March and kept them clear of relegation. Began this season brightly despite selling key players.

* MIKE NEWELL (Luton Town, 40)

Unpopular choice when appointed in June 2003 but now a hero after Luton ran away with League One last season and raced into third place in Championship this season. Ex-Luton, Everton and Blackburn striker who won promotion with Hartlepool.

* STEVE TILSON (Southend, 39)

Former Shrimpers player who took over last May, won two points from first five matches last season, then won promotion through play-offs. Started badly again this August but won eight successive matches to climb League One table. Now second.