Nine years ago on Monday, Chris Coleman was appointed manager of Real Sociedad. It was not a happy experience. Although he picked up 31 points from 21 games before being dismissed the following January, his time in San Sebastian has come to be remembered for one incident that happened towards the end of the November. He missed a training session and, when asked about it, blamed a faulty washing-machine that had leaked all over his apartment. Which might have been understandable had the Spanish press not seen him dancing into the early hours at a student disco.
His career drifted. There were a couple of indifferent years at Coventry City, a spell in Cyprus with Larissa. The early promise of his time as Fulham manager seemed to have passed. He somehow didn’t seem quite slick enough, quite diligent enough. And now he’s taken Wales to the semi-final of Euro 2016 – the smallest nation (another Icelandic miracle tonight notwithstanding) ever to reach the last four of the Euros. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything. Perhaps it is just a freak. Perhaps Coleman was some sort of genius all along.
Or perhaps international management is simply a very different thing to club management, prioritising a different set of skills. For while Gareth Bale is undoubtedly the star in all of this, Coleman’s role has been vital, not least because of the circumstances in which he took the job.
In Chris Wathan’s book on Wales’s qualification campaign, Forever Stronger, the story is told of Coleman in Cyprus picking up the phone to be told that Gary Speed, his friend and former team-mate, had taken his own life. It was such an unbelievable piece of news that Coleman initially thought it was David Speedie, the former Liverpool and Coventry striker, rather than the Wales manager, who was dead.
Coleman took on the job, but there is a sense he was never entirely comfortable in doing so. He felt he had to do things Speed’s way, that not to do so would be a betrayal, that the players wouldn’t accept change. Then, in September 2012, Wales lost 6-1 in Serbia. It was then that he accepted he had to do things his way. There were still glitches, most notably when Coleman lost his passport and, queuing to get a replacement in Newport, missed a flight to Macedonia FYR in September 2013. He arrived the day of the game which Wales lost 2-1. The Welsh FA were unimpressed.
Who knows what might have happened had Gareth Bale not scored with a free-kick nine minutes from time to secure a 2-1 win over Andorra? Wales had been scratchy, struggling for any kind of rhythm, and Coleman, grateful still to be in the job, realised there had to be change.
If he had shown great emotional sensitivity in not changing too much on taking over, he then showed great tactical acuity. In a sense, his task was made easier by the relative lack of options available to him. He had a very fine centre-back in Ashley Williams, three good central midfielders in Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Joe Ledley, and Bale. He needed to find a way to get all five in the side while making Bale, who was beginning to blossom at Real Madrid, the central figure, ideally with space in front of him to make the most of his explosive pace.
In the whole of his managerial career before the qualifier at home to Bosnia-Herzegovina in October 2014, Coleman had used a back three only once, in Fulham’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough on the final day of 2005-6. But he recognised it was a formation that would make the best use of the available resources. Wales only drew 0-0 that day and the back four returned for an uninspired home win over Cyprus and a morale-boosting goalless draw away to Belgium.
But Coleman returned to it in Haifa, where Wales were superb in a 3-0 win over Israel. It was in that game that the real advantages of the system became apparent. Ledley scuffled in front of the back four, Allen kept the ball moving, giving control over possession. Ramsey made forward surges to add a variety of depth to the attack. Bale essentially had a free role, finding space and then accelerating through it.
It’s true that Wales have only one plan, but in a sense that makes things simpler – and international football, when time is extremely limited, demands simplicity. It’s also true that Wales have struggled to break down opponents who sit deep against them, who force them to take the proactive role. They scraped by Northern Ireland, only a moment of Bale magic just enough. Their poorest performances in qualifying were against Andorra and Cyprus.
But against teams who attack them they can be devastating. They edged by a cautious Slovakia. They hammered a sluggish, demoralised Russia. And on Friday night in Lille, they gave Welsh football its greatest night.
Although Belgium began both halves at great pace and with great menace, this was no smash-and-grab. Confidence elevated Wales. Their football at times in the second half was mesmerisingly good, intelligent, well-conceived passes pinged to feet.
And perhaps it was fitting that the key goal, the one that punctured any sense of Belgian hope, was scored in such a remarkable way by a player whose selflessness has characterised Wales’s progress.
Hal Robson-Kanu doesn’t have a club, having been released by Reading. He had only scored three goals in his first 33 internationals. His role is, essentially, to make runs out to the flank to create space for Bale, which was why he was left out for the game against Northern Ireland, when Wales needed more of a presence in the box.
But on Friday he scored what the future will surely recognise as the most famous goal in Welsh history, a stumbling Cruyff turn taking him away from Marouane Fellaini and Thomas Meunier as Jason Denayer, in a moment of slapstick that summed up Belgium under Marc Wilmots, hurtled by in the background. That Sam Vokes, his deputy, then added the third was even more perfect: this was a night when football rewarded the journeymen who rarely find acclaim.
In 2014, the motto on the Wales badge was amended from “Gorau Chwarae, Cyd Chwarae” (“Best Play is Team Play”) to Together, Stronger, a slogan that might have sounded cheesy, a naff adman’s idea of what team spirit is about if it hadn’t so obviously encapsulated an ethos within the team. The contrast with England is clear. Perhaps it’s inevitable that in a larger nation, when the throughput of players is greater, there will be more divisions and cliques, but it’s still telling that Wales’s players have seemed to grow when they play for the national side while England’s shrink. Against Iceland, a terrified England let an opportunity slide through their fingers. On Friday, Wales felt the moment of destiny and seized it.
Perhaps they will go further. Portugal’s Real Madrid star always seems a little aloof from his team-mates, while Wales’s clearly relishes dragging them to greater heights. Maybe the year that has already given us perhaps the most unlikely Premier League champions will also give us the most unlikely winners of an international tournament. But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Wales and Coleman have already exceeded any realistic expectation.