This week sees a return to international action as the next round of qualifiers for the World Cup looms for the home nations. For most, this should be something to look forward to. For Wales, each game currently provides a feeling of dread – just how bad can this campaign become?
He has barely been in the job a year, but it is already becoming abundantly clear to anyone that’s seen Wales lately that Chris Coleman is not the man to build on the late Gary Speed’s foundations. The humiliating 6-1 defeat in Serbia was a natural result of Coleman’s failure from day 1 to in any way connect with the promising crop of players at his disposal. Today, his poor man-management skills have resulted in Aaron Ramsey being stripped of the Welsh captaincy – a player that has never let the country down in the 18 months he’s held the position. He was poor in the Serbia game, yes. But so were the majority of Welshmen on display.
Coleman’s explanation for handing the armband to Ashley Williams, suggesting that Ramsey has buckled under the pressure of the role, seems odd given that prior to Coleman’s arrival there were few issues. In Ramsey, the youngest ever captain, they have a player ideally placed to provide stability to that role for years to come. Attached to Coleman’s comment that “We need to go in another direction because what we have been doing has not been working”, the implication is that Coleman is placing responsibility for the recent failure squarely at Ramsey. That’s not only likely to anger one of the team’s rising stars, it’s also deeply unfair.
There is no denying the fact that Coleman arrived in difficult circumstances. Speed’s death came as a shock to everyone in football, and would have been felt particularly among the Wales squad. It is therefore understandable that the team has needed some time to recover. But even taking that into account, the results in Coleman’s reign to date have been extremely disappointing. Friendly defeats to Costa Rica, Mexico and Bosnia preceded the World Cup qualifying defeat to an admittedly decent Belgium side. Then came the horror show in Belgrade.
Speed’s last games in charge saw a win in Bulgaria followed by an excellent 4-1 win over Norway. The key question is this: do people truly think that Chris Coleman is capable of getting Wales back to the level they were at a year ago?
He was, not even in retrospect, a poor appointment by the Welsh FA, having a managerial CV littered with mediocrity. He had an impressive debut season with Fulham, leading a team that included Van der Sar, Saha and Malbranque to 9th, but since then his career has hit a downward trend. He lasted 6 months at Real Sociedad, was sacked after a dismal spell at Coventry, before restoring some form of basic credibility with a spell at Greek side Larissa – where he managed to survive a good 7 months without being sacked.
The Welsh FA have a frustratingly backward view on managerial appointments. First and foremost is their obsession with appointing a Welshman for the job – which already restricts options considerably due to the size of Wales and the paucity of Welsh managers. It’s almost certain that no foreign managers were seriously being considered for the role after Speed – which is why you ended up with a shortlist that appeared to include John Hartson (then coaching part-time with Newport) and Ian Rush (Chester manager 2004-05, nothing since). Coleman might be considered the ‘best of a bad bunch’ – in reality, he was the best of a Welsh bunch. No wonder players such as Ramsey had been attempting to have a say on the appointment process.
The same approach applied when Speed was handed the role, with the difference that he had such a short managerial record that you genuinely didn’t know how he would fare. He had been thrown into the Sheffield United job a few weeks into the season, and though at the time his departure from Bramall Lane wasn’t completely opposed by fans, the sight of what immediately followed under Micky Adams suggested he’d done a better job than most had assumed at the time.
The Welsh FA were fortunate, as they were with Mark Hughes – Speed got Wales playing some excellent football. Their lack of willingness to consider foreign candidates to continue the foundations he built was baffling. Especially when they only need look at the rugby team to see how well a non-Welshman can fare, as Warren Gatland steered the team to two Grand Slams, and were unfortunate to miss out on the World Cup final last year. A quick glance Westwards at what Trappatoni has been able to do with the Republic of Ireland should also serve as a wake-up call. A natural person for the job could have been Speed’s main coach, Raymond Verheijen – who had been mentored by Gus Hiddink and was largely credited with the development of the team under Speed. After initial signs he would be kept on by Coleman, he was move on and is now assistant at Armenia. Someone like Michael Laudrup was available last January – he’s now impressing at Swansea, a club that have had absolutely no issue at all in appointing foreign managers.
Wales should be an attractive proposition for an experienced and talented manager – they should not have to continue scraping the barrel with untested choices who must have ties to Wales. Expectation levels are low, with Wales not qualifying for a single tournament since the 1976 European Championships in Yugoslavia. The current squad are also arguably the most talented crop of players in years.
Consider the team that Mark Hughes took to 2nd place – the line-up in the 2-1 win over Italy in 2002 was as follows:
Delaney (Villa) Melville (Fulham) Gabbidon (Cardiff) Speed (Newcastle)
Bellamy (Newcastle) Davies (Fulham) Savage (Birmingham) Pembridge (Everton) Giggs (Man Utd) Hartson (Celtic)
Subs: Earnshaw (Cardiff), Weston (Cardiff), Page (Sheffield Utd), Johnson (WBA), Legg (Cardiff), Robinson (Wolves), Crossley (Middlesbrough)
It’s fair to say that Hughes got that team playing above the level expected of them. The squad was littered with battlers, and a number of players from Lennie Lawrence’s Cardiff team seeking promotion from what is now League 1. Speed was forced to play at left-back for most of the campaign, with no other credible options there.
Compare this to the team that was thrashed in Serbia:
Gunter (Reading) Blake (Palace) Williams (Swansea) Matthews (Celtic)
Edwards (Wolves) Allen (Liverpool) Ramsey (Arsenal) Bale (Spurs)
Morison (Norwich) Church (Reading)
Subs: Brown (Aberdeen), Davies (Swansea), Ricketts (Bolton), Richards (Swansea), Vaughan (Sunderland), King (Leicester), Earnshaw (Cardiff), Vokes (Burnley), Williams (Palace), Robson-Kanu (Reading), Price (Palace)
The current team is younger, certainly. But in some areas, particularly the midfield, it’s arguably a more promising team. Up front, neither Morison nor Church are as physically daunting as Hartson, but both play regular Premiership football. Virtually all the team play in teams that play attractive styles of football.
Speed was no miracle worker. He took a talented group of players and played a style that allowed them to play to their ability. Rather than bring someone in to get them exceeding expectations, Wales simply need someone to get them meeting what they are capable of producing.
Wales are limping inevitably towards group failure and the future looks equally as bleak – a long, protracted spell of humiliation under Coleman before the inevitable parting of ways. With nothing to lose it’s time for the Welsh FA to provide decisive leadership rather than simply preside over the decline. The first step must be to look outside the borders and find someone with the right talent and experience – rather than the ability to sing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – to bring some pride back to Welsh football.
Written by @josephclift