An Echo & the Bunnymen song. A song title that runs true to its word, and none more so than when it comes to Chris Coleman and his reign as Wales manager. His tenure, which started badly, came better than anyone could ever have imagined, yet finished on a disappointing note.
Upon resigning as Wales manager, Chris Coleman has taken on a poisoned chalice of a job at Sunderland, and I certainly wish him well. I first met Chris at a McDonalds in Copenhagen after a rare Welsh victory abroad in 1997. I sat next to him and we had a conversation about Wales at that moment in time. He was a real gentleman, no prima donna. Chris was also a very good player, who showed sheer determination overcoming a horrendous car crash, and his retirement in 2002 came as a huge loss for Welsh football.
A few years later, I managed to get Chris down to Porthmadog for a Q&A session. Once again he was a gentleman, as he drove all the way from London and back, showing a real human side by giving time to all who attended.
Chris took on the Wales job in the most exceptional of circumstances, when the country suffered the sudden death of then manager, Gary Speed. At the time there was some fans, mostly of Cardiff City descent, who could not accept him due to his birthplace being Swansea. Since his decision to join Sunderland came known, some have seemingly resurrected.
Chris suffered a poor start as Wales manager. Having lost his first five games, culminating in that 6-1 Serbian thrashing at Novi Sad in 2012, he admitted he needed to do it his way from then on.
The vultures were swarming; he looked a beaten man. Fans were split, but after Gareth Bale’s super strike at a sodden Cardiff City Stadium against Scotland in 2012, he celebrated wildly. We soon realised he was one of us; it is one of my best memories of Coleman as manager. It was the moment when it all came together for us.
That goal from Bale was the turning point. We were wet and miserable, Scottish fans were sat amongst us, yet our dampened moods soon turned to ecstasy when the ball flew into the top corner, and the jocks soon disappeared out of sight.
Our form remained up and down, but another win on Scottish soil in a snowy reverse fixture kept Chris on board with the fans. Results were fluctuating between mediocre and bad, culminating in a horror show in Macedonia where we lost 2-1. Chris didn’t help himself, as he nearly never made the trip with his passport being mislaid. Again, some fans were showing signs of disapproval.
The seeds of what was to blossom came with a deserved 1-1 draw against Belgium in October 2013. Harry Wilson came off the bench to become the youngest player to represent Wales at the age of 16 years 207 days. A minute later, Aaron Ramsey equalised and the away end went mental – he and his team were heroes. We never looked back. We were marching towards France and Euro 2016.
I was very fortunate to be in Bosnia to see us qualify and witnessing Coleman celebrating with us at the end was immense. He’d transformed us from perennial losers to Euro 2016 finalists. He’d made grown men cry, as along with about 800 others, I had tears in my eyes and it was down to Chris Coleman, his backroom staff and players.
France itself was a dream, for the old-stagers, qualifying was all we wanted, but to get to the semi-final of a major international tournament was beyond our wildest dreams. But we overachieved, we played well away in Israel, yet stumbled over the line. We then followed that up by playing magnificently in the Russia and Belgium games in France, but the semi-final against Portugal was a game too far.
The World Cup group for Russia 2018 pitted us against Serbia, Austria, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Moldova. Many commentators and fans thought it was an easy group as we weren’t paired with one of the giants of world football, like France or Germany.
We played well in most games but conceded late goals. It seemed that some players thought we could just turn up and trounce to victory. We were lucky to escape with a point at home to Georgia. Chris, for me, was too pragmatic and too loyal to some players. It seemed that the #TogetherStronger hashtag was literally too strong to break.
In the end, despite a late run which saw us put play-off destiny in our own hands, we failed to qualify. A defeat at home to the Irish, followed by a friendly defeat to France and a home draw to Panama saw Chris’ tenure flop at the last.
I genuinely wish Chris would have stayed, as I felt he owed us and himself another campaign, and with the likes of Ethan Ampadu, Ben Woodburn and David Brooks coming through, possibly he would have played a more attacking system and taken Wales on another unforgettable journey.
So, I would like to thank Chris for giving us some fantastic memories, yet the feeling of what might have been remains. As Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen sang:
‘Not the promises of what tomorrow brings
I need to live in dreams today.’