Chris Coleman is set to take charge of his first competitive game at the helm of Wales after what has been a year of hope, heartbreak and resilience for the national team, while maintaining optimism of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Wales are in the midst of one of their most talented generations in recent memory, but after previous manager Gary Speed passed away in November 2011 the Dragons have unsurprisingly been in a state of shock, with Coleman entrusted to steer them through.
It is an unenviable position, but with Wales having one of their best chances to reach their first major finals in over half a century his focus is very much on football, starting with a tough opener in Group A against Belgium.
Coleman spoke to FIFA.com with refreshing honesty following their recent 2-0 friendly defeat by Bosnia-Herzegovina on building a Welsh footballing identity, challenging for qualification and recovering from the loss of Speed.
FIFA.com: Having reflected on the 2-0 friendly defeat by Bosnia-Herzegovina, how do you feel it went?
Chris Coleman: We always want to win, but I think our performance wasn’t what it should have been. There may be reasons for that, but we have to take all the excuses away, we know what we are capable of and we never reached the level that we needed to reach; plenty of food for thought ahead of the Belgium game.
Where do you intend to build from the game, and what were the positives and negatives you took from it?
I only had the guys for two days, a lot of them had played on the weekend, a lot of them have not played any serious games – an hour or 45 minutes in friendlies – so physically most of them are not where they need to be. I think the good thing is that when we play Belgium the season will already be in full swing. We need to start the group well, we start against the favourites for the group, coming off the back of a convincing 4-2 win over the Netherlands. They’re a good team and we’re in good company in this group, we know that, but we also know we’re a good team ourselves when we hit the right notes, but we didn’t do that against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
How are you finding the switch to international management, as it demands quite a different skillset to club management?
I’m finding it difficult as I’m not used to it, I’m used to the day-to-day stuff. I’m used to having my players, seeing them day-to-day, which you don’t do on the international stage. The games are sporadic, you don’t see a lot of the players and when you do come together you are trying to work to a timetable where you are trying to fit in as much as you can without overdoing it so the balance is fine. It’s something I’m trying to get used to as quickly as I can because I need to.
It’s still very early on in your tenure, but how are you finding bringing your own approach to the side?
We’re trying to create an identity for Wales, in a style of play and a philosophy – not just in the first team but all our teams, but that takes time. You have to stick to what you believe in and we’ll do that because you don’t always win and, when you have a tough time and don’t get the performance, you have to stay strong with your beliefs and keep doing what you think is right. To be fair to our players they’ve been through a lot, more than most, because of the unique situation we found ourselves in. That’s obviously the reason why I got the job, but we’ve got a strong group of players and these boys will come good again, I’m sure of that.
The circumstances that you took over in couldn’t have been much worse, how have you approached trying to rebuild the team following such an emotional low?
As much as we possibly can, we have to move on quickly. We are never, ever, ever going to forget Gary, none of us, but at the same time we have to try to move on and keep taking things forward. Sometimes you don’t have the results you want or the performances you want, but you can still be moving forward as a footballing nation top-to-bottom and we’re all working very hard behind the scenes to make sure Welsh football is in the right place. But obviously everybody looks at the first team results and it is has been difficult for our players, the staff and everybody involved at the FAW because of the situation we found ourselves in. There’s been a big hangover, but as quickly as we possibly can we need to keep moving forward, keep ploughing on and stepping up to the mark.
Your FIFA World Cup group is far from an easy one. While lacking maybe a very top-tier team, there is a consistent amount of quality there. What are your expectations and where do you think the challenges are?
Belgium have been through a bit of a barren patch in terms of qualifying for major tournaments, but some years ago they went down into the grassroots of football there and changed the structure and now they’ve been developing and producing different types of players. This new crop of Belgian players is very good and they are a very strong outfit – not just as a starting XI but as a squad, which is important in qualifying campaigns. It’s not like you have four or five games over the space of six weeks, you have ten games over two years and you rarely get the same XI on the pitch, so the more quality you have the smoother the transition. Serbia were at the 2010 World Cup and were a strong team, Croatia have just been at the European Championships and have been qualifying consistently, so they know what it’s all about. Add to that ourselves, Scotland and Macedonia. There isn’t a Holland or an Italy or an England or a Germany, we know that, but nevertheless we’re in strong company.
As you say, Belgium has a great crop of players, but you yourselves have a promising generation in your midst...
Yeah we have, we have some good players. Everybody talks about Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Craig Bellamy and Joe Allen, rightly so because they’re good players, but we have others who are good players too who are just starting now to progress. The point is we need to make sure we don’t just have 11, 12, 13 or 14 players, we need a strong pool of players, 20-odd if we can, that we know we can call on at any time. The higher the level they are playing domestically, the smoother the transition when they come to play for Wales, because the international level is another level again with a different kind of football, pressure and scrutiny.
With it being over half a century since the country last appeared at a FIFA World Cup, does the task become more daunting at all?
The last time we qualified it was through the back door. Since we’ve come really close, we lost to Romania in 1993 – missing a penalty and they scored. So we’ve been very close but we’ve never managed to do it. Sometimes that can add pressure and sometimes it can take it away but there are big expectations on us now, as the boys won four out of five before Gary passed on. So that built up expectations and we’re in the top 40 of the FIFA Rankings, so people expect now and we have to deliver in some capacity.