Chris Coleman has made two first walks into the Dragons’ den – with Wales in consequentially contrasting states.
As a 21-year-old defender in 1992, his celebrated company included Neville Southall, Gary Speed, Dean Saunders, Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs, who between them had represented Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Everton, Juventus and Liverpool. Wales were top-30 regulars on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
As a 42-year-old manager in 2012, his pupils were schooled at the likes of Aberdeen, Blackpool, Leicester City, Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Coleman’s debut ended in a 2-0 defeat by Mexico in New Jersey. Wales lost their next two matches without scoring a goal, the second of which was a home loss to Belgium in their opening FIFA World Cup™ qualifier. A 6-1 thumping by Serbia followed in their next. By December 2012, Wales had plummeted to 82nd on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – beneath the likes of Albania, Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala and Sierra Leone.
2013 was a significantly superior year for the Welsh, with Bale, who during it became the world’s most expensive footballer, and Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey playing more regularly. It included a 2-1 win over Austria decorated by a sublime goal from the soon-to-be Real Madrid attacker, a come-from-behind 2-1 win in Scotland and an uplifting 1-1 draw away to Belgium.
Wales nevertheless began UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying as outsiders. Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel were the top three seeds in Group B, which also comprised Cyprus and Andorra and offered two automatic tickets to France. The Dragons are, nonetheless, firmly en route to seizing one of them.
After a Bale double helped them eke out a 2-1 win high in the east Pyrenees in their curtain-raiser, Wales drew 0-0 at home to Bosnia-Herzegovina and edged visiting Cyprus. Then came an acid test in Belgium. It was one Wales unexpectedly passed with a goalless draw in which Bale tormented his adversaries throughout. Even better was to come. Wales returned from their last qualifier at the end of March with a 3-0 win away to then section leaders Israel, a Ramsey header preceding another Bale brace. “What a performance from the lads,” gushed Bale.
That result left Wales having lost just once in 18 months, and elevated them level on points with new Group B pacesetters Belgium – and, crucially, with assignments in Brussels and Haifa behind them.
It also ensured they pocketed a whopping 153 points on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, rocketing them above Ghana, Russia, Sweden and USA and up 15 places to 22nd – five spots above the hitherto national best achieved when Giggs, Hughes, Rush and Co had them on the cusp of reaching the 1994 World Cup. Bale could not contain his delight on Twitter:
— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) April 9, 2015
Fullback Chris Gunter added: "It's a fantastic achievement and if it's the highest ever then it shows we're doing something right. We probably deserve to be there and we're on a good run. But as high as we are in the rankings, we want to make sure that come next October we're where we want to be.”
Coleman has already helped the class he teaches to surpass the one in which he was an intimidated student on the global ladder. Can he mastermind another eclipse of that memorable Welsh side and lead the country into a major finals for the first time since 1958?