A feature on Wales as they return to 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying in Serbia.
Manager Chris Coleman returns to Serbia with his Wales squad this weekend for a crucial match in their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. The last time his team embarked on such a mission they returned home humbled and embarrassed as the hosts claimed a 6-1 victory back in September 2012.
However, due to the manner of the defeat it proved to be a defining match for Coleman and his golden generation. Desperate times require drastic action, and the performance and scoreline confirmed to Coleman that in order to give himself any chance of succeeding in his dream job he would need to do things his way.
It was a difficult decision to take from both a personal and professional point of view. Coleman had been appointed as the man to succeed the late Gary Speed in January 2012 and with it take forward the signs of progress that Speed had been responsible for prior to his untimely passing.
A close friend of Speed and an admirer of his work with the national team, Coleman was loathed to make huge changes in the wake of such a tragedy, but it proved impossible for him to finish another man’s project when he had no influence over it’s blueprint and direction.
One month after the defeat, Ashley Williams replaced Aaron Ramsey as captain, and Coleman began to work on a new tactical system to bring the best out of the limited pool of players he had at his disposal. Speed had made a statement about his long-term plans for the side by appointing Aaron Ramsey as the youngest-ever Wales captain not long after his 20th birthday.
— Wales (@FAWales) June 5, 2017
Ramsey, like Speed, was a talented midfield playmaker matched by a strong work ethic and a combative and tenacious streak. Williams, like Coleman, was a central defender, an older and more experienced figure more suited in the manager’s vision to lead his side through the transitional time ahead.
Although disappointed, Ramsey played without the shackles of the extra responsibility in the coming months, while Coleman began to shape a side that would eventually progress to the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2016. Such an achievement was unthinkable when Serbia scored six on that miserable night in Novi Sad, but it became very real as Wales made a huge impression on the tournament in France last summer.
Coleman and his players had been vindicated, but whenever the talk turned to reflecting on how far this team had come, the example used was always that defeat in Serbia. It was the lowest point in Coleman’s tenure, but in hindsight it proved to his most positive experience, as without it we may never have seen his Wales side shine on the biggest stage.
The efforts of Wales at UEFA EURO 2016 are well-documented, and the memories are headlined by the ‘Together, Stronger’ strapline that followed them throughout the campaign. The bond with the supporters that had travelled to France in their thousands. The bond with each other, with the management and the staff. The bond with their country and with the badge.
It was all too obvious, and the more this natural enthusiasm and honesty shone through, the more it highlighted the failings of other nations fighting against hidden internal agendas and low morale. “Oh what a night,” Joe Allen said to me immediately after Wales had defeated Russia in Toulouse to win the group. “What a night. It’s one I’ll never forget and it’s a special moment for Welsh football.”
One year on, Joe Allen sat in front of the assembled Welsh football press and media on Thursday this week with the same composure that has enabled him to control the midfield for club and country over the last few years. Calm and collected, just as he is in possession, even when under pressure.
— Mark Pitman (@UEFAcomMPitman) June 8, 2017
Allen answered a string of questions ranging from the absence of the suspended Gareth Bale to the importance of the result on the future of manager Chris Coleman with the ease of delivering a defence-splitting pass. It was another effortless performance from Allen in a position that can take many players out of their comfort zone. Intelligent and articulate, Allen discussed a range of topics in both English and Welsh. Then the subject turned to that night in Novi Sad.
Allen reacted with an instant acknowledgement upon the mention of the Serbian city. “I think that scarred anyone who was involved in that game,” he responded. But as he continued, the pauses became longer as the memories returned. “It scarred us. For me, it was the worst night in a Welsh shirt. I think the great thing about going back out there and having another chance is that we can see how far we’ve come. Some of the lads are obviously still in the squad, some of us are new players, but we’re a million miles away from the team that turned out that night.”
Wales’ success in recent years has brought back many memories of that night in Novi Sad, but Sunday offers the opportunity for redemption, the chance to finally exorcise the ghosts of a performance and result that changed the direction of the national team. For very different reasons, the importance of Sunday’s fixture could prove equally important.
While the severity of defeat forced Coleman and Wales to change course, a victory in this latest fixture could easily change the course of the group with four matches left to play later in the year. Wales will need to do it without the suspended Gareth Bale, but such a situation is rare, and Serbia will have little insight into how Wales may setup and play without their talisman.
A new hero will need to emerge if Wales to keep in with the leading pack, but the side remain undefeated, and avenging that night in Novi Sad this weekend would provide a vital boost to their qualification chances at a crucial stage in the campaign.