A feature on Chris Coleman and Wales ahead of the crucial EURO 2016 qualifier against Israel.
Edged out by a single goal over 180-minutes of football and a lingering controversy over a failed drug test, the EURO 2004 qualifiers proved to be memorable for Wales, but for all the wrong reasons. Beaten in a play-off by Russia, Mark Hughes’ side failed to build on the 0-0 draw earned in Moscow as a solitary header from Vadim Evseev at the Millennium Stadium booked the Soviets a place at the finals in Portugal and brought an accelerated end to another era of disappointment for Wales and their under-achieving star names. Fifteen years later, current boss Chris Coleman has reflected on that fixture ahead of his teams upcoming crucial qualifier against Israel in Haifa. “This next game is the biggest we’ve had in Welsh football for almost fifteen years,” said Coleman has he announced his squad to the assembled press and media on Wednesday. “It’s that simple. Top against second. The next two games will dictate whether we are going for the top two or fighting for the third spot. It’s huge.”
Coleman took charge of Wales just over three years ago having succeeded the late Gary Speed. The circumstances of his appointment brought a sombre approach to the early days of his tenure, but having since ridden a seemingly endless storm, he now finds himself on the crest of a wave. Coleman has never had it so good, and his undefeated team currently sit on the tail of group leaders Israel ahead of this much-anticipated fixture. With two wins and two draws from their opening four games, the atmosphere around team Wales has changed significantly from the last failed campaign, and there is a feeling of natural excitement and optimism surrounding every press conference, when previously there had been nothing but tension and trepidation. Meeting the media to announce his squad earlier this week, the feeling of togetherness and a will to achieve a common ambition was more than apparent, and Coleman’s emphasis on the importance of the next match served only to add to the excitement of what his team can potentially achieve.
The play-off against Russia in November 2003 was a make-or-break match for Wales, and represented the last chance for the majority of a much-heralded generation to finally represent their country at a major tournament. However, signs of an impending and eventual failure were clear long before the final whistle. This was Mark Hughes’ second qualifying campaign, the first (World Cup 2002) had been used to pick up the pieces from the failed Bobby Gould era and proved to be quite a steep and miserable learning curve. However, Hughes was in his first managerial post, and the experience proved to be a highly educational one. A key result in the EURO 2004 campaign was the opening one, a 2-0 win in Finland. It was a huge boost and off the field it helped ensure a full Millennium Stadium would welcome Italy in the next match. On the field, the result in Finland helped to inspire belief that the emotive Italians could be beaten, and they subsequently were in one of the most famous international fixtures in recent Welsh football history. It meant that Wales would head into a double-header against minnows Azerbaijan on the back of two wins, and there was no surprise that another two wins followed.
Wales had a talented squad at that time, Mark Hughes was a welcome change from Bobby Gould, and the side had some serious momentum heading into the second half of the campaign. But momentum can work two ways. Serbia and Italy away would follow, two difficult fixtures, two defeats. Two points were considered dropped at home against Finland before Serbia claimed a 3-2 win at the Millennium Stadium to round-off the campaign. The opening four games were built upon positive momentum, the opposite applied to the final four. When assessing the group, it is worth remembering that this was Mark Hughes’ first managerial job, and with international fixtures few and far between, his education would prove to be a slow one. Hughes is now an accomplished club manager, and he continues to enjoy a career at the highest level, but at that time he may have lacked the managerial knowledge and know-how to recognise a problem and turn things around, especially when things had been moving forward so well. It is easier to maintain momentum than to reverse it.
But while Coleman’s comparisons for the match against Israel are based upon the importance of the 90-minutes, the same will apply when Belgium arrive in Cardiff for the qualifier in June, regardless of the result in Haifa. Win, lose or draw, Coleman will have little option but to re-emphasise the importance of the next fixture, just has he has done this time around. Look ahead to the remaining fixtures in September and October, and a pattern of importance starts to emerge. However, there is a key difference between this campaign and the experiences of EURO 2004, and it is this key difference that inspires the combined belief and unified optimism across the Welsh football press and public. For this campaign is built upon younger players with experience ahead of their years, while their EURO 2004 predecessors represented an imbalanced mix of veterans and youth, with a history of sporadic availability and a proven track record of specialising in failure.
While the play-off against Russia was a make-or-break double-header for Mark Hughes and Wales, the same cannot be said for Chris Coleman and his current crop of players. While there are obvious mathematical reasons to support the price of importance the manager has placed upon the fixture, Coleman has also taken advantage of the window of opportunity offered on him to build upon the current positive momentum without fear of personal pressure should his side fail to produce a result. Israel are top of the group on merit, with three wins from their opening three games, but Coleman is more than aware of the strengths of his team and he will have every confidence that his players are capable of bursting the Israeli bubble. Emphasising the importance of a fixture in the build-up to the match can often be seen as a manager setting himself up for a fall, but regardless of the result, the campaign remains in Wales’ hands, and the momentum carries onto Belgium in June irrespective. “I’ve never been one for mind games,” added Coleman on Wednesday. If he’s to be believed, then Wales really do have every right to believe.