Even if Cardiff goes into meltdown tonight, Chris Coleman has vowed not to produce his guitar to contribute to impromptu concerts that will break out across the country. When he played with Wales, he often formed part of a double act after matches when the national football team generally had nothing much to celebrate.
“Me and Speed,” he recalled before taking his team through a final training session on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in the city.
“He’d sing and I’d play. Sometimes vice versa. But if you heard me playing guitar it sounds like I am playing with a pair of boxing gloves.”
The figure of Gary Speed will always be in the background of the stunning transformation in belief and fortune that Wales have enjoyed under Coleman. In the space of four years and with zero public confidence in his ability, he has resurrected a dormant football tradition.
Coleman’s managerial career appeared to be in decline when Speed tragically took his own life in November of 2011. By then, Coleman had gone from managing Fulham in the Premier League to Real Sociedad to managing AEL in the Greek second division. He resigned that position in January 2012 and was then invited to step into the void that Speed’s death had left in Welsh football.
The local and national football fraternity were still grieving, as was Coleman. He would later say that he felt that “ a lot of people didn’t want me or like me” during his first month in charge and a bruising learning period, culminating in a traumatic 6-1 thrashing by Serbia in Novi Sad, ushered in calls for his dismissal.
It was after that lesson that he realised he had to begin coaching the team his way rather than trying to continue to manage as he felt Speed would have done. He went his own way and Wales haven’t looked back.
Qualification for last summer’s European Championships and the uninhibited and joyful style of play which took the Welsh to the semi-finals has rendered that excruciating evening nothing more than a reference point as to how far Wales have travelled.
Tonight, Coleman stands on the threshold of a momentous sporting occasion for Wales as a nation and, as the sun shone across the capital, he couldn’t have seemed more carefree.
“It is not relaxed as in we are a bit flippant. On the contrary. But it is business as usual. Three of four games ago it looked unlikely but we showed great resilience and the players have put us there. I would be surprised if it was like a Premier league game, when some top boys play lots of possession. I think it will be toe-to-toe and end to end. The sets of players in both teams are similar.
“And there will be contact. I don’t think it will be like one of those fights were we jab at each other. I think we will go for it. To represent your country is the biggest honour and that should never change regardless of who you are playing. I can forgive our players for anything but I can’t forgive them for not emptying themselves.”
The message is clear: expect a ferocious 90 minutes that will be even more super-charged with tension than the ugly night in Dublin when the visitors set the tone for an tough encounter defined by the terrible tackle on Ireland captain Seamus Coleman by Neil Taylor.
Coleman said before that game that he expected it be a typical encounter between two “British teams” – a term which caused some to take exception. Coleman’s father is Irish and he has often spoken of his fondness for the place; he was far from unaware of the distinction.
“Anyone with half a brain would have known what I meant. When we play against each other we are always going to go at each other.”
But he doesn’t expect that the heavy tension and edginess on the field after Coleman was stretchered off in Dublin will be revitalised here.
“No, I don’t think it will have a bearing. It will be similar in that the two sets of players are alike, with lots of contact, I imagine. It was a physical game over there and unfortunate with Seamus and Everton. It was a horrible situation for Seamus mainly and I believe he is not far off coming back. Ashley Williams speaks very well of him. For us there won’t be a mention of that. I can’t tell you about the Republic but there won’t be any talk about it from us.”
Minutes after Wales defeated Belgium 3-1 in the quarter finals of the European championships, Coleman tapped into the new mood of Welsh self-belief in a BBC television interview in which he told his country: “Don’t be afraid to dream. If you work hard enough and you are not afraid of dreaming and not afraid of failing.”
The message has carried through to this campaign in which Wales have been obdurate more than inspirational but could still end up topping the group if they can beat Ireland. For Coleman, that fearlessness of ambition will underline the team’s attitude as they prepare for what could be another transformative match for the Welsh national esteem.
“I’ve seen the other side more times than I’ve seen this. All eyes are on you and everything to play for. Up to two years ago we had never been anywhere near that and now we are. There is nothing to fear. Nothing to worry about. The occasion is what it is. We have a game plan, we always have a game plan and our players are very good at executing it. You are not guaranteed to win but you have to enjoy this: playing in Cardiff, full house. It is our home.”