Marc Davies reviews a traumatic recent few months for the Welsh National side
27th of November 2011 will forever be sadly remembered as a day of mourning for everybody associated with Welsh football, a day that one of the Nation’s legends cruelly passed away. The consequence of Gary Speed’s death has since had a dreadful effect on the Welsh National side, so much so that the optimistic expectations of a talented side gathered by Speed seem to have died along with the great man himself.
The appointment of Speed as Wales manager on December 14th 2010 was originally met with mixed reactions, especially as he had beaten several other considerably more experienced managers to the role. At the age of 41 Speed had just retired as a player and was appointed manager of Sheffield United only four months before being appointed as manager of his country, leaving the Blades just one point and two spots above the Championship bottom three having lost half of his 18 games in charge at Bramall Lane. However there was a sense of optimism that Speed would become an inspirational figure to the young Welsh squad with the hope of being able to unify a team left in tatters by previous manager John Toshack.
Speed’s reign as Wales manager started off miserably after suffering four defeats in his first five games in charge which saw Wales plummet to their lowest ever FIFA ranking at 117th and rock bottom of their European Championships qualifying group. However Speed finally managed to produce his magic after winning four of his next five games in charge and only narrowly losing 1-0 at Wembley against England after a spirited display from his side. Wales’ fortunes dramatically improved following this good run as they became the biggest movers in the 2011 FIFA rankings after leaping up a massive 72 places into 45th spot, while they also managed to climb away from bottom spot to finish fourth in their European Championships qualifying group. This great run of form built up hopes of Wales qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 53 years and expectations were high after Wales were drawn in a relatively decent qualifying group for the 2014 competition in Brazil. Things seemed to have finally fallen into place for a talented Welsh side that was managed by a bright up and coming manager along with coach Osian Roberts and the highly rated assistant manager Raymond Verheijen. This was certainly the case before tragedy occurred on 27th of November 2011.
Words can’t begin to explain the devastating shock that was caused by Speed’s death, but one thing that’s certain is the catastrophic effect it’s had on the Wales team. The unity and understanding developed with the squad and management soon came to an end as cracks began to appear in the aftermath of Speed’s death. The Football Association of Wales bosses didn’t take too kindly towards quotes attributed to Speed’s Assistant, Raymond Verheijen, who publicly announced his wish to be appointed Wales manager after claiming that it would have been Speed’s wish for his right hand man to take over along with coach Osian Roberts. This was a view echoed by Wales captain Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale who publicly announced that it was the squad’s wish to see Speed’s legacy continue under Verheijen and Roberts after pleading with the FAW bosses to avoid tinkering with the coaching set-up and ensure that unity and continuity were still intact. Many warmed to this idea along with the suggestion of adding a figurehead appointment in the form of Ryan Giggs or Ian Rush to accompany the existing coaching team left by Speed. However the FAW ultimately opposed these proposals and appointed Chris Coleman.
Similar to Gary Speed, the appointment of Coleman as Wales Manager on January 19th 2012 was originally met with mixed reaction although the latter did hold more managerial experience. Despite this it must be stressed that Coleman’s relatively successful spell as Fulham manager was tampered with unsuccessful spells as manager of Real Sociedad, Coventry City and Greek side Larissa thus causing many Welsh supporters to believe that this was a backwards step for Wales. Even more crucially was Coleman’s wish to appoint his own assistant by recruiting fellow ex-Wales defender Kit Symons as his right hand man – a move which ultimately led to Verheijen ending his involvement with the Welsh national side. This moved led to condemnation from many, none more so than captain Aaron Ramsey, as cracks started to show even before a ball had been kicked in anger during Coleman’s reign. Ramsey’s fierce support for Verheijen led to showdown talks between himself and Coleman as doubts began to circulate over Coleman’s backing for Ramsey’s role as Wales captain. Although Ramsey managed to keep the captaincy, the damage had already been done as it became evident that the Wales skipper didn’t see eye to eye with the new Wales boss.
There was further controversy with Coleman’s public condemnation of four of his first team players being chosen to represent the Great Britain men’s football team at the 2012 London Olympics which further looked to have damaged the unity between the Welsh management and squad. Many also questioned Coleman’s attempts to persuade Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross to pledge his alliances to the Welsh National team despite his previous dreadful challenge on Aaron Ramsey in a Premier League game which left the Welsh captain with a broken leg. Although Coleman’s overall intention may have been a positive move to strengthen Wales’ squad, his decision to recruit Shawcross could have potentially added unnecessary tensions within the squad given the player’s past dark encounter with the Welsh captain. Coleman to his credit did proceed to discuss the matter with Ramsey who (whether reluctantly or not) admitted no ill feelings towards the possible Shawcross recruitment. Shawcross ultimately chose to reject Coleman’s offer meaning that any potential disharmony within the Welsh squad was avoided.
Despite Verheijen’s exit, Coleman elected to keep Osian Roberts as coach and temporarily allowed him to take charge of team affairs for the memorial game scheduled against Costa Rica in tribute to the late great Gary Speed. While the 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica was understandable due to the emotional circumstances surrounding the match itself, the 2-0 defeats in the following two friendlies against Mexico and Bosnia and Herzegovina were certainly of great concern. The performances by the Welsh side were very disjointed and lacklustre and offered no hope or optimism ahead of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. As feared, Wales’ woeful form continued into the qualifiers with a yet another 2-0 reversal at home to Belgium which was followed by a humiliating 6-1 hammering away to Serbia as Wales recorded their worst defeat in 16 years. This has ultimately left Wales facing a near impossible task of qualifying for the World Cup and has led them to fall down 12 places to 57th in the FIFA World rankings.
It’s incredible to see just how much things have changed for Wales in a space of less than a year. Having finally discovered a winning formula and the confidence to become a force again, it would be fair to suggest that recent events have seen the national side fall from grace in the most painful fashion possible. It will take time again for the squad to re-discover the confidence and unity they possessed under Speed, but whether Coleman will have the time to sort things out is up to debate. How Wales fare in their next round of World Cup qualifiers against Scotland and Croatia may go a long way to determine whether Coleman has a future or not as Wales manager. Right now the future looks bleak for Welsh football and Coleman may need to change his ways as well as recording victories before things can start to brighten up again.