Coleman Deserves Credit For Getting Tottenham Hotspur's Bale To Play Like Maradona
When Argentina beat West Germany 3-2 to win the World Cup in 1986, they owed their success to one man who carried them through the whole tournament on his own, Diego Maradona. Seldom had one man ever transformed the fortunes of what was a good, solid international team, into one that ended up ruling the world. I remember Maradona’s performances like it was yesterday, incredible goals against Italy, England and Belgium had catapulted his team into a final that without him, they simply wouldn’t have got near. He was almost unplayable.
I was reminded of Maradona when I watched Gareth Bale shatter Scottish hearts in the final minutes of a pulsating World Cup Qualifier in Cardiff last night. Bale was simply irresistible, and showing the class of Maradona, he refused to be denied, scoring the Welsh winner from a wonder strike with just a minute to go. Scotland died there and then. And if they lose to Belgium on Tuesday night, most probably, so will their qualification hopes.
This game was always going to be about the managers more than the players. Craig Levein, under pressure from Scottish fans for many months, largely for his pragmatic approach to the game – once picking a team with no striker – and for the stuttering start to the qualification campaign, and Chris Coleman, under pressure for slightly more complex reasons.
It’s when the weeds are tangled around your ankles that true strength is displayed, and Coleman displayed his strength last night
Coleman would not be manager of Wales now if Gary Speed was still with us. He knows that, we know that and he has suffered from day one because of that. His first game in charge was Speed’s memorial match. I was there and Wales lost. It was a weird night, the football was almost an irrelevance compared to the occasion which was all about remembering Speed. It is very harsh to include that game as part of Coleman’s record, but the critics have. Two friendlies followed, one in oppressive heat against a talented Mexico side in New York at the end of a hard season, another on a wet night in Llanelli in the middle of the following pre-season. Again, hardly games to judge him on. But two defeats saw the pressure was building.
Belgium were next and came to Cardiff with the reputation of, potentially, being on the verge of a golden era. I’m not saying Wales would have won the game, but they would not have lost two-nil if James Collins hadn’t had his rush of blood which saw Wales play for an hour with ten men against a very talented team. But then came Serbia, a 6-1 defeat, and a whole bucket load of pressure pouring down on Coleman. It was that performance that saw the critics trawl back through all the games I mention above and come up with the view that Coleman couldn’t quite cut the mustard. Apologies for that.
I like to judge people when the stakes and the pressure are at the very highest. It’s easy to achieve when things are going well and everything in the garden is rosy, it’s when the weeds are tangled around your ankles that true strength is displayed, and Coleman displayed his strength last night. Under the most enormous pressure, the easiest thing in the world would have been for him to pass on his nervousness – if he had any – onto his players, and make them anxious and edgy. Instead, he sent them out there to be positive, brave, and to stick to their principles of passing and playing to feet, and backing his team to be better than the opponents they were facing. If Wales could do that, they would win, was the basic pre match message from Coleman.
At times, Wales were a revelation, in awful conditions, they strung passes together for fun, surely just waiting for the chance to come. When it came, it looked easier to miss, and if that is the case, then Steve Morrison took the easy option as he guided his header agonisingly beyond the post. As is often the case in top level football, you will be made to pay for profligacy in front of goal, and Scotland did that within 30 seconds, after the Wales defence failed to cover behind their captain, Ashley Williams, when he challenged Fletcher for the long ball, and with nobody tracking Morrison, he ran on to score. One – nil down, against the run of play, I looked at Coleman and felt sorry for him. Was it going to be one of those nights? Thanks to Gareth Bale it was not.
Maradona like, Bale willed Wales to victory
In the second half, Bale managed to up his performance from an excellent first half effort to one bordering the exceptional, and tore the unfortunate Danny Fox to shreds, as, Maradona like, Bale willed Wales to victory. His team mates followed suit in that second half, led impressively by Ashley Williams, again a rock in central defence, through the hard working midfield of Vaughan, Allen and Ramsay, up to first Morison and then his impressive replacement, Craig Davies. As the second half developed, there was a growing feeling that Wales would not be denied. It was this commitment, of chasing a game that they refused to give up on, that should lead all the criticism of Coleman to stop, understand what the significance of this performance in terms of his tenure as manager was, and get behind him and the players for Tuesday’s challenge in Croatia.
The success of a football manager for me is often how his players approach the game. If it is lacklustre and careless, there’s a chance he’s lost them. If it’s hard working and dynamic, it usually means they are playing for him. In a second half, under the intense pressure of a clock ticking down on their qualification hopes after just three games, Wales were hard working and dynamic, and in Bale they had a player as good as anyone in Great Britain at this moment. This was a team clearly playing for its manager, plainly desperate to deliver a result for him. In the last ten minutes, Bale simply wouldn’t be denied, popping up even at right back to get the ball, he wanted it at every opportunity, just like Maradona did in ‘86. When his final chance came, after Charlie Adam inexplicably allowed him 20 yards to run into, his finish, was more than sublime, it was simply magnificent.
I’m not saying that Wales are going to win the World Cup like Argentina did. Well not yet anyway. But what I am saying is that Wales have a more than solid football team at the moment, with players of genuine Premier League quality in key areas, and on top of that possess one of borderline genius. And that genius clearly wants his country to go places and continually shows the passion and appetite to deliver it. If Bale didn’t believe in his manager, he wouldn’t perform like that, and that may be Chris Coleman’s biggest triumph from last night. He got Gareth Bale wanting to play like the world beater he is, wanting to take responsibility and wanting to win the game for his country. Coleman deserves great credit for that, and also now the time to deliver his own era for this Welsh team, and stop being reminded of the Gary Speed era he inherited.
Croatia away will tell us a little more of what the Coleman era can be, but he will know that with Bale in his side, they’ll be worrying about Wales more than Wales will be worrying about Croatia. Time will tell if Bale can deliver again. I for one won’t be betting against it.
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