Why Chris Coleman chose Sunderland and what happens next: The inside story
'Don't be afraid to have dreams.
“Four years ago I was as far away from this as you can possibly imagine but look what’s happened. If you work hard enough, and you’re not afraid to dream, and you’re not afraid to fail, because everybody fails, and I tell you I’ve had more failures than successes. But if you're not afraid to fail, then every now and then…
“Well I can’t say that, this has never happened to me! But we’re enjoying it and we deserve it.”
Nothing summed up Chris Coleman’s spectacular journey from manager on the brink to national hero and statesman than this address of sparkling eloquence, delivered just moments after a dizzying 3-1 win over Belgium in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
Coleman had taken the job in the worst possible circumstances, following the death of the universally adored Gary Speed. For a while, and by his own admission, he floundered.
Too cautious, too reluctant to put his own stamp on the team.
By the time he was asked to address a startled, giddy nation after taking apart one of Europe’s most talented squads, he was almost walking on air.
Even if the World Cup qualifying campaign that followed faltered, his final game against Panama was dominated with chants from fans from pleading with him to stay. Players queued up to tell the press how desperate they were for him to continue, a not too subtle pointer for the FAW powerbrokers to ensure pen was put to paper.
So why Sunderland?
It has been the question on everybody’s lips since news broke on Friday night that we would indeed bring his six-year tenure at the helm of the national side to an end.
The assumption had been that he and the FAW would compromise on demands for investment in facilities and permanent contracts for backroom staff. Coleman himself would have been more than happy to carry on in a job that had launched him back into the spotlight.
Were he to leave, conventional wisdom (backed up by Coleman himself) was that he would look to pursue his aspirations of managing in continental competition abroad.
To pick the Championship’s basement club, where the squad is unbalanced, morale low and finances tight, baffled many.
Coleman, however, sees the opportunity. The opportunity to pick a club up from its lowest ebb, to start from the bottom and build something as he did at Wales.
He will be well paid, yes, more so than he would have been had he stayed in post, but then he would have been had he taken the chance to move to the Premier League last season, when both Hull and Swansea City were keen to bring him in.
He rebuffed both, as he did with Rangers this week.
His career has never followed a conventional path, and this next step is no different.
The problems are myriad at Sunderland and Coleman arrives with his eyes wide open. He has been keen to get back into club management, however, and privately has brushed aside suggestions that anyone is doomed to failure on Wearside.
The facilities on offer far surpass anything he has to work with at club level in the past and after six transformative years with Wales, there is a sense that he is a manager at the peak of his abilities.
While financial realities and a squad still suffering from a Premier League hangover mean a Roy Keane style sweep up the league is unlikely in the extreme, Coleman privately believes he can achieve something special on a longer time scale, with his contract likely to run until the end of the 2020 season.
Sunderland supporters have been bruised by negativity from the dug-out in recent years but whatever happens, and there are no guarantees Coleman will succeed, he is not one to deal in excuses or downbeat demeanor.
While many think he has picked up the poisoned chalice, Coleman believes he has been given a unique opportunity to pick a giant up from the floor.
The hierarchy at the Stadium of Light are thrilled.
When they set out on their managerial search they were looking primarily for two things. One, the personality and charisma to lift the mood of a city and a club that had understandably flatlined.
Second, the coaching ability to turn around a wretched defensive record in the short and long-term.
Paul Heckingbottom was seriously considered. Fans wondered whether he offered much different to Simon Grayson but part of the reason why he enjoys such a strong reputation in the game is the scale of the work he has done at Barnsley. Not just on the training pitch, but in the modernisation of the club’s recruitment strategies. His stamp covers every element of the operation at Oakwell. His time will come somewhere.
Michael O’Neill also fitted the bill, but he gave off the impression that he was waiting for something better. Scotland are hovering and the man himself may yet be considered for Premier League roles in the near future. There may soon be a vacancy at West Brom, where a gaggle of his Northern Irish overachievers are mainstays of the squad.
Coleman was the right fit at the right time. In the first box, for personality and charisma, a big tick can be placed.
As Wales soared to new heights Coleman grew in stature, the resilience and tight-knit nature of his squad testament to his man-management abilities. The hype around that run to the semi-finals may have seemed hyperbolic to those outside of Wales but inside, it was a transformative experience and Coleman’s magnetic personality was a big part of that.
In the second box, the coaching department, only time will tell. Without doubt, he was the beneficiary of years of modernisation behind the scenes at the FAW that had put in place the groundwork for success.
He inherited a squad with two world class players and a spine of Premier League excellence.
His record at club level is patchy at best and there is no mistaking the fact that towards the end of his Wales tenure, there were criticisms that he had not done enough to adapt his tactical approach.
After catching teams cold on the counter for four years, suddenly they were asked to do the running in games and too often they were found wanting.
Even in that disappointment, he gave Tom Lawrence and Ben Woodburn opportunities in crucial games and Wales will be all the better for it in coming years. Yes, it would have been a disappointment not to succeed with Gareth Bale in the side but that their defence was the best in Europe in qualification for Euro 2016 reflects well on his ability to make a side more than the sum of their parts.
The switch to a back three looked obvious in hindsight but it was Coleman’s brainchild and it worked.
Of course, what matters next is of far more importance to Sunderland supporters than what has gone before.
A morale-boosting appointment will not quell discontent with Martin Bain and Ellis Short’s reign and how Coleman fits into the bigger picture remains to be seen.
There will be hope that Coleman’s willingness to push the FAW time and time again for improvements to allow his team to grow bodes ahead of his arrival at a club in desperate need of a strong football voice.
While the fate of backroom staff at the club remains undecided Coleman is likely to have scope to bring in a team of his own and it will be interesting, for example, to see if someone like Dr Ian Mitchell, who has worked with Coleman at Wales, arrives at a club lacking a sports psychologist and seemingly in need of one.
Over the next year, how Coleman approaches recruitment will also be worth paying close attention to.
Bain has overhauled that department since the departure of Simon Wilson, who Sunderland hoped could bring an analytical approach in line with clubs soaring in the Premier League.
The initial results underwhelmed, withJimmy Sinclair and Neale McDermott now influential in a set-up designed to recruit for the club’s long-term goals, rather than the manager’s short-term.
In the summer, such a strategy was hard to discern given that the raft of departures forced the club to scour the market for opportune bargains and loan deals.
Whether Coleman’s presence changes the picture remains to be seen. Many will hope that it does.
The new boss has not been promised riches, and in January is likely to rely on his own contact book to try and make short-term, low cost improvements. There will be a little more room for manoeuvre next summer but certainly, Coleman knows heavy investment from Short will not be forthcoming and offloading players will be crucial.
He is by and large happy to work with what he has got.
Sunderland remain a club in serious trouble. They are four points adrift of safety and more worryingly, six adrift of fourth bottom.
The team’s capacity for self-destruction will not be easily stamped out and nothing summed that up more than the way they conspired to throw away a much-needed lead against Millwall.
It will not be lost on Sunderland supporters that it took the master of such situations, Sam Allardyce, a number of months and three high-profile signings to shift the needle.
Long-term questions over Ellis Short’s ownership will not disappear and we have been here before, with managers confident they can resuscitate ailing careers throughout the squad and put Sunderland back where it belongs.
Coleman did not have a magic wand with Wales and he will not have one here.
It is an almighty mountain to climb but Sunderland can take solace in having a manager whose recent exploits leave him full of self-belief, and whose track record suggests he will fight to make much needed improvements to the football side of the club.
He is a dreamer, and Sunderland have not had enough of those of late.
The powers that be have landed a good manager who has put his reputation on the line. Now they need to back him.