The World Cup qualification campaign is over for Wales and the wait for another finals appearance – 59 years and counting – goes on. Mark Pitman (Twitter @markpitman1 from the blog http://www.markpitman1.com) says manager Chris Coleman should stay on, but his approach needs an update.
A frustrating campaign appeared to be finishing on a high as the youthful exuberance of Ben Woodburn and Tom Lawrence against Austria, Moldova and Georgia reversed the trend of dropping points in disappointing draws.
Three wins and three clean sheets had put Chris Coleman’s side in a strong position for the decisive night of Group D football that would confirm the fate of Serbia, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, but in the end, it was not to be.
Wales went into the final round of games high in confidence, belief and momentum, and while Serbia appeared to be cracking under the pressure of having automatic qualification in their grasp, Ireland were limping towards the finish line despite starting the campaign with a sprint.
However, it was Martin O’Neill who would end the night celebrating in Cardiff, as his Republic of Ireland side edged a narrow 1-0 victory through a mix of physicality and good fortune. They arrived with a plan that proved effective, and while there were some colourful knee-jerk reactions to the defeat on social media, there were more positives than negatives for Wales to take from the campaign.
The defeat against Ireland on Monday was Wales’ first of the campaign, and the only time that Chris Coleman’s side had found themselves behind in ten games. However, too many points had been dropped after taking the lead in previous games, and the draws against Georgia, and in particular Serbia in Cardiff, proved to be significant in the end.
It was no coincidence that the campaign had been defined throughout by injuries and suspensions to key players, culminating in talisman Gareth Bale missing the final two games. Wales had not lost a competitive game in Cardiff for four years before Monday night, ironically against Serbia in September 2013, and the progress made during that time has brought unparalleled international success.
In fact, apart from the final few seconds against England, Wales only went behind once at the finals of UEFA EURO 2016 when they still had time to do something about it. Reacting to falling behind appears to be a significant chink in the armour of this team, and should be considered a major concern.
The defeat to eventual winners Portugal in the semi-final brought this historic and memorable campaign to a close, but after falling behind Wales seemed to lose their tactical discipline and game plan, and the same happened against Ireland on Monday night as the visitors dragged Coleman’s team down into knocking long and hopeless balls forward.
But now Wales face the prospect of not playing another competitive game until September 2018. Friendlies will be arranged, but they will naturally lack the intensity and purpose that has provided so many famous occasions in recent years.
Almost every competitive game for Wales during the course of the last four years has been bigger than the one before it, and it is that desire to succeed and end so many previous years of hurt that has driven the players and fans on in equal measure. Although friendlies will offer the opportunity to give experience to the likes of Ethan Ampadu, David Brooks and other young players, how the players and fans react to losing that competitive edge will be interesting to see.
How Chris Coleman feels about spending a full year preparing for another campaign also remains to be seen. He previously stated that this would be his last campaign, but he expected it to end in Russia next summer, and not Cardiff this October. He remains quiet on his future, with his focus over the course of qualification never switching from the next game. Now, he must reflect on what he has achieved over the best part of the last six years, and more importantly, what he has left to offer.
There is no doubt that he will be celebrated as Wales’ greatest-ever manager, but if he decides to stay, it must be a long-term commitment. There is no doubt that he is excited by the potential in the young players that have already emerged, and the ones that are yet to feature, but he will question if he still has the drive to effectively take this team, and these players, forward over the course of the next three of four years.
There were question marks over his decisions on Monday night, but he has enough credit in the bank to be given the benefit of the doubt and be supported in such situations. The introduction of Jonny Williams for the injured Joe Allen early in the game prompted a change based on Wales’ superiority, but O’Neill is a wily old veteran of a manager, and sensed an opening that his side could exploit as they slowly came into the game.
In the end, a defensive error allowed them in, and as they wore down the clock and patience of the home side they held on for an ugly win. Like it or loathe it, Ireland had a plan based on negativity that Wales could not beat, and while such an approach will win them few friends, it proved to be enough to take them into the play-offs at the expense of Wales.
So what does the future hold for Coleman and for Wales? This is a key period, with some key decisions that will dictate the direction of the next couple of campaigns. If Coleman stays he will need to adapt his tried and trusted tactical approach to bring the best out of the young players that have become part of his plans, while his predictable changes have become increasingly frustrating when the team needs a moment of creative spontaneity from the bench as much as they do on the pitch.
However, there is no doubt about Coleman’s popularity with the players, and his departure now would only add to the disappointment and negativity of a failed qualification campaign. If he does go, he needs to be replaced. Ryan Giggs has been continually linked with the job in the past, but he has never been a free agent actively looking for his first permanent managerial job until now.
Giggs would not be a popular appointment with the majority of fans, and his unproven credentials as a manager could make him a dangerous choice when such a talented crop of young players are emerging through the pathway system that is now proving to be such a success. In addition, Coleman has spoken publicly about the need for his team to stay at Cardiff City Stadium, but when demand for tickets is outstripping supply, and Coleman is no longer there, then there will be a business case to move games back to the national stadium.
For the majority of Wales fans, the thought of Ryan Giggs being manager of a Wales team playing back at the national stadium by the time next qualifying campaign comes around would be enough to turn them sick in the aftermath of the latest setback, but it is not an unreasonable to think it could happen.
There are many elements that have made Wales great in recent years, and the bond between the players and fans has been a key part of it. The players associate Cardiff City Stadium as their home, and the fans have created a special and unique atmosphere there, and one competitive home defeat in over four years shows how much of a catalyst it has been to the success that has been achieved.
Ideally, Chris Coleman will decide to stay and take this young team forward the same way he did when he started doing things his own way early on in his tenure. He needs time to make the right decision, for both himself and for Wales, but to keep this momentum going the sooner he decides on his future the better.
Missing out on qualification for a major tournament is nothing new for Wales, but the added disappointment this time around comes from the fine margins that decided it, and the experience that EURO 2016 provided after so many years of hurt. There is more to come from Wales, and this is not the end of a successful era, but it is the end of one particular World Cup dream.
Mark Pitman (Twitter @markpitman1) is a freelance football journalist who blogs at http://www.markpitman1.com.