Chris Coleman’s instinct was to be bullish.
He had just addressed his crestfallen Wales players back in the dressing room, his message a pick-me-up revolving around the squad’s strength of character, and marched into his post-match media duties determined to demonstrate faith had not been affected by this contest’s cruel twist in stoppage time. A question that invited him to admit the better side had prevailed was knocked back. “Would you be asking me that if England hadn’t scored in the last 30 seconds?” he snapped. “Asking about their ‘dominance’?”
The prickly defiance remained throughout yet, by the time Coleman departed the stage, the true sense of desolation of this defeat had been properly exposed. The manager had described Daniel Sturridge’s reward as “gut-wrenching for the players and our supporters”. He had admitted, with a sigh, that one of the proudest occasions of his managerial career had ended up one of the most agonising. His honesty was brutal. “When you come that close, and then lose it in the dying seconds … Look, we’re gutted. Absolutely devastated. But, at times like this, you have to show a bit of metal, a bit of steel, and bounce back.”
Therein lies Coleman’s task as he seeks to instil a recovery in time for the final group game, against Russia, on Monday. All is not lost. This team’s destiny remains in its own hands, and Leonid Slutski’s ageing, creaking lineup is eminently beatable in Toulouse. Wales can even look at England’s response to conceding that late equaliser in Marseille as a source of inspiration. Even in the context of the quick turnaround between tournament games, sides need not be choked by disappointment for long.
The issue, of course, is that this game had meant so much to his players. The ‘Battle of Britain’ had dominated the buildup to the finals in both camps, and had even drawn the focus before those opening group games. It had consumed his players’ thoughts so, now it has been lost, the fallout must not be permitted to engulf this side. Coleman recognised as much. So, too, had Ashley Williams, his captain, out on the turf as he summoned the squad together into a huddle after the final whistle with the message one of “this has gone, but there is still plenty still to come”. “It hurts but we will regroup and get over this,” he said. “It will be fine. It was just one of those things.”
The next few days will become an exercise in rehabilitation. Coleman will presumably lean on his senior players – Gareth Bale, the outstanding Aaron Ramsey, Williams – to lift the mood, as well as the input of the sports psychologist Ian Mitchell, who is with the party in France. There is a sense of realism about this team. They are aware of their limitations, and where improvements can be made. That recognition is one of their many strengths. So, for now, it is about banishing any unwarranted pangs of panic and refocusing on the task at hand: to defeat the weakest team in the group.
“We have to get it out of our system,” Coleman said. “That disappointment is there, but we can’t take it into the next game. If you’d said to us we’d get through to the knockout with a result in the last game, we’d have accepted that. But it was a bitter pill to swallow, this, after being 1-0 up. But, look, England got over it, conceding in the last minute against Russia, and showed good courage to recover. We have to put it to bed and get ready for Russia, just like they did against us. Whichever team that puts the disappointment behind them from this middle round of fixtures will prevail. And it’s still down to us.”
There must be improvements from this display. Wales had hoped to hurt England here, only to lapse into blanket defence. They were sloppy in possession where Coleman had hoped they might hold their own, and Bale had to retreat deeper into midfield in search of the ball as he sought to exert some kind of influence. His swerving, dipping free-kick was an isolated flash of brilliant, attacking invention.
Otherwise this was about industry, whether through Hal Robson-Kanu’s selfless running or Joe Ledley’s snarl through the centre. It was hard to contemplate Ledley had broken a leg just 40 days previously. He will require treatment on it having limped from the fray, exhausted, midway through the second half.
Therein lay the manager’s real frustration. “We’re better in possession than that,” he said. “The occasion got to us a bit, we were a bit rushed on the ball, and rather than keeping it more we gave it to them. They kept it better than us, so ‘Balo’ was sometimes isolated. You have to weather the storm sometimes, defending deep and in numbers. You just have to keep it better when you have it. ‘Balo’ worked his socks off and was sometimes too isolated, but that’s my only criticism. Now it’s about how we pick ourselves up. We have to take care of business ourselves from now on in.”
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