Chris Coleman believes Wales have developed a streetwise streak over recent years and has urged his players to do “anything to stay in the game” against Portugal as they bid to reach the final of the European Championship.
The Welsh will feature in their first semi-final at a major tournament at the Stade de Lyon on Wednesday and Coleman concedes his side, who are set to rise above England and into the top 10 when Fifa publishes its latest rankings, go into the tie as underdogs. Yet, even with Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies suspended, the manager believes his squad retains enough unity and conviction to quell the considerable threat posed by Cristiano Ronaldo, with his players having proved they are no longer soft touches at this level.
“Our boys know the Portuguese players individually and collectively, we know what to expect,” said Coleman, who is likely to replace the banned pair with Andy King and Jazz Richards in Lyon.
“At this level in international football, games are sometimes decided in a split second: with a turnover, the ball changing hands or somebody making the wrong decision, and suddenly you’re behind in the game. You call it gamesmanship but, sometimes, it’s more about being streetwise at this level.
“We’ve got better at that. We used to be far too honest. I’d look at what opposing players used to do to us, and what we’d be doing in the same situations, and we’d be miles behind. Sometimes it’s not pretty, or even ugly, and you can see it as negative. But anything you need to do to stay in the game, do it. It’s about being streetwise, and ‘football smart’. We’ve got a lot better at that in the last few years.
“All this spirit, we’re not just showing it in this tournament. We’ve gone through a whole qualifying campaign to get here where the players’ attitude was exactly the same. Where we find ourselves now, it hasn’t happened overnight. The players, the bonds they have together, that togetherness … it’s easy now to say we have great team spirit. It’s easy to say that on a shiny day, but that spirit is real. It came from the darker days.”
Coleman has endured his own toils as a manager after a four-year spell in charge at Fulham in the top flight ended in 2007. He has spent time in Spain with Real Sociedad and was sacked after a disappointing two-year tenure at Coventry City. After 12 months out of the game, and on the advice of Sir Alex Ferguson, he took the plunge by taking over at Larissa in the Greek Second Division.
“That was four years after I’d managed in the Premier League, and a decision I took having spoken to Sir Alex,” he said. “He hadn’t specifically told me to go to Larissa, but he said the next job that came up I should take on. It’s hard, you know. There are a lot of good managers out of work because there are only so many jobs out there, and if you get it wrong two jobs running it’s hard to get a third one. That’s generally the rule.
“I got it wrong at Coventry. I could give you sob stories but, if I’m honest, I should have done better. Then, after that period out of the game where I thought about my approach, I had the chance in Greece: one of the best things I’ve ever done. You find out a lot about yourself outside a comfortable environment. There’s such passion in Greece. If you lose two or three on the bounce it’s goodnight. I had that to contend with. What I didn’t realise when I went there was I would be working for nothing because we never got paid. But it made me look at things differently, and it’s something I’d definitely do again. Working abroad made me better.”
The Wales captain, Ashley Williams, is expected to be flanked by Chris Gunter and James Chester in a back three as the Welsh confront Ronaldo. “He’s one of the greatest players in the world, but they have other weapons in their team,” said the Swansea City centre-half. “We are not obsessing over him. We’ll try and nullify them as a team, as we have teams over the tournament so far.”
This is uncharted territory for Wales, whose only previous appearance at a major finals was at the 1958 World Cup. “But I genuinely believed we were capable of getting out of the group – that wasn’t presumptuous of me to think like that – and I thought a quarter-final was a possibility,” added Coleman. “I told the players that. But we’ve got a very, very good team. People think the end of this tournament will mark the end of this side’s journey, but it won’t. It’s part of the journey. The experience this group of boys will get from this … They’ll be here long after I leave, and the success they’re enjoying now is part of the learning process. We’re here to compete and learn, and let’s see if our best is enough to compete against the best.
“It’s not just about talent. It’s about having players with good mentality. You don’t always get the dressing room you want, there are always one or two you don’t want. But I can’t say that about this group. Look at Gareth Bale, and the way he behaves … that rubs off on everybody. We’ve got leaders. We believe in each other.
“We’ll go into this game as the underdogs: Portugal have been in seven semi-finals in tournaments, and this is our first. But that’s not a problem. It’s about Wales, about the players walking on to the pitch knowing they’re safe in each other’s hands. They trust each other, as so they should. You’re not guaranteed a happy result, but you can guarantee knowing you offered up everything, and that’s all we can ask for.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010