Chris Coleman met the media for the first time as Sunderland manager yesterday, but as Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson explains, he has already taken on a job far more difficult than leading the bottom club in the Championship

SITTING at the Academy of Light yesterday morning, Chris Coleman was asked whether he had taken on an ‘impossible job’ by agreeing to become Sunderland’s ninth permanent manager in the last six years. He afforded himself a wry chuckle. Unlike most of those who have come and gone before him, he knows only too well what it feels like to take on a seemingly impossible challenge.

Almost six years ago, Coleman sat in a different press conference room answering different questions. The setting was comparable to yesterday’s, with the banks of television cameras and huddles of newspaper journalists training their attention on him, but the situation could hardly have been more different.

Loading article content

Coleman was being unveiled as Wales manager little more than a month after his close friend and former youth-team colleague, Gary Speed, had been found hanged. The pair had gone head-to-head for the Wales job before Speed was appointed at the start of 2011, and Coleman had been shattered by the news of his friend’s death. “There were no tears, just a numbness,” he said in ‘Together, Stronger’, a book chronicling the recent renaissance in Welsh football.

Yet here he was, stepping into his dead friend’s shoes. “I was trying to talk, but to this day I couldn’t tell you what I said,” he recalls. “I could feel what had happened, and the impact being with everybody being in the room, and there I was, sat there trying to take his job on so soon. It was horrendous. I knew it would be difficult, but right then, I knew I’d been naïve, that it was going to be harder than I ever thought.”

The Northern Echo: Injuries have left Chris Coleman with a selection headache

The story is an instructive one. Since his appointment as Sunderland manager was confirmed on Sunday, there have plenty questioning whether Coleman is strong enough to deal with the myriad of problems that are about to be hurled his way. Can he cope with one of the toughest jobs in football, a role that has proved too much for experienced hands such as Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill, David Moyes and Simon Grayson?

It is asked as though Coleman is a fresh-faced novice, devoid of difficult life experiences. It is easy to get drawn in by the tanned features and celebrity wife, or the images that brought such joy to the Welsh nation last summer. Coleman, his face beaming with pride, frolicking on the pitch in Lille after his side had beaten Belgium to reach the European Championships semi-finals.

Yet that is only part of the story. Eight months into his tenure as Wales boss, and still wracked with guilt for trying to emulate Speed, he sat alone in a dressing room in Novi Sad questioning whether he was capable of continuing in charge of his country. His side has just been thrashed 6-1 by Serbia. “Right then, was the lowest I’ve ever been,” he admits. “We didn’t just lose in Serbia, we embarrassed ourselves, and when you do that in international football, you embarrass the country.”

Suddenly, taking over a side at the foot of the Championship does not look such an intractable challenge. There were more tough times as Wales boss, but Coleman eventually learned to trust himself and not try to be something he was not, even if that meant having to summon the bravery to dismantle some of the things Speed had put in place.

That is the biggest lesson he has brought with him to Wearside, and explains why his performance at yesterday’s press conference was so confident and forthright. Others might tell him he cannot achieve anything at a club with failure seemingly built in to its DNA; he begs to differ.

“I was not in a great place for 12 months when I started with Wales,” he said yesterday. “But the mistakes then were that I did not go in and do exactly what I wanted at the start. It took a bit of time, but that is not going to happen here.

“If it doesn’t happen for me in six or 12 months, then I’m not going to make that excuse again. I’m going to do it as I see it. And if the results do not come, I’ll have to shake hands with Martin (Bain) and say, ‘Sorry it’s not working’. But I’ll do it exactly as I see fit.

“The experience with Wales I’ll use here isn’t the one about qualifying for a major tournament. It’s about those first 12 or 18 months I had there. That experience will see me through. Because where we are right now, we’re in a tough position.”

So how is he going to turn that around? At Wales, he could call on a Gareth Bale or an Aaron Ramsey, world-class talents capable of troubling any opposition. If there are similar talents within the current Sunderland squad, they are being well hidden.

The Northern Echo: Wales manager Chris Coleman celebrates qualifying for Euro 2016 after their 2-0 victory over Andorra

“People always mention Gareth Bale, Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey, but since the quarter-final, we’ve had those three players on the pitch three times,” he said.

“People say it was all Bale, all Ramsey, but it wasn’t. They were great, great players, but we had a group of committed players who knew the structure, knew the game plan and just tried to execute it. That’s what we created. They knew the game plan, and that’s what we’ve got to create here.

“It’s a different challenge because international football is different, but the need to build a functioning team is the same. Everyone’s got roles and responsibilities, and the biggest word, it’s a dirty word – no one likes to use it – is accountability. I’m accountable, Martin’s accountable, everyone’s accountable. Every player on a contract at this club is accountable.”

That will be music the ears of most Sunderland fans, who justifiably believe too many players have been getting away with too much for too long. At Wales, Coleman established a structure and spirit that enabled players to play above themselves. That is his aim in his new role, although he possesses an edge that means a lack of application will not be tolerated.

There were plenty of smiles in yesterday’s press conference, but Coleman was at his most animated when he was outlining the standards he sets.

“I had a conversation with the players (on Sunday), and asked them, ‘Are you are in or are you are out?’ If you are in, then great,” he said. “All you can demand of someone is their very best. After that, if it is not good enough, it is not good enough.

“But if you are pretending to give your best, I can’t handle that. I can handle a loss as long as everyone is giving everything they’ve got. If I don’t think there are players doing that, then it’s not something I will tolerate.

“This is not a place to be if you haven’t got heart. If you haven’t got heart and courage, then you need that at this football club. There has been plenty of negativity happening here, but this will probably be the biggest club I will ever manage.” But not necessarily the most challenging job he has ever taken on.