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Chris Coleman: will the Welsh cookie crumble in the Basque oven?



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Welsh manager Chris Coleman, sacked from his last post at Fulham, was appointed manager of Real Sociedad de Fútbol in the summer of 2007, although judging from the lack of coverage the news received, it would be fair to say that the move was swept under the carpet somewhat, and managed to avoid the elitist football radar.

Sociedad had just been relegated and UK-based Spanish football pundits chose instead to focus on the massive transfer fees being shelled out by the “big clubs” Real Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona [and Sevilla]. Such a focus is endemic in modern football, a real shame for those who still cling to the wilted remains of “grass roots” tradition.

The lack of attention paid to the news seems even more bemusing considering the fact that Coleman is one of the few British managers currently working abroad, a fact which ought to have made his fate of huge interest to the British media.

When Coleman, affectionately nicknamed “Cookie” during his playing days with Crystal Palace, where he enjoys legend status, was named manager of Fulham in 2003, he became the youngest manager in the Premiership at the time. Originally intended to be a “stop-gap” during the interregnum, Coleman’s popularity amongst the Fulham fans and the club’s survival from relegation with 10 points from a possible 15 saw the Welshman given the job on a full-time basis, a job which his hard work fully deserved.

However, circumstances were far from ideal for the new manager; Fulham chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed was embroiled in a legal battle with former manager Jean Tigana, and was determined to avoid the reckless spending which had characterized the reigns of both Tigana and Keegan — the failures of the past emblematized in the £12 million spent on French striker Steve Marlet, who went on to score just eleven goals for the club before fading into virtual obscurity (he is now kicking around East Anglia, angling for a contract with Ipswich, where his popular and successful compatriot and ex team-mate Sylvain Legwinski plays his football). Nevertheless, Coleman clearly had a positive effect on the team, and in particular on the form of Louis Saha, and the team finished in a club record 9th position that season, despite having to sell the dynamic Frenchman to Manchester United for some £13 million (a move which they might have been able to postpone had it not been for the Marlet debacle).

Over the next couple of years, Coleman’s Fulham experienced many highs and lows (the club had the best home record outside the top 6 in the 05-06 season, and the worst away form), although Coleman always ensured the club avoided relegation with relative ease, generally turning rustic Craven Cottage into a veritable fortress, despite being forced on numerous occasions to sell the team’s best players (the excellent Malbranque and the explosive Boa Morte are two prime examples). Coleman also brought exciting attacking football to the side, particularly when at home, a distinct contrast to the style of current boss Lawrie Sanchez.

Coleman was influential in bringing such players as Clint Dempsey (who, unfortunately for Coleman, failed to settle last season) and Vincenzo Montella to the club, and there was a general consensus that the set of players at the club during the 2006-7 season was perhaps the best the club had possessed during their short tenure in the Premiership. However, with a surplus of draws, a series of defensive frailties and the team spiraling towards the bottom three, Coleman was sacked in April 2007, the decision splitting the opinions of Fulham fans (there were many who maintained that Coleman had shown his inability to organize the talented players at his disposal), although the great majority of the football community reacted to the decision with surprise and disbelief.

When Coleman was offered the position at Real Sociedad de Fútbol, he followed in the footsteps of his countryman John Toshack, who had managed the club on two different occasions, winning the Copa del Rey once and twice guiding the side to the final. Toshack, who enjoys a similar status and level of influence at Sociedad as does Johan Cruyff at FC Barcelona (and both are well known for their particular linguistic mismanagements), had recommended Coleman for the job, and Sociedad, lacking any other stand-out candidates, immediately followed the recommendation. Whilst such a comment is by nature difficult to quantify, it is clear to me that the sense of “fellowship” (linguistic — Euskera and Welsh both being spoken, nationalistic) between Wales and the Basque country (similar to the “brotherhood” which appears to exist between Cataluña (and to some extent, the rest of Spain) and Ireland?), both seeing themselves as important traditional peoples surrounded by “foreign” invaders, both needing their big teams to play in “foreign” leagues in order to survive — we remind you that clubs such as Wrexham, Swansea and Cardiff all compete in the English Football League — must have been a significant factor in the popularity of Toshack and the willingness to take a chance on Coleman.

Coleman faced and continues to face a number of problems at his new club (would it be fair to say that so far, Coleman has only managed at clubs at crisis point?). He inherited a squad marked by absences (without the 130 or so goals scored by Nihat and Kovacevic, the former having left at the end of 2006 and the latter leaving in summer 2007, after a pretty appalling 2006-7 season in which the club’s top scorer, Savio, got just 5 league goals), and a loyal fan base who expected immediate promotion, despite the exodus of talented players. Indeed, despite the fact that in 1989 Sociedad abandoned the “Basque only” transfer policy still followed by neighbours Athletic Bilbao, Sociedad’s current threadbare squad is notable for a conspicuous lack of the foreign players who had contributed so greatly to the club’s 2nd and 3rd place finishes in 2002-3 and 1997-8 respectively. Coleman’s limited Spanish (not to mention Basque) must, at least for the immediate future, severely impede his ability to stamp his authority on the team, whilst the club’s financial problems will have undermined any desire to rejuvenate the first-team squad through the transfer market. Coleman brought with him just one Welshman, talented ex-Crewe defender David Vaughan (quite unlike the transfer tactics of Rafa Benítez and Arsene Wenger), who has adapted well to Spanish football. Indeed, the club have lost both games since the young Welshman picked up a thigh injury.

Coleman’s Real Sociedad lost their first match of the new season, at home to Castellón; proof if any was needed that the season in the Segunda División was to be no walk in the park (to which we might add the fact that current league leaders Málaga, who had been relegated the season before last, finished in 16th place last season). Whilst the club has discovered some form as of late, their last two fixtures, against promotion rivals Numancia and Sporting Gijón, have ended in late goals and defeats (2-1 and 1-0 respectively), although there were many positives to take from last night’s performance, particularly from the first half. Sociedad continue, however, to fail to defend effectively from corners and free-kicks, and to let in goals in the dying matches of games, two alarming symptoms of Coleman’s demise at Fulham.

Meanwhile, the British press is linking Coleman with a quick-fire return to the Premiership, with Bolton (who have had an approach for Coleman rejected by his Basque employers) or Birmingham (Steve Bruce’s position is by no means assured). Surprisingly, Coleman’s name was not linked with the vacancy which came up after the sacking of Peter Taylor at Crystal Palace, where I am convinced that he would have been a popular choice.

Do you think that Coleman can be a success at Sociedad? Or will he return to the Premiership/English football sooner rather than later? For the record, my opinion is that Coleman has an opportunity and the required charisma and ability to establish a Toshack-like legacy at Real Sociedad, and that therefore any move back home would be foolish at this stage. Let us hope, for the sake of Basque football and footballing tradition everywhere, that Sociedad do manage to bounce straight back up to the Primera Liga, as Athletic Bilbao currently look odds-on to fall into the abyss of the Segunda Liga for the first time in their history, and it would be an inestimable blow for all Spanish football fans to see a league with no Basque representation.

Will this Basque-Welsh love story end in heartbreak or marriage? Coleman was dealt a harsh hand at Fulham; but not all cookies crack in the sun, and in the Basque country this cookie will receive more than his fair share of precipitation.