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Managing Wales and Gary Speed's Legacy: Chris Coleman Must Do Both at Euro 2016

In November 2011, Wales boss Gary Speed took his own life. A little under four years later, his country qualified for Euro 2016. Chris Coleman is in charge now, but Speed remains closely linked with the side that will play in France.

by Jim Weeks
Jun 9 2016, 9:56pm

Speed with a young Gareth Bale. Each have been praised for Wales' Euro 2016 qualification // PA Images

On 27 November 2011, Wales manager Gary Speed took his own life. He left no note, only a devastated family, dozens of unanswered questions, and a national football side deprived of its leader. Learning the news at lunchtime on a colourless Sunday, it felt as though the air had been sucked from the room for a few moments. Once it returned, you were left to catch your breath and try to make sense of what had happened.

Four and a half years on, it's doubtful that anyone has truly done so. Speed's death is almost entirely unexplained. We've learned that he suffered with depression, but it remains difficult to grasp that it was so deep as to lead him to take his own life. That Speed appeared on TV the day of his suicide – and came across normal, happy even – adds to the continued sense of confusion.

Speed's death seemed to close a chapter on Welsh football. It was a grim ending to a story that, for so long, had looked to be a happy one. Taking over in December 2010, Speed had led his side to an upturn in fortunes. At the time of his death, there was genuine hope in Welsh football for the first time in more than a decade. His departure seemed to extinguish that hope in the most shocking manner possible.

* * *

It always seemed inevitable that Chris Coleman would one day lead the Welsh national side. He meets all the criteria: he has experience of football management, and he is Welsh. Having met those exacting standards early on in life – he was Fulham boss at 33, and has always been Welsh – his path to the job was clearly mapped. The progress was textbook: start out in the Premier League, drop down to the Championship, go abroad for short-lived spells with clubs whose name he'd struggle to pronounce.

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There were two things no one could have anticipated, however: the tragic circumstances in which Coleman would take on the job; and the fact that he would be the man to lead Wales to a first major tournament in 58 years.

When Coleman took the reigns in 2011, he accepted one of the most difficult roles in world football. Speed was his friend and former international teammate. His death had been a tragedy, first and foremost for his two sons, his wife, and his parents. But it was also an event that left a scar on the Welsh football psyche, one that will take quite some time to heal. There has quite rightly been much mention of the former boss in the run up to Euro 2016.

Coleman celebrates Euro 2016 qualification. He was quick to remember Speed's part in the achievement. // Fehim Demir/EPA

With the initial shock over, Wales needed a new manager. Speed was gone, and the national team had to continue even through such awful circumstances. His assistants, Osian Roberts and Raymond Verheijen, were initially linked with the job, but it soon emerged that Coleman – then manager of Greek side Larissa – was first choice for the Football Association of Wales (FAW). On 12 January 2012 Coleman quit Larissa; one week later, he was Wales boss.

Speed and Coleman were international teammates for a decade, though Speed was a more regular member of the squad, eventually earning 85 caps for his country, the record for an outfield player. Both were there for the awful Euro '96 qualifying campaign; both were on the field in Tbilisi when Wales shipped five without reply against Georgia, and in the 3-0 home defeat to Bulgaria. Each understood Welsh international football and its penchant for gut wrenching failure in a unique way. They were like battle-hardened soldiers who could swap old stories of the former USSR and share them with the new generation.

This seems to be the policy at the FAW, who have, perhaps correctly, been looked at as something of an old boys' club. Wales past four permanent managers – Coleman, Speed, John Toshack and Mark Hughes – were all heavily-capped internationals. Indeed, Coleman is the only one whose playing days didn't earn him the prefix: "Wales Legend". There has never been an "overseas" manager, though there have been two English bosses, and one Welshman named England.

Three future Welsh bosses in one team: Coleman (5), Speed (8) and Hughes (10) // PA Images

But it is under members of the nineties side that Wales have found most success. Hughes took Wales to within a dodgy playoff of Euro 2004, while Speed and then Coleman built a side that made it all the way to Euro 2016. All were young when they took the job; all are Welsh-born with Premier League experience; and all suffered through the '90s nadir. Perhaps they're not cut from the same cloth, but they're certainly dyed-in-the-wool Welshmen.

While Hughes and Speed took over flagging teams with very little expectation on them, the consequence of their respective predecessors having left following poor results, Coleman took on a very different challenge. In fact, when he was appointed, it seemed as though Coleman had accepted the toughest job in world football. If he made Wales successful, his achievements would forever be remembered as the continuation of another man's work. If he failed – as most felt he would – then Coleman would be seen to have destroyed the legacy of his old friend.

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The less obvious scenario having come to pass, Speed is still considered the architect of this team, perhaps more in terms of psychology than what they're doing on the pitch. He made Wales believe after a barren spell under the management of Toshack, and took them to a place of positivity that they had not been for more than a decade.

It's for this reason that you can only respect Coleman's work with Wales. He is by no means a perfect character. Stories of his personal life make regular appearances in the Welsh and even national newspapers, and he is not a tactician of unique genius. It's obvious to say so, but his success owes a great deal to having a world class player among his squad.

Nevertheless, he took on a difficult job in very difficult circumstances. He didn't fall apart when the results turned bad in his early months – and they really were poor. Wales finished fifth from six in World Cup 2014 qualifying, losing away to Macedonia and 3-0 at home to Serbia. It felt as though the barren years had returned, with the added bleakness that had settled after Speed's death.

So long overshadowed by the rugby crowd, Welsh football fans have been brought back to life over the past 12 months // PA Images

Coleman helped to lift his side from this slump and embark on the road to Paris. He now faces perhaps his most difficult task, with Wales' poor form ahead of the tournament causing considerable concern back home – not least about the match against England. Anything beyond the group stages will be a success this summer

A spot in the quarter-finals or – surely not – the semis, would make Coleman a national sporting hero of sorts. But even in this case, Speed's name would be mentioned; in fact, Coleman might be among the first to do so, so ready is he to acknowledge his predecessor's significance.

Quite how long the mourning will go on is difficult to judge. Welsh football is yet to move beyond what happened to Gary Speed, and yet to fully come to terms with the death of one of its greatest players and a hugely promising manager. Coleman has done an admirable job in the aftermath. But it may not be until after he has left – until Wales is two generations of boss removed – that Speed's place in Welsh football becomes the past and not the present.

@Jim_Weeks