As Chris Coleman contemplated the challenge posed by a Republic of Ireland side enjoying the view from the top of Group D the Wales manager cast his mind back to that chastening defeat against England at Euro 2016 and the moment when he broke an alcohol curfew as he tried to come to terms with a game where his players were so wrapped up in the occasion that they ended up “wishing their lives away”.
That bitter experience serves as a salutary lesson to everyone in the Wales camp before a crucial World Cup qualifier in Dublin, where Coleman has urged his players to shut out all the background noise about a must-win match against their Celtic cousins, learn from their mistakes in France and take the game to Ireland.
“We can’t control how the game is billed by everybody else – everybody will sensationalise it,” Coleman said. “What we don’t want to do is walk off the Aviva pitch missing the occasion. That’s the biggest sin we can commit. We kind of did that against England because it was a British game, a derby game. We got caught up with that, we never performed and we missed it. We went 1-0 up and we wished our lives away, rather than just enjoying those moments.
“It’s the same for the Republic of Ireland – 50,000 people in the Aviva Stadium, they’re top, everyone is billing it as a must-win game for us but the game will come and go. The buildup beforehand goes on a lot longer. I think you forget sometimes when you’re in it that you’ve got to enjoy it. We can’t go to Ireland, sit back for 90 minutes hoping that we nick one. When you’re up against a team that’s very similar to you, you’ve got to go on the front foot, go for it and try and perform.”
Coleman had been singing from a similar hymn sheet before the England match, yet everything unravelled for Wales that day and the 46-year-old has not forgotten the sense of despair that engulfed him afterwards as he tried to understand what had gone wrong.
“It was a dry camp in France. We were together seven weeks. No alcohol – staff or players,” he said. “But I had a double whisky by myself after the England game, a sneaky one out on the balcony, as I was absolutely gutted. As a manager you have to look at yourself and I thought I was preaching all the time: ‘Don’t get sucked into this game to England’, so I thought were my messages – ‘Too much fight, make sure we stand our ground’ – the wrong [sort]?”
Coleman is determined there will be no repeat in Dublin, where Wales can ill-afford to lose after drawing three of their opening four matches. Ireland, in contrast, have taken 10 points out of a possible 12, despite playing only one of those fixtures at home. Another Ireland victory would open up a seven-point lead over Wales at the halfway stage and strike a significant blow.
Confidence is high in the Ireland camp, although Martin O’Neill’s preparations have been far from ideal. The Ireland manager is without Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy, his first-choice central defenders, as well as Wes Hoolahan and Harry Arter, all of whom are injured. Robbie Brady also misses out through suspension. More encouraging for Ireland is that Everton’s James McCarthy, who had been struggling with a hamstring injury, looks set to be available.
O’Neill, who refused to disclose whether he has any special plans for Gareth Bale, knows that Ireland will need to be at their best and talked about summoning the spirt of Euro 2016, in particular that terrific victory over Italy. “It’s not a distant memory,” he said. “Some of the players who performed that evening can call upon the experience again and go for it. I think we will have to produce a performance like that against Wales.”
As for Wales, the stakes are high for the players as well as the manager, with Coleman reiterating his intention to stand down after this campaign and hopefully bow out in style.
“I’m desperate to go to a major tournament again,” he said. “Desperate is the only word I can use because I’m desperate to go back and be in the middle of that type of pressure. I absolutely want that again – that’s all I think about.”
Coleman surprised Jürgen Klopp criticised Ben Woodburn call-up
Chris Coleman has defended his decision to call up Ben Woodburn to the senior Wales squad for the first time without consulting Jürgen Klopp. The Liverpool manager expressed his “surprise” earlier in the week that Coleman had not gone to the trouble of ringing him about his plans to select the 17-year-old striker, who has made only seven senior appearances at club level. “Usually when you call up a player, a 17-year-old player, I thought it would be possible to call me,” Klopp said.
Coleman, however, sounded taken aback by Klopp’s comments and pointed to the fact that Woodburn is featuring for a leading Premier League club. “If they’re a Champions League-chasing team, which they are, what’s the fuss that we’ve called him into our fold?” the Wales manager said.