Wales are well used to Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey being the pre-match centre of attention but even they might have been surprised by some of the remarks that greeted their arrival in Dublin ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifier.
Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane had not left much to the imagination earlier in the week when he stressed that the key to stopping players like Bale was to “hit them…fairly” but even more vocal was another Irish legend, Johnny Giles, who simply challenged whether the hype was justified.
“Bale has a bit to go before I would call him a great player; it seems to me that he needs to get away from Ronaldo to make the final step,” he said. “Aaron Ramsey thinks he’s a great player but isn’t. Without Bale, they would be very average.”
It was an assessment that was given predictably short shrift by Chris Coleman, who pointed out that both Ramsey and Joe Allen had made the Euro 2016 ‘team of the tournament’. “I must be a hell of a manager then,” he said. “I’m happy with those [Giles’s] comments because it makes me look good.”
Bale is among five key Wales players going into tomorrow night's match only one booking from suspension but Coleman is adamant that his talisman will need no special instructions to deal either with that concern or any physicality from the Irish.
“When you think of where he plays, there is nothing that he won’t be familiar with,” said Coleman. “What do I make of the comments? It doesn’t bother me and it won’t bother him. We have a few guys on cards but I won’t say to anyone, ‘be careful’. We must not hold anything back.”
As for Keane, Coleman says that he never saw him as “hard man” but simply a “great” player.
Coleman was also asked to respond to the remarks of Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, who had expressed surprise at not being consulted on the elevation to the Wales senior team of 17-year-old Ben Woodburn. “If he is in a Champions League-chasing team at Liverpool, what’s the fuss?” said Coleman, whose own future as Wales manager will hinge on results over the next six months.
“I do think about Russia,” he said. “You want to be back in that tournament environment. I’m desperate to do it again. I can’t describe to you how that felt.”
The highs of Euro 2016 were obvious enough, although Coleman did let slip how he dealt with the one big low when they lost 2-1 to England. “It was a dry camp; we were together seven weeks; no alcohol for staff or players,” he said. “But I had a double whiskey by myself. A sneaky one out on the balcony as I was absolutely gutted.”
Coleman has turned down opportunities this season to return to club management in the Premier League but confirmed that he would leave after this attempt to take Wales to a first World Cup since 1958. “I’m 46,” he said. “Let’s say I work 20 more years. I will never do this job again. I’m quite sad about it. I’ve got to make the most of it while I’ve got the honour.
“You can’t get it back. I preach to the players about not missing the 90 minutes. It’s the same for me. I have been doing it five years. I think that is a long time as an international manager. I have never got used to the gaps in between games. The trade off is standing there in the Aviva, singing the national anthem when you are manager of your country. It doesn’t get better than that.”
Wales are four points behind the Republic of Ireland, who are Group D leaders, and are two adrift of Serbia. Only one team qualify automatically but what still gives Coleman huge hope is the knowledge that, for only the second time in the campaign, he will be in position tonight to start Bale, Ramsey and Allen in the same team.
“We have players when we are in touching distance that have the little bit extra that can get us over the line,” he said. “Once we are in games, where it is touch and go, they can do something to change your life. It is doable. We are four points behind but there are 18 points to play for. All this pressure is what we always wanted; what I dreamt about it. We are right in there with a say.”
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