It was in the Directors’ Room at Craven Cottage. I asked Chris Coleman’s children to listen to me for a moment. On their best behaviour, they were prepared to humour one of the directors of Fulham Football Club, not least because we had given their dad his first chance in management.
“Children”, I said, trying not to sound too much like Father Time, “I want you to know that I saw your father play many, many times and I only ever saw him play well. He was brilliant and always gave his best”.
Kit Symons, another Welshman and later to become a Fulham manager in his turn, wasn’t prepared to let his old friend “Cookie” Coleman completely off the hook. “Well”, said Kit, “That’s true if you forget his penalty at Leicester City at the end of extra time when’d beaten the Foxes but they’d managed to scrape a draw. They are still searching for the ball your dad blasted over the stand! I think it went to Nottingham”.
Chris’s playing career was over before his children were old enough to see one of Britain’s finest central defenders in his prime. The car crash that finished it happened one lunchtime, in a narrow Surrey lane, as he was driving home. The horror of it came home to me when I saw photographs from the scene of the accident — a bloodied right shoe left behind in the foot well of his Jaguar as the emergency crew extricated him, so very carefully, so that treatment could begin to save his leg.
They succeeded but Chris never played again. It was a terrible blow to Chris and a major set-back to the club. Fulham were odds-on for promotion to the Premier League but Chris would not get there with them.
Chris found his greatest supporter in the shape of Fulham’s Chairman, Mohamed Al Fayed, who had bought the Club in May 1997, as Fulham emerged from the bottom tier in League football and started its climb to the Premiership, where it was to remain for 13 years, playing Norwich City in both the Championship and the top division.
If any employee was facing health problems, or had an immediate need for surgery, Mohamed was a dream boss, as I had good reason to know. Mohamed did everything he could to ensure that Chris got the best of treatment. Cost and distance were no barriers to making sure that the best doctors were on the Coleman case.
When it became clear that Chris would never play football competitively again, Mohamed made sure that he was immediately given a proper job to do, coaching youngsters at Motspur Park, Fulham’s campus-like headquarters in the suburbs of south-west London.
Instead of bemoaning his luck, Chris took the opportunity with both hands and brought his own brand of irreverent humour to everything he did, making up for his lack of formal qualifications with a boisterous enthusiasm that everyone at the club found both attractive and effective.
When Fulham severed its relationship with its manager, Mohamed again reached out to Chris. He asked him if he felt up to managing a Premiership Club for the remaining games of the season. Chris wasn’t quite sure he could do it but he had the guts to say that he would try. That, I felt at the time, was much better than being cocky.
Chris is a relentless joker but now it was suddenly serious; that’s how Chris took on his new, unexpected responsibility.
He made a good fist of the fag end of the season. At the Club’s end-of-term dinner in a hotel at Hammersmith Broadway, Chris stood at the microphone on a stage above my table. I didn’t write his words down but I can summarise them thus:
“The Chairman has asked me if I would like this job full-time. I have asked myself if I want this job, if I am ready to do this job. Well, I have thought it over and I can tell you all right now — I want this job!”
He was given it and retained the confidence of the Chairman until we reached squeaky-bum time — to adopt Sir Alex Ferguson’s expression — two seasons later when a new manager was drafted in to secure Fulham’s continuation in the Premiership.
Chris was not bitter about his fate. He recognised that he had been given a rare chance by Mr. Al Fayed. And it qualified him for his present job when the Welsh F.A. came calling.
Chris is not just a proud Welshman, he is a very proud son of Swansea, which produced the sublime Ivor Allchurch, a vital part of the Welsh team that reached the World Cup quarter finals in Sweden in 1958, with me listening to the match at school on one of the brand new transistor radios.
Fulham provided the backbone of the Welsh team when Chris played for his country, with Kit Symons on one side of him and Andy Melville on the other. At the Club, we were proud to think our trio played together for Club and country. Chris is still on close terms with both men but never misses the opportunity to mock Andy for the grey shoes that Chris maintains he is still wearing 15 years later.
Paths are always intersecting in football. It was Roy Hodgson who sacked Chris from Blackburn Rovers because he didn’t think he was good enough. That’s how Chris came to Craven Cottage, dropping down a division to be just in time to help us to the brink of the Premiership.
Roy, of course, later became Fulham’s most successful manager ever, taking us to the Europa League Cup Final in Hamburg in 2010, after the Club had achieved its highest ever top flight finish seventh the previous year.
Now Chris Coleman is among the names being touted as a possible replacement for Roy. Could he do it? Probably. He has the self-confidence, background and qualifications. Would he be up for the challenge? I think he answered that question with his speech at that Hammersmith hotel years ago.
Would he want to do it? That is another question. The money might be tempting but the Welsh F.A. stuck by Chris when things were not so palmy and thoughts of the present glory would have been dismissed as so much candy floss on the front at Barry Island.
But would he take the job, if it were offered? Chris is loyal. His head might say yes and his agent might be delighted. But I suspect Chris would stick by the players who have become his band of brothers during this midsummer of mayhem and unexpected results on both sides of the Channel.