Coleman: Bale absolutely loves playing for Wales
Having navigated treacherous waters at the helm of Wales since day one in the job, manager Chris Coleman now looks to be cruising to the promised land on the crest of a wave. The Dragons are on the brink of qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since John Charles and Co led them to the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™.
Things really do look rosy for the former Fulham boss. As well as requiring a mere point to reach UEFA EURO 2016, Wales currently occupy their highest-ever FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking spot of ninth - not bad for a team who were 117th four years ago. Croatia, Paraguay and Serbia (competing as Yugoslavia) are the only others to have risen from outside the top 100 into the top ten, with just the latter doing it quicker. Coleman spoke exclusively to FIFA.com on his side's burgeoning identity, their charge up the World Ranking and his memories of missing out on USA 1994.
FIFA.com: Chris, considering the side's progress, spirits in the camp must be high?
Chris Coleman: Yes, they are. Three points against Israel would have secured our place at France 2016, but we got the point and if before the camp we had been offered four points [from the matches against Cyprus and Israel], we would have taken it. It's four closer to where we need to get to. We have two games remaining and need to get one more, so we're well on course.
How would you assess EURO 2016 qualifying so far?
It's gone from strength to strength really. We started out with a target of points that we wanted to achieve after five games to give us a chance to be in that top three. Top three then became top two, which became top of the group, and that's where we've stayed for almost half of this campaign.
The last step is always said to be the hardest. How tough will it be to maintain focus when so close to your goal?
What we've tried to do with the players is set standards and an identity, which we have now. We're representing Wales and that means everything to us. It doesn't matter who we play or what it's for; the effort, mentality and intent always remain the same – and that means the players give everything they've got. The result will be what it will be, it just comes down to the performance and us preparing properly, then no questions can be asked of us regarding the outcome.
Speaking of the identity within the team, how have they grown and progressed over your 40 months in charge?
They have come on in leaps and bounds. Some of the players have really taken it to another level. Our strength in depth is very good and like any team it's often about how strong your bench is. The squad's growing, it's getting stronger, it's getting better. Even the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams, Joe Allen – who people always talk about – have raised their games, which in many ways is even harder because their levels are so high. It's nice to see us doing well in the Ranking, we're top of the group, but we've still not achieved what we need to.
We've earned the right to be in the top ten of the World Ranking and are on the verge of doing something special.
When you faced Scotland in Brazil 2014 qualifying in October 2012, you were nine months into the job without a win to your name and coming off the back of a 6-1 loss to Serbia. Did you ever think three years later you would have been able to give such a glowing assessment?
Often we're judged too quickly, particularly in international football – in your first campaign you're often finding your feet. If you are unlucky once or twice you can quickly lose ground. But that's the nature of the beast and the media are going to be all over you unfortunately. The needs and the wants for success are very unrealistic. I found myself in a funny place because we hadn't qualified [for a World Cup] since 1958 – having not even been close for 10-15 years – and coming into it in awful circumstances following the death of [previous manager] Gary Speed. Yet all the pressure was that we should be qualifying. And we were sixth seeds!
Has the legacy of qualifying for 1958 weighed heavy for Wales teams since?
I think the best Welsh team I've seen was under Terry Yorath, with Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs, Neville Southall, Mark Hughes, Dean Saunders, Gary Speed – that side was littered with very, very good players. Through no fault of Terry's, we missed out [on USA 1994] in the last game. He got us to a great place and we missed out to probably the best ever Romanian team, who beat us over both games, losing the final group match in Cardiff 2-1. That was our best team, I think, since 1958, but now we have this current team who have the potential to surpass that – they're well on course. They've been labelled a golden generation for some time, and they'll earn that tag if we qualify.
Four years ago Wales were 117th on the FIFA Ranking, and now you're in your highest-ever position. What do you think that says about the team?
The Ranking is a reflection of football over a space of time, 12-18 months, two years, and we've lost one game – away to the Netherlands – during that period. It's ten competitive games without defeat, so it's been a huge effort. We've earned the right to be in the top ten of the World Ranking and are on the verge of doing something special. It's not just the players, it's everyone involved. Our motto is 'together stronger', and we work hard for each other.
In terms of hitting your Ranking peak, it could not have come at a better time, having been in Pot One for the Russia 2018 preliminary draw after being among the bottom seeds for 2014. How do you reflect on the draw?
The teams in our group would have been wanting Wales from those top seeds, but from our point of view we're in uncharted territory. We were at the draw and were looking at ourselves amongst the top seeds and we enjoyed it, that little bit of spotlight. In terms of the group we're in, we feel it's one we can progress in, but of course it's not going to be easy. Austria have had a fantastic [EURO 2016] campaign, they've qualified and are unbeaten. Serbia have not done well, but that's never an easy game. It will be like a derby against the Republic of Ireland, no doubt – both sets of players will know each other inside out. But we feel if we keep on doing what we have done as a group, keep working, keep progressing, then we can do well and have another successful campaign.
He has captured many of the headlines for you, but Gareth Bale really seems to be relishing the responsibility his role presents him.
He understands his value, he understands his importance, of course – he's a world-class player. We also know what he brings to the party when he puts a Wales jersey on. What you see is his passion and his enjoyment when he plays for Wales – he's absolutely loving every minute of it. Of course the Welsh public adore him, as they should, and he now knows he has the capacity to surpass other people and get to a major tournament. That's where all great players should be performing.
Should you get to France, do you think the taste of tournament football can amplify the players' drive to reach Russia 2018?
We know the World Cup campaign will be coming round once the season is finished, but we've never taken our eye off the goal to qualify and then to progress in a major tournament. We've talked about qualifying and then doing it again, getting that consistency, but the first step to achieving that is doing it the first time. Once we've done that, we're already looking at how we can improve the structure to make sure this isn't a one-off.