Inside Wales' new manager hunt: What happened before and those in running this time around

-Credit: (Image: 2023 AMA Sports Photo Agency)
-Credit: (Image: 2023 AMA Sports Photo Agency)

Being a football manager is the least secure job in the United Kingdom.

The turnover rate is extraordinarily high, especially in the modern age where social media pile-ons mean scrutiny and criticism is so fierce that managers are sacked after mere months, weeks, even days when a couple of results go wrong.

The exception to the rule is boss of Wales, with a rare vacancy for the most high-profile role in the Welsh game arising following the departure of Rob Page.

Football Association of Wales powerbrokers have only appointed six managers this century - Mark Hughes, John Toshack, Gary Speed, Chris Coleman, Ryan Giggs and Page, plus Brian Flynn for a brief two-match spell as caretaker. Two of them, Speed and Giggs, needed to be replaced years earlier than anyone hoped because of unique circumstances. They were each doing an excellent job.

To put this tiny turnover in perspective, during the same period Cardiff City have had 20 different managers in total, Swansea City 23 and Wrexham 20. Even Manchester United have had nine, despite the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson’s dynasty lasted right through until 2013. Wales’ big rivals England have had 10.

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When it comes to loyal employers, the FAW appear to be among the top of the pile.

There is a strong argument for saying that every one of the men chosen by Wales over the past 24 years was a success of sorts. Hughes had a boom and bust period in charge between 2000-04, with unwanted record winless runs either side of a truly halcyon 18-month period which saw Wales beat Germany and Italy, play in front of record 74,000 sell-out Millennium Stadium crowds and come within 90 minutes of reaching the European Championships in Portugal.

Toshack put down the foundations for the wonderful Euro 2016 march under Coleman by throwing in a plethora of teenagers and early twentysomethings for early international debuts, including Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, while Speed modernised the set-up during his year at the helm and took things to the next level.

Coleman memorably led the team to the Euro semi-finals in France, Giggs rebuilt and qualified for Euro 2020 as well as taking Wales towards promotion to the top tier of the UEFA Nations League, while Page was in charge when a World Cup qualifying jinx dating back to 1958 was finally broken in Qatar two years ago.

The old guys running the FAW, aka the much criticised Blazer Brigade, have historically received a lot of flak, but these managerial appointments they made were shrewd and often proved to be inspirational.

The power has shifted this time around. Instead, the FAW have tasked their technical director Dave Adams, the former Swansea Academy chief, with leading the hunt for the new man. It will be a more data-driven and technical approach, with Adams having a lot of weight on his shoulders to make the correct recommendation given those previous successes.

Two of the more intriguing candidates being looked at are 123-times capped France icon Thierry Henry and Wales and Cardiff legend Craig Bellamy.

Former Arsenal and Barcelona great Henry is in employment, doubling up in charge of the French under-21s and France under-23s Olympic team ahead of this summer’s Games in Paris. He is the kind of high-profile figure who would appeal to FAW chief executive Noel Mooney and greatly excite a Welsh nation, given the enormous interest and commercial clout Henry would bring to the job simply because of who he is.

With Henry at the helm, Wales matches would be guaranteed global appeal, the British and foreign TV companies wouldn’t be able to get enough of him, which in turn may greatly appeal to potential sponsors. It is about winning football matches as well, of course, but there is a feeling within the FAW corridors of power that Henry can do that.

He has strong links to Wales, having taken his UEFA coaching badges as part of the world-class coaching education system set up by Adams’ predecessor in the FAW technical director role, Osian Roberts. Among other big names who have followed that path under the FAW’s tutelage are Portugal Euro 2020 manager Roberto Martinez and Arsenal Premier League boss Mikel Arteta.

Henry is grateful for the help received in Wales and has been keen to hand something back. At one recent seminar held at Newport’s Celtic Manor, he gave a Powerpoint presentation to Welsh managers and coaches about his time as a player next to Lionel Messi under Pep Guardiola’s guidance at Barcelona. Henry spoke of the massive impact Guardiola had on him, and how he wished to model his own coaching career on the methods adopted by Pep.

French football Olympics 2024 coach Thierry Henry -Credit:Getty Images
French football Olympics 2024 coach Thierry Henry -Credit:Getty Images

In doing so, he presented a number of slides and short video clips of Barcelona matches to demonstrate the points he wished to make. It was compelling, giving a unique insight into what has made Pep the greatest manager of his generation.

Henry’s own embryonic managerial career has yet to take off properly. He had a poor spell in charge of Monaco, but did take MLS side Montreal into the play-offs. He was also assistant to Martinez when they led Belgium to number one team in the world. We are told there is a view among some influential figures at the FAW that Henry might be more suited to international management rather than club football. Whether they could persuade him to leave France and take up the role, if they choose to embark down that route, is obviously the major issue.

After a stellar playing career of his own, albeit not quite in Henry’s league, Bellamy moved into coaching as No.2 to former Manchester City Premier League title-winning skipper Vincent Kompany with Belgian giants Anderlecht, before the two men moved back to England to take Burnley up into the top flight.

Interestingly, while Kompany went on to become manager of Germany powerhouses Bayern Munich, Bellamy opted to stay at Burnley where he was placed in temporary charge. He has been heavily linked with the Wales job previously, as well as with the manager’s post at home-town club Cardiff City.

There are always concerns raised about Bellamy’s temperament, but some at the FAW feel he has mellowed somewhat whilw working next to a calm, authoritative figure like Kompany. He was close to landing the Wales job last time out, which we’ll come onto, possesses an astute football mind and many feel there is an excellent young manager in the making in Craig.

FAW bigwigs held talks with Bellamy, among others, earlier this week. At the time of writing they are awaiting clarity on his Burnley future, with Scott Parker now being named Clarets' manager. The Turf Moor club have seen Bellamy as part of the future next to Parker, but clearly the Wales job is a massive carrot for him.

It is understood other less stellar names than Henry and Bellamy have also been spoken about, including two Welshmen who recently took sides up from the Championship into the Premier League. Luton Town’s young boss Rob Edwards is highly regarded within the FAW corridors of power, but he has just put pen to paper on a new four-year deal with the relegated Hatters, while Steve Cooper, who won promotion with Nottingham Forest, has recently taken over at Leicester City.

As they each continue upon their own managerial paths, you can guarantee their names will figure again when the Wales vacancy next arises towards the end of the decade.

Another figure the FAW like is 29-times capped former Wales midfielder Andrew Crofts, who worked under Roberto De Zerbi as Brighton coach when the south-coast club finished an impressive sixth in the Premier League two years ago and then 11th last season. He has remained at Brighton while De Zerbi became manager of French club Marseille, but Crofts clearly isn’t the kind of big name who would excite the Welsh fan base at large.

Matthew Jones, in charge of Wales under-21s, is another who has been talked about, but it is too early for him. Whoever gets the job, Jones could be promoted next to him on the senior team’s coaching staff and potentially be groomed for the role in the future.

There is also the option to place Jones in temporary charge, with Wales next playing against Turkey and Montenegro in early September, if the hunt for the new manager drags on. This could be particularly pertinent if talks with Henry escalate. The Olympic football final Henry hopes France will be involved in is not until August 9 and he would want to take a break after that.

Osian Roberts, viewed by many as the power behind the throne for the Euro 2016 semi-final wonder show, will always have backers amongst the Welsh fan base and in the FAW corridors of powers, but he is committed to club football with Como after guiding the Italian minnows into the Serie A top flight for this coming season.

FAW boss Mooney is also encouraging applications for the vacant post, with potential left-field candidates from abroad likely to express interest. However, from day one Bellamy has been very much among the front-runners, perhaps understandable given his status in Welsh football and just how close he came to being appointed last time out.

That was when Coleman quit in the autumn of 2017, with the FAW drawing up a shortlist of four to replace him - Bellamy, Giggs, Roberts and ex-Wales defender Mark Bowen.

Mooney’s predecessor as chief executive, the highly-rated Jonathan Ford, drove the interview process in the private room of a swish Birmingham hotel, but it was down to a six-man FAW sub-committee to make the final call.

The quartet of interviewees were each asked to produce a presentation of their vision for Wales’ future and plans to build on the Euro 2016 success by also getting the team to qualify for Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup and in the end it boiled down to a straight choice between the two big name legends - Giggs or Bellamy.

Former Wales boss Ryan Giggs -Credit:Athena Pictures/Getty Images
Former Wales boss Ryan Giggs -Credit:Athena Pictures/Getty Images

Wales had tried for Giggs previously, but Manchester United blocked that move as he was still their player. Available this time, it was obvious he was the FAW’s preferred choice, but Bellamy really made them sit up and take notice with what was dubbed ‘a Hollywood interview’. He blew away the FAW with his insight into how he saw the role, the tactical methods he would bring from captaining his country and winning 78 caps, plus the need to develop football as a whole in Wales

In the end it was a 3-3 split, with the casting vote of the FAW President David Griffiths, from Maesteg, proving to be decisive as he backed Giggs in those unique circumstances.

Much of the impressive presentation Bellamy gave seven years ago is likely to have been repeated when he sat down for talks with Mooney and Adams earlier in the week.

After narrowly getting the nod ahead of Bellamy, Giggs did an excellent job on the field of play before his departure for well documented reasons. Despite his own status as a rookie manager, he boldly ripped up Coleman’s Euros side, threw in a plethora of youngsters like Harry Wilson, Dan James, Neco Williams, Joe Rodon, David Brooks and Ethan Ampadu, got the team playing with more zip and swagger and qualified Wales for Euro 2020, put back a year because of Covid.

He also achieved good results in the Nations League to take Wales 90 per cent of the way towards promotion amongst Europe’s elite. Indeed, Giggs’ 50 percent win ratio from 24 matches in charge is the highest of any Wales manager in history.

Because of that impressive record and formal not guilty verdicts being brought in, many fans would like to see Wales turn to Giggs once more. We’re told that while nobody is being ruled out, a Giggs return remains unlikely.

Giggs’ deputy Page stood in as caretaker, but ended up in charge of 45 matches. Under his watch Wales did qualify for the World Cup, Bale’s brilliance in play-off matches with Austria and Ukraine driving them to Qatar. However, large swathes of the fan base remained sceptical and in the end he had to depart with a less than flattering 33 per cent win ratio to his name.

When Page failed to qualify Wales for Euro 2024, despite also being handed a back-door route via the play-offs, FAW President Steve Williams attempted to quell the clamour for the manager to be changed by immediately going public and announcing he was the right man to keep leading the team. Eyebrows were raised. The clamour turned into a crescendo after an embarrassing summer which saw Wales draw 0-0 with that soccer super-power of Gibraltar and then slaughtered by Slovakia 4-0.

The president’s staunch backing, which had angered many Welsh fans, proved to be hollow words. Just two friendly matches on Page was dismissed, only halfway through his contract.

That is unusual for the FAW who, as indicated by the few managers they have appointed, tend to be among’s football’s most loyal employers. Wales managers tend to go of their own accord, rather than find themselves pushed. Hughes wanted to join Blackburn in the Premier League, Toshack knew he had taken the team as far as he could after six years at the helm, Coleman opted to move to Sunderland.

Page’s departure opens up a path for the future under the new man. The next World Cup, held in the United States, Mexico and Canada, is on the horizon, with qualifying for the tournament starting in March.

But absolutely pivotal will be qualifying for Euro 2028, when Wales are joint hosts and stage the opening game at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff.

Wales not being at their own tournament is simply inconceivable as far as Mooney and the FAW are concerned. They know they simply have to get this appointment right, be that Bellamy, Henry, or whoever might come out of left field.