World Cup qualifiers: Serbia loss 'was catalyst for Wales success'

Wales v Serbia scoreboard
Wales' 2012 loss in Serbia is their worst defeat in the past two decades
World Cup qualifier: Serbia v Wales
Date: Sunday, 11 June Venue: Stadion Rajko Mitić, Belgrade Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Radio 5 live sports extra & BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app, plus live text commentary.

It is almost impossible to fathom that there was a time where a significant number of Welsh football fans were calling for manager Chris Coleman to be sacked.

After leading Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, Coleman's place in history and status as a national treasure is assured, but it was almost so different.

After Wales' last visit to Serbia in September 2012 - which resulted in a humiliating 6-1 defeat - many, possibly most Wales fans, were calling for him to resign.

Coleman himself describes the game as a watershed moment in his managerial career, the point where he decided he had to forge his own path and stop trying to replicate the style of his predecessor and great friend, Gary Speed.

Wales were five games unbeaten when Welsh football was rocked to its core by Speed's death and it seemed Coleman had been handed a simply impossible task of reinvigorating a squad that were crestfallen at the loss of a leader they loved.

Serbia goal celebration
Serbia's players celebrate their sixth goal in the 6-1 win in Novi Sad.

'It was a shambles'

The mauling in Serbia all but ended Wales' hopes of reaching the 2014 World Cup, but they hit the ground running in the next campaign to reach the European Championship in France and end 58 years of hurt when it came to major tournament qualification.

The defeat in Novi Sad was the low point that sparked a Wales revival and now Coleman's men return to Belgrade knowing their World Cup campaign once again hinges on an away day in Serbia.

"They [the fans] paid a lot of money and travelled a long way to watch a shambles and that was my fault. I had to take responsibly for that," Coleman remembers.

"I've never been afraid of criticism - my skin's thick enough to accept anything that comes my way. There's nothing worse than when you feel like you've let your country down and I did that in a big way.

"It still haunts me, to be honest. But I think that's quite good for me as well. You never want to experience that ever again.

"The last two times we played them [Serbia] we conceded nine goals - we've also got a bit to thank them for," he adds.

"Sometimes you need an electric prod and that certainly came from them."

Serbia v Wales
Wales players including then captain Aaron Ramsey, look dejected after the 6-1 defeat by Serbia

A career low

By his own admission, Coleman was "hanging on" to his job and some players' international futures were in doubt after such a damaging defeat.

Defender Sam Ricketts, who played in the game, remembers it as a career nadir.

"It was a real sombre feeling in the dressing room afterwards and a few home truths were spoken," the former Swansea City, Wolves and Bolton player told BBC Wales Sport.

"We felt we let everyone down. It was probably as bad a day as I had in my career. I can't think of a worse one of the top of my head."

However, Ricketts is adamant that the hammering ultimately benefitted Coleman and Wales.

"But from it, on the positive side, I think that was the game with Chris Coleman where he really decided he was going to do it his way and put his stamp on the team," he explained.

"It was the catalyst for all the success that has come since then.

"It was a really difficult situation when he took over after the tragedy with Gary Speed, and we'd just had some success.

"Eventually, the defeat in Serbia made his mind up that if he was going to fail, he would do it his way.

"That result was the start of Chris doing the job his way and since he's done that, the rewards are there for everybody to see."

Dragan Mladenovic and Gary Speed battle for the ball
Dragan Mladenovic and Gary Speed battle for the ball in the 2003 qualifier that Mladenovic scored the winner in.

Serbia expectations

The view from the Serbia camp is that Wales will provide a much sterner test this time around as the hosts bid to extend their advantage in qualifying Group D. They that if they win, they will all but end Wales' hopes.

Serbia are top with 11 points from five games, level with the Republic of Ireland and four points ahead of a Wales side without their suspended talisman, Gareth Bale.

Dragan Mladenovic, who scored the goal that gave Serbia and Montenegro a 1-0 win over Wales in August 2003 on their last visit to Belgrade, says Wales are viewed very differently after the Euros.

"Of course that [the 6-1 win] was a fantastic result, a fantastic game, for us," he said.

"But everything has changed since then. For me, a 1-0 win for Serbia is a good result this time.

"Wales went to the European Championships, Serbia didn't. Wales had a good start to this qualifying campaign, but Serbia are top of the group.

"It will be a totally different game to the one in 2012.

"We're a more experienced team than we were then. We have players who play for good clubs in strong championships.

"If Wales don't win, it will be very hard for them to qualify. If Serbia win we are 90% certain to be at the World Cup in Russia."

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