Chris Coleman

Sunday 13 January 2002

A YEAR ago the best news a surgeon could give was that he had saved the leg from amputation. Next week another one will rule not if but when Chris Coleman is likely to play again. It will be proof of mind over metal.

Yes metal; and not just the bits of his car which crushed the Fulham captain's right leg to pieces when it went off the road last January. For it is one thing to have the odd pin in your ankle - I have still got a couple left in from a horse doing its worst 32 years ago - but this man has got a socking great metal tube running the whole length of the right leg.

"Oh I can feel it all right," he says, dark eyes focused, the voice still fluent Swansea as he shows you this long white Excalibur on the X-ray, "especially when I get up in the morning. I can feel really stiff and lame and sore from inactivity, but once I get going you get used to it. Now I am actually fitter and faster and lighter (89kg) than I have been for 10 years."

The likelihood is that the specialist he visits in France next week will advise an operation on the right knee's still grumbling cruciate ligament, putting Coleman's target for first-team involvement back to the start of next season. It is a postponement, but watching him running, lifting, pedalling and swimming on Friday showed a miracle had already happened.

The idea that the 6ft 2in linchpin of the Fulham's climb through the divisions can now do 12-minute interval runs in his best times would have seemed ridiculous a year ago even to the player himself. "I would do interviews and say the usual things about wanting to play again," says this magnificently fit-looking 31-year-old, "but in truth I would have just settled to take the pain away and walk normally."

Rehabilitation is a long haul and the debilitating effect of the drugs you have to take to get through pain-wracked days slows down the process. So, too, mentally as well as physically, does the news that your first operation has not worked and you need another. The operation on the fibula, which included taking muscle from under his left arm, had taken but the tibia had not knitted. In April, that was back to square one.

But the next one took. Gradually the bone bruise which was at the heart of the worst part of the ankle pain began to ease and progress under what must be the most advanced sports rehabilitation had begun. And it's not just healing, it's working.

Coleman arrived at 8.30am at the Motspur Park training centre which Fulham bought from London University. When he outlines the day-long series of exercise and endurance tests that he undergoes you remember his answer when questioned as to how he spent his evening when down in the Cers rehablitation centre near Biarritz. "We're so knackered we stay in and go to bed," he said. "Rehabilitation is harder than playing and training."

On the mind as well as on the body. Any sportsman will tell of the two separate mental burdens which hang heavy on your rehabilitation: the depression which can douse the fire needed to face the daily drudgery and the nervousness about really risking the repairing limb. The drive and smiling resolve that have lifted Coleman from the poor streets of Swansea to family home in stockbroker Surrey was always a good bet for the first; it was the second that was more complicated.

"The club could see I was a bit tense about things and they suggested sports psychologist Britt Tajet-Foxell," he says. "I had my reservations but she has been very good. Makes you visualise doing things like sprinting and jumping so that the brain gets used to sending the message to the limb. It has been a big help."

Physically, there is still a long way to go, especially with the right ankle and foot where the extensive soft-tissue damage has seriously limited the flexibility. By mid-afternoon he is on the iso-kinetic machine automatically bending and turning the ankle while a screen charts the pressures exerted.

John Collins, the Scottish international midfield player, comes through to josh about Coleman being back for the FA Cup final in Cardiff and then turns aside to shake his own head in admiration. "His progress has been unbelievable but he's a worker," Collins said.

The day before Coleman had pondered the question of whether he would stay in football if he actually made it back but could not command his old place in the team's higher status. "It would be difficult," he said, "but even if I have been a bit unlucky, I am even more lucky to have been spared to walk around, play with my children and lead a normal life."

He may still not make it but amid all the sheer nastiness of the continuing club wrecking, referee jostling, bottle throwing dramas of recent days, time spent with Chris Coleman is in danger of giving football a good name.