Upwardly mobile Swansea impresses in debut PL season
As recently as 2003, Swansea faced near-relegation to the non-leagues
Swansea is run on strict financial parameters and prudent spending
Manager Brendan Rodgers emphasises an attractive, possession-based style
"We're not counting our chickens." This week Alan Lewis, spokesman for Swansea City Supporters' Trust, spent an evening perusing the French newspaper L'Equipe, attempting to decipher an article about the club. Since Swansea was promoted to the Premier League last summer, he has answered the telephone to people from all over the world, "sometimes from places I've never heard of." Swansea is currently 11 points clear of relegation with 11 games remaining and attracting new followers and second-clubbers by the dozen. Still, he refuses to contemplate a second season in the Premier League before it is certain. "We've been here before with the Swans."
It is stories such as Swansea's that will give comfort to the several British clubs currently teetering like 2 a.m. drunks on a curb. Having been relegated to Division Three in 2001, the club twice changed hands for £1 -- less than a dollar fifty -- before a group of businessmen and supporters were able to start making plans a decade ago. According to Huw Jenkins, the chairman, they were planning to survive the next 10 days, never mind the next 10 years. In 2003 it took a last-day-of-the-season win over Hull City to keep Swansea in the Football League.
From there, however, the club's ethos -- "a local community just doing its best" -- has seen it flourish. The Supporters' Trust owns a 20 percent stake, and the boardroom is full of supporters, too. Jenkins stood on the terraces at Vetch Field [since replaced by the Liberty Stadium and turned in to allotments] as a child and is committed to operating within Swansea's means. "The club got itself into all sorts of financial problems in the 1980s and 1990s," Lewis says. "We don't want to do that again. Financial prudence is what it's all about, and the fans have bought into this 100 percent."
Not surprising given Swansea's rise -- seven years after James Thomas' hat trick against Hull kept the club out of nonleague soccer, fans queued from the early hours of the morning to get season tickets for the Premier League. "There are a couple of people who have been involved with the Trust for 11 years, and they still can't quite believe what's happening at the moment." Swansea was almost everybody's pick to be relegated at the first opportunity; now it is hard to imagine that the Swans will not survive this year, and the next, and the next. "It is all a bit surreal," chuckles Lewis.
Last summer, Swansea was repeatedly compared to Blackpool: a team committed to a certain way of playing that would not change no matter what standard the opposition; a team that would entertain, but fail to find a foothold in the Premier League. It was not a comparison that ever really held water -- "we let people do it, but we were never convinced; we were never quite so gung-ho," says Lewis -- and has looked increasingly porous as the season has gone on. Twelve teams have conceded more goals than Swansea, including Arsenal and Newcastle, and by this point in the season Blackpool had leaked 51 goals to Swansea's 35.
A better comparison might be to Ipswich Town under Bobby Robson in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- an unfashionable and initially unfancied club playing good soccer against one and all, regardless of status. Ipswich were not big spenders either -- one of the most quotable statistics from Robson's reign is that he signed only 14 players from other clubs in 13 years, preferring instead to grow his own in the fertile Suffolk soil. The club was a family in Robson's eyes, which would no doubt glisten to see Rodgers continuing a tradition started when Kenny Jackett was in charge of Swansea in 2004. Once each year, all 26 lanes at the local tenpin bowling alley are booked out for a contest among the first-team squad, the manager, and supporters. "It's the sort of thing that works for us," Lewis says.
In fact you can trace a direct line from Robson to the Swansea City manager Brendan Rodgers, who was added to Chelsea's youth coaching staff by Robson's protégé, Jose Mourinho. Rodgers turned to coaching at the age of 20, when injury put paid to his ambitions as a player, and he has been an attentive student of the game ever since. Citing Dutch and Spanish soccer -- 'Total Football' -- as his biggest influence, he has always been determined to have his sides play stylish soccer to their own strengths and not the opposition's. "I would not abandon my methods because of results," he told the Daily Mail at the start of this season.
Which would perhaps make him a strange choice at Chelsea, where methodological aspirations have repeatedly been sacrificed at the altar of results. Nonetheless the link was made in the press, and it is a sign of how plausible the suggestion was that Rodgers felt it necessary to respond. "For me the focus is on Swansea; I came here to do a job," he said. This might have prompted a scoff or three from Watford supporters, who apparently had Rodgers' "full concentration" a couple of weeks before he left to become manager of Reading, and he has spoken in the past of his Champions League ambitions. But he finished off with a categorical coda: "If any of our fans are wondering about me and Chelsea, they need not panic. I am trying to build my career and not destroy it."
At Swansea the construction work has been to his reputation as much as to the soccer, which had already been molded by Paulo Sousa and, most prominently, Roberto Martinez. Rodgers has used his connections well, bringing in Scott Sinclair (top scorer with 27 goals last season) from Chelsea and more recently Gylfi Sigurdsson, who played under him at Reading, from Hoffenheim. "Brendan has taken us on a level," says Lewis, "there's no doubt about that. He and the club have been a good fit."
There was some apprehension about Rodgers' appointment, which came within months of the end a short spell in charge of Reading (which itself was only six months after his acrimonious departure from Watford). Rodgers was to oversee a period of change at Reading, but after five wins in their opening 21 fixtures, the club grew impatient. "It was a case of putting our faith in the chairman," Lewis explains of the reaction when Rodgers arrived in South Wales. "I'm sure Huw Jenkins said this is the way the club operates; we play a certain way, we have a certain style; and we have a strict wage cap. Brendan was a good fit for that."
On the pitch, Swansea's aesthetic ambitions had been tempered by a touch of defensiveness under Sousa, giving fans more of an appetite for change. "Brendan came in and didn't have to change things hugely, but tinkered around with things, and the result was then that the team was able to step up a gear." Arsenal can attest to that. Almost exactly 10 years after Tony Petty sold Swansea City FC for a single pound, Arsene Wenger's team left the Liberty Stadium without a single point. Swansea's 3-2 win was as impressive for the individual battles as for the soundness of the victory. Nathan Dyer ran Arsenal's defense ragged; Neil Taylor devoured Theo Walcott; Joe Allen upstaged the Wales captain Aaron Ramsey.
"That victory over Arsenal was something a little bit special," says Lewis. It is Swansea's most significant win this season, with spells in the first half in which Arsenal could barely get a hold of the ball, but that is by no means atypical: according to Opta, Rodgers' side has bettered Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United for passing accuracy and is ranked fourth in the Premier League for possession. Not that that will always translate to success -- Norwich recently showed how Swansea could be pressed, and when Manchester City beat Swansea on the opening weekend of the season, they did so with only 42 percent of possession.
"Even coming away from the Etihad with a 4-0 defeat, there was still a smile on people's faces," Lewis recalls, however. In a world where teams are booed off at half time, Swansea supporters' optimistic pragmatism is welcome. Following Allen's excellent performance at Anfield in November, there was talk that Liverpool would move to sign the midfielder in the past January transfer window. After last week's double, Sigurdsson (currently on loan) is being linked with clubs across Europe. "That's the reality of life," Lewis says. "There's something special about this club, for players ... but you've always got the lure of money." This weekend it is Swansea's turn to host Manchester City for the reverse fixture, one of the Premier League's lowest payers against its wealthiest. "Hopefully we'll be replicating the smiles and not the score line on Sunday."