The Rise of Swansea City

Ever heard of that classic Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Ugly Duckling? If not, here’s a quick recap (bare with me, there is a point to this…) Essentially, the story revolves around, yes, you guessed it, a particularly unappealing looking baby duck. It gets mocked, belittled and ridiculed for years, wallowing in self pity and sadness. Then one day, one glorious day, the ugly duckling wakes up and is ugly no more. It has grown up, and is now a beautiful swan. This story can be morphed into a multitude of differing situations in life, but here is where the footballing bit comes in (thank you to all who have kept reading this far!)This is not a million miles away from the story of the aptly named Swansea City AFC. A small Welsh team who entered the English Football League back in 1921, they spent the best part of 90 years bouncing about the lower leagues of England, suffering some good promotions and some devastating relegations. These years were certainly some “ugly duckling” years for sure. Then, on a sunny May day in 2011, 90 years after their acceptance into the English Football League, the Swans gained promotion to the English Premier League, shedding their old, lower league, ugly duckling nature, and developed into proud, beautiful Premier League Swans.

Swansea have come on leaps and bounds over the past decade. They won the League One title in 2007/08 in some style, finishing 10 points clear in a league that included Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and current Premier League participants Bournemouth (who incidentally got relegated to League Two that season.) This title win was helped along the way by the 24 league goals scored by World Cup star Jason Scotland. Scotland joins the likes of Northern Ireland striker Will Grigg as going down in international football history for being a fan favourite of every team due to having an endearing song in his honour, despite not playing a minute of the tournament. Years before “Will Grigg’s on Fire”, there was the Jason Scotland Song (available on Youtube, and will assuredly be the best 3 minutes and 56 seconds of your day.)

The Swans soared up to the Championship, a tough and highly competitive league where even the most passionate City fan would be bold to predict anything more than a relegation dogfight. They were involved in a battle to change divisions that season, but they had defied expectations and were challenging for a play-off position. This was no mean feat, considering some of the fallen giants throwing their weight in the world’s toughest league (this is the writers opinion, not bona fide fact…) Both Sheffield teams, Birmingham City and even the present day stars of the song “Southampton in Europa” (another tune worth hitting up on Youtube) who were relegated to the third tier of English football that season. This was an incredible return to the Championship for the Swans, and Roberto Martinez’s men had done the city proud.

The following season had a rocky start, as Roberto Martinez left Swansea to join Wigan Athletic in the Premier League. While fans were undoubtedly sad to see their messiah leave, few could begrudge him a move to the top flight. His Guardiola-esque possession style of football was destined for bigger and better. The team rallied together in spite of this heavy loss in leadership, and once again, upset the odds to have a play-off push. But once again they fell short, climbing one place higher than the previous year to finish 7th, one position and one point behind a play-off spot. Even more agonising for the Swans was that the team that finished in 6th that year, Blackpool, went on to win the playoffs and gain promotion to the top flight. After so many tough years bouncing between the lowest professional divisions, Swansea City were really starting to establish themselves as regulars in the Championship. Their fear of relegation was replaced with a burning desire to gain promotion to the top flight.

Once again, the season started on a sour note as for the second summer in a row, a bigger team poached their manager. This turned out to be a fortunate turn of events, however. A young Northern Irishman called Brendan Rodgers took charge, and under his leadership guided the Swans to 3rd in the table. Despite finishing 3rd, the play-offs at this level were a new experience for the club. The prize was greater than anything they had played for before. They had been to the top flight before, back in the 80s, but the Premier League was bigger, and more pertinently to Swansea and their faithful chairman, Huw Jenkins.

Brendan Rodgers has grown a reputation in his career as being a very easy-going manager. Taking the pressure out of situations and allowing his players to thrive without worry of failure. Give it your best shot, lads, and nobody can ask any more of that. While that attitude failed to see his Liverpool side clinch the Premier League titles years later, it was enough to see his side see off Nottingham Forest in the playoff semi final over two legs, with Swansea winning 3-1 at the Liberty Stadium to send them to Wembley.

A final against former Premier League outfit Reading awaited them at the national stadium, and the game couldn’t have gone much better for the Welsh team. A nervy start saw Reading nearly take the lead, thankfully centre back Ashley Williams was able to clear the ball off the line and save the Swans from sinking early on. A feisty encounter between a young Fabio Borini, Reading ‘keeper Adam Federici and Reading centre back Zubar Khizanishvili could have seen a more inexperienced referee than Phil Dowd show a couple of red cards, but yellows sufficed, and the game was allowed to flow.

Khizanishvili may have been lucky to only see a yellow, but his luck ran out ten minutes later when he brought down Nathan Dyer in the box. Khizanishvili stayed on the park, but Scott Sinclair scored the subsequent penalty, giving Swansea the lead. Less than a minute later the crowd erupted as a young Sinclair latched onto a tipped Fabio Borini cross to give the Swans a second goal in two minutes. Bedlam ensued as the tiny team from south Wales had one foot inside the door to the Premier League. With five minutes to go in the first half, a loose ball fell to Scottish forward Stephen Dobbie, who rifled the ball into the bottom corner to give Swansea an insurmountable 3-0 lead.

Moments into the second half and Reading grabbed a goal back, former Dundee United hero Noel Hunt with a terrific front post header to give Reading a fighting chance. Not the start that Brendan Rodgers would have wanted, but for the neutral, game on! With an hour to go on the clock, Reading swung in another corner, this time to the back post. Matt Mills rose through the air like a proverbial salmon out of a river to rise above the Swansea defence and head the ball into the back of the net. 3-2. Swansea had been building a strong team for years, but decades of disappointment are hard to shake off for some fans, and at this point, doubt was surely creeping into the minds of the Liberty loyals. Reading were certainly a team in the ascendency. The ball struck the post once, and on the rebound Garry Monk (name sound familiar…?) put in a terrific block to deny Noel Hunt a second goal. For the second time in the game, Fabio Borini was taken out, this time by Andy Griffin, to give Swansea a penalty. 35 minutes of Reading pressure, including two well taken goals, was obliterated by this moronic piece of defending. Scott Sinclair stepped up and confidently struck the ball in the same corner as his first penalty to earn himself the match ball. The game finished 4-2 and Swansea became the first Welsh team to reach the lofty heights of the Premier League.

So they had done it, 90 years on from joining the Football League, the small Swansea town had risen, and fallen, risen a little more, fell even further, spending the best part of a century darting between the lower echelons of the Football League. And then on May 30th, everything changed. They were in the big leagues. They won “the richest game in the world”. In just a few short years they had gone from playing away games to Luton Town and Crewe Alexandra, to going to Old Trafford, St. James Park and Anfield. They had achieved the unthinkable.

The 2011-12 season is synonymous to many as the ultimate Premier League title moment, the famed “AGUEROOOOOOOO!” moment which saw Manchester City win their first Premier League, pipping fierce rivals Manchester United to the title with the last kick of the game. But there were fascinating stories pulsating all through the division. Arsenal defied everybody’s expectations by finishing fourth, in a shock twist of events. Newcastle United finished 5th due to the expert guidance of future Strictly Come Dancing winner Alan Pardrew. And perhaps most surprisingly, lowly Swansea City had not just avoided relegation, but done so with relative ease, leaving the coveted 40 point mark in their rear-view window, finishing the season in 11th, with 47 points. Job well done for Brendan Rodgers whose brilliant home form saw them finish off Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal at the Liberty.

As had become the way with Swansea, their small team stature overachieving came back to haunt them, as they witnessed their manager Brendan Rodgers depart to take the reins at Liverpool. This was a worry, as he had been influential in their rise from the Championship. Danish legend Michael Laudrup was the man brought in to replace Rodgers, a leftfield choice, but a wise one, it turned out. The former Barcelona and Juventus forward continued to build on the foundations in place at Swansea, and finished the season with his team in the top half.

In his first season, Laudrup won the League Cup, earning a relatively easy tie against Bradford in the final. The game had potential for a banana slip, but the Welsh team stayed strong and won 5-0, earning them a place in the following seasons Europa League. It is only right to point out that despite an “easy tie” in the final, Swansea had to see off both Liverpool at Anfield, and Chelsea over two legs to reach the final. If the final was perceived as easy, the journey there was anything but. The season was a success for Swansea, a top half finish, a trophy, and a place in Europe.

I may be wrong, but it is hard to see Swansea ever repeating this success. There are so many strong teams in the league that the sky is not the limit for Swansea, a team of that stature will more than likely never finish above 7th or 8th in the league, so to do so and finish with a trophy was amazing (for this point to make sense, you’re going to need to conveniently forget the whole Leicester thing last year). It was going to be hard to maintain those high standards, and after the season of a lifetime, things started to go downhill again. They finished 12th, but a poor run of mid-late season form saw Huw Jenkins panic that his Premier League dream was in danger, and fired the manager who had guided the team into Europe for the first time ever. Captain fantastic Garry Monk took charge, initially until the end of the season, and saw the club reach the magic 40 points, eventually building up to 42 points. A particularly poor season for rivals Cardiff City, as well as Fulham and Norwich, saw Swansea safe, as the team finishing 18th had only 33 points. Four teams managed to survive the drop with under 40 points that year.

It was actually remarkable that Swansea were so safe in the end, considering that they not only played in Europe, but made it beyond the groups, to play Italian giants Napoli. They were still in Europe after Christmas. Swansea City. In a European Cup knockout game. 10 years previously they finished 10th in the League 2 (then called the Third Division). They dispatched Malmo of Sweden, and Petrolul of Romania in qualification games with ease. They finished 2nd, with 8 points, in a group consisting of Valencia, St. Gallen and Kuban. In the first leg of their Napoli tie, they drew 0-0. AGAINST NAPOLI! They ended up losing 3-1 in Naples, but it was an extraordinary campaign for the former ugly ducklings. And yet after so much progress, they sacked Laudrup. Madness!

Despite the ludicrous sacking of Laudrup, things worked out, as they always seemed to do at Swansea of late. Garry Monk had proved that he was not only a solid defender, but also a pretty sensible tactician in the dugout as well. He was given the job full time after seeing the Swans safe the previous term. With no Europe to contest with, Swansea finished 8th again (see what I mean, it’s hard to break beyond the big boys in that league). They were picking up points all over the place, impressive considering the players they were losing, such as forward Wilfred Bony to Manchester City. They weren’t just praying on the small teams, however, they recorded doubles over Manchester United and Arsenal.

It seems somewhat harsh to criticise the chairman, after all he has done to help the team over the years, but now and then, he has made some ropey managerial decisions. After a dodgy run of form, Garry Monk was sacked, and the golden spell of Swansea was over. The light that had once shone from everyone’s favourite underdogs was gone, and instead swapped with confusion and anger. First Laudrup, now Monk. After one of the best seasons of Swansea’s history. They were no longer the plucky underdogs, they were just… sort of there, a name on a fixture list. They had lost all those loveable players that had been with them on the rise. Their Premier League hero’s were almost all gone too. Michu had departed, Bony had left, the love was being lost rapidly. The uncharismatic Francesco Guidolin came in and saw them finish the season safely, finishing 12th with 47 points.

The current campaign has been nothing short of disastrous for Swansea. Guidolin was sacked, eventually. Former USA manager Bob Bradley took charge to salvage the horrid start to the season, but was sacked after a mere 85 days. The players didn’t appear to take to him, nor did the fans. Given that his homeland is the birthplace of baseball, the appointment of Bradley was certainly a curveball, and his stint as Swansea was nothing short of a strikeout.

Paul Clement came in to save the day for Swansea, and to his credit, he has done the job. That being said, he has had some great games, but he has gone through a spell of terrible form too. Swansea are a side in minor crisis. This summer is huge for them. They didn’t so much survive through quality, they survived due to the embarrassing performance of Sunderland and Middlesbrough this season. The early season performances of Hull relegated them too, if the Tigers had employed Marco Silva a few weeks before they did, they may just have beaten Swansea to safety.

Swansea City have had an incredible transformation of fortunes over the past decade or so. From cannon fodder in the lower leagues, to playing Napoli in a Europa League knockout tie, they have established themselves as Premier League regulars. Their chairman, Huw Jenkins, has worked wonders to ensure the survival and growth of his team, and this cannot be stressed enough. That being said, football is an unforgiving business. He has both shown loyalty and ruthlessness at bizarre moments, sacking Laudrup and Monk prematurely, yet entrusting an untested Monk to the job in the first place. The Welsh outfit have risen from the ugly ducklings of the Football League to the high and mighty Swans of the Premier League, however, they are a side on decline. It is not too reminiscent of Aston Villa in their penultimate Premier League season. Swansea City are a wonderful advert for the Premier League, but if they don’t get their act together this summer, they may find themselves migrating south down the divisions at a rapid rate.