Written by Andy Wood

In 2011, Swansea City AFC were the neutral’s favourite. One of the smallest teams to ever break into the esteemed Premier League ranks, they’d beaten off far richer and more established competition, including fierce rivals Cardiff City, to join the top tier against the odds. Now they’ve reached their 6th straight season, and everything has fallen apart. They sit bottom of the league with just 6 points from their opening 12 matches, with most commentators already writing off their survival chances. How has the little team we all rooted for become the dead rubber of the league, and what can teams of similar background and stature take from this regression?

History

There’s an old cliche that everything in football is cyclical, and this has certainly been the case for Swansea. This current era is not the first taste of top flight football that they have experienced – in fact their all-time club record for a league finish was when they came 6th in the old First Division in the 1982 season. The excursion was not to last for long though, as they were relegated the season after and as shortly as 1986 were they relegated to the 4th tier. Two decades were spent languishing between the 3rd and 4th tiers. The club experienced an increasingly difficult time during the 2002-03 season fuelled by increasing off the field uncertainty. The disastrous and controversial reign of the ‘Petty Group’, an Australian based consortium led by a businessman called Tony Petty, led to an immense behind the scenes power struggle involving the newly formed Supporter’s Trust and another consortium headed by Mel Nurse, which eventually ended positively with Nurse’s consortium taking power in January 2002 and installing local businessman Huw Jenkins as Chairman. The club flirted perilously with relegation that year and only on the final day of the season did they secure survival, eventually finishing 21st in the 4th tier, their lowest finish since 1975.

It may have been a rough season, but little did fans know at the time that the seeds had started to be sowed for a major change in fortunes. The influence of the Supporter’s Trust and Huw Jenkins meant the club were now under control of locally based, passionate businessmen, whilst on the pitch some canny business opened the doors to a new era. A classy Spanish midfielder by the name of Roberto Martinez had been recruited and made captain in January whilst some smart loan signings in Leon Britton and Alan Tate were a sign of things to come. Summer 2002 continued to put things into place, with Britton and Tate becoming permanent transfers, whilst a diminutive Welsh striker in Lee trundle was added to ranks. Kenny Jackett was hired as manager and the club began to move forward with a solid spine and Trundle supplying the goals. The next season some more good signings, not least a certain centre-back called Garry Monk, saw this far more stable outfit achieve promotion back to the third tier just two seasons after narrowly avoiding relegation. They made the play-offs in their first season back at that level, although failed to make promotion, and after narrowly missing out the next year, former midfielder Martinez replaced Jackett and led the club to promotion to The Championship in 2008.

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This first season back in The Championship saw the signing of another Welsh defender – Ashley Williams. Fuelled by goalscorer Jason Scotland, Martinez’ side finished 8th. The Spaniard left for another former club of his, Wigan, and Paulo Sousa took over the helm, ushering in the introduction of the ‘Swansea Triangles’, a reference to the continental style of short passing football that was implemented at the club, largely effected by small but technical central midfield players in Leon Britton and a young Joe Allen. Sousa guided the club to 7th in what was to be his only season at the club, with Brendan Rodgers replacing him in the summer of 2010, continuing on the principles that had bought such success, whilst adding key players such as Scott Sinclair and Neil Taylor. That season saw Swansea achieve the dream of promotion to the Premier League via the Play-offs.

Further success came in 2013, with the club winning the League Cup in 2013 and going on to reach the round of 32 in the Europa League the next season. From there it’s begun to be a further downward spiral, and at the time of writing, relegation looms. What has gone so wrong for the Welsh club?

 

A Selling Club

It’s perhaps harsh to go straight into this point seeing as how a smaller club such as Swansea can’t necessarily bargain competitively with the bigger fish in this age of financial discrepancy. Joe Allen, Scott Sinclair, Wilfried Bony, Michel Vorm, Ben Davies, Andre Ayew and Ashley Williams, key players at the time, have all been sold since the return to the Premier league and these are players you can’t necessarily just replace. This season in particular, the goals and creativity that Ayew bought from out wide and the leadership that Williams provided at the back remain gaping holes in the side. Vorm was a top class ‘keeper and Lukas Fabianski simply isn’t the same player, whilst the likes of Bafetembi Gomis, Eder and Fernando Llorente have all struggled to replicate the effective focal point that Bony offered.

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credit Ronnie Macdonald

With these players leaving for the likes of Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool, there is absolutely sympathy to be had as these are clubs with immense pulling power – keeping a player whose head has been turned by this is no easy feat. But seeing Ayew and Williams be moved on to West Ham and Everton respectively will have hurt somewhat more, as even though they are historically bigger clubs, a team aiming for the top half of the table as Swansea would be is making negative intent to sell key players to direct positional rivals.

And then you look at a similar case study, Southampton. Their selling pattern makes for even more incredulous reading, with Nathaniel Clyne, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Toby Alderweirald (sort of), Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle all departing the club in an even shorter period of time. Yet they find themselves continuing to climb into the top half of the table and at present making a positive impression in Europe, all following on from being in League 1 in 2009. Whereas the Saints are seemingly always prepared to replace a key player or manager with a ready made replacement of similar attributes and stature, Swansea have never really got the hang of bouncing back from key departures, and as a result their current squad is lacking in any real quality outside of mercurial attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson. They could be top 8 quality right now, had some more ambition, resolve, or simply effective planning been held. Instead, they look thoroughly disjointed.

No Stability, No Plan

Since the Jenkins era began, Swansea gained plaudits for bringing in a succession of talented managers who respectively bought into a system that favoured attractive passing football and a strong core of local or long serving players. This all started when Kenny Jackett took the reigns in 2004 and began to lead the club forward with this new mentality and philosophy, bringing success in the form of a promotion and a Football League trophy. His departure came in 2007 when he resigned from the role. Former midfielder Roberto Martinez was a popular appointment and he delivered a further promotion before Wigan poached his services in 2009. Paulo Sousa delivered a successful season before leaving by ‘mutual consent’ before joining Leicester shortly after – reading between the lines this was more of a make way than a traditional sacking, especially given he’d delivered a successful season. Brendan Rodgers spent two years at the club before Liverpool swooped in, and so when the club dismissed of the services of Michael Laudrup in 2014, the best part of a decade had passed without a managerial sacking. This level of stability, consisting of managers who all implemented the passing style of football that Swansea grew to be known for, was undoubtedly key in developing a winning atmosphere at the club.

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credit Doha Stadium Plus Qatar

Laudrup’s sacking wasn’t necessarily a major turning point but it set a dangerous precedent. Having secured major domestic cup glory for the first time in the club’s history and set in motion a successful European campaign, his sacking was harsh to say the least, despite league form being hit or miss. The club turned to Garry Monk, a long serving player and an incredibly popular figure amongst the fans. He carried on where previous managers had left off, and in his first full season he exceeded expectations by guiding the club to an 8th placed finish, and to many neutrals he was the manager of the season. But failing to match these standards at the start of 2015 saw him also dismissed, with the club turning to little known Italian manager Francesco Guidolin, who admittedly did a good job to steady the ship.

Unaided by poor transfer business, Guidolin lost his job in October. By this time new American investors had taken control and despite strong links to Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs – a Welshman with a strong exposure to attractive attacking football in the Swansea element – it was across the pond that these investors looked, apparently without necessary consultation to the fans. Bob Bradley, the former USA coach, was turned to and to date his appointment has been something of a disaster. The unity between board and fans has turned to a low point not seen in many years, the attractive football no longer shines through and morale inside and outside the club is on the demise.

Retrospectively, sacking two successful managers in Laudrup and Monk was the wrong direction for the club to take, and the short sighted nature of it a serious departure form the principles that had bought such good times. In an era where sacking managers has become all to common an occurrence, it’s the clubs who stick to their guns who have often reaped the rewards – a good example from season is Stoke City, who could easily have parted company with Mark Hughes after a horrendous start, but now find themselves climbing back up the table comfortably. By contrast another managerial change has merely plunged Swansea into uncertainty and turmoil. How they’ll long for the recent era to return.

A Cautionary Tale

As mentioned, it’s a lesson to Stoke to keep hold of Mark Hughes, and Leicester Claudio Ranieri. It’s a message to Bournemouth and Southampton to maintain the principles that have taken them so far. Swansea have done an incredible job over the last decade and a bit , but they have crucially failed to keep their heads at a vital period. If you’re not a traditional ‘Big 6’ club, the chances of you being an established top half Premier League team for an extended period of time is harder than ever in the modern era, and if the reaction to a season of faltering mid table form is to make major changes too quickly, the only way is down. Leeds United, Wolves, Aston Villa amongst others will all testify to this.

Swansea fans, what do you make of the decline in the last couple of seasons? What’s it ultimately down to? Let us know in the comments below!

featured image by Ronnie Macdonald

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