Football: Another brick in the wall

FIELD OF DREAMERS AS SWANS AIM TO PUT DERBY UNDER THE HAMMER; Steve Tongue meets the men rebuilding hope down at the Vetch
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The Independent Online
THE foyer of the Post House Hotel, Swansea, has displays advertising the wares of three local attractions: two touristy shops and Swansea City FC. It is a small but telling example of the new profile of an organisation that not long ago seemed to be dead on its feet. New life has been breathed into the club, and by Thursday morning the oxygen of publicity following victory over West Ham in the FA Cup had the whole town on a high.

John Hollins, the manager who unexpectedly headed west last summer after a lifetime in London football, had cancelled the players' day-off to get them breathing some ozone down on the beach and concentrating on yesterday's Third Division game against Cambridge rather than dreaming of doing unto Derby County what they had done to the unhappy Hammers.

Back at the Vetch Field, a cramped ground hemmed in by terraced houses and one huge wall of a prison, queues were already snaking out of the club shop as tickets for the fourth- round tie went on sale. Telephones trilled incessantly and the club's marketing director, Mike Lewis, wore one of the largest of the smiles that were threatening to split faces in half.

Lewis, who had been working for Fulham - or Harrods, he was not sure which - was brought in last April in what appeared to be an unpromising situation: local businesses did not want to know about a club that in 15 years had sunk from the top of the old First Division under John Toshack to 89th in the Football League, with the third manager of the season (Alan Cork, following Jan Molby and Micky Adams) soon to be out of the door.

"There wasn't a lot of commercial activity," Lewis says, with what sounds like under-statement. "So the beauty was we could set a department up and get stuck in, doing things our way. Initially, people were a bit jaundiced, thinking it was just another set of faces and that nothing would change. But it has. We're making friends, and the secret is, having got them here once, to get them back. It's putting a brick in the wall. You see a positive result every day now, even if it's only getting a ball sponsored. The greatest achievement is that we've been able to regain credibility for the club off the field."

What Hollins and his team have achieved on the pitch naturally helps, encouraging larger crowds to come out and justifying Lewis's belief in Swansea's potential, for its geographical position alone. As a South Walian himself, he has his finger on the pulse, and the map: "There's plenty of people out there, plenty of chimney pots. We have an area we can call our own from Bridgend in the east up to Merthyr and Aberdare in the north, and to the west - well, we can go to the Irish Sea can't we?"

What, though, of the counter-attraction of that sport with the funny- shaped ball that the Welsh seem to enjoy? "I think it's a fallacy that this is a rugby city. Swansea [RFC] are doing ever so well at the moment but, although we can't be scientific about it, I think the overlap in spectators is only about five per cent. And you see far more football posts around the city and the parks."

The transformation in the club's fortunes had begun in 1997, when Steve Hamer, a Swansea fan and former television sports producer, persuaded the Silver Shield company to buy out Doug Sharpe, who had given up a long struggle against the odds. Neil McClure of Silver Shield was looking for what he calls "interesting situations" to invest in. An under-performing Welsh Third Division football club seemed interesting enough, so Hamer was installed as chairman, with McClure as his deputy, and Peter Day later hired as chief executive.

Day, like Lewis, was once employed by Tottenham and is made aware of the differences every day; which makes a triumph like Wednesday's all the sweeter. "Financially, there's a gulf that's growing all the time," he said. "West Ham have 15,000 ticket-holders, we have 1,065. Average admission here is about pounds 7 and at a Premier League ground it's pounds 15 or more. At this level we suffer from lack of seats."

The remedy for that can be seen from the train window some three miles out of Swansea, travelling east. The club have just received outline planning permission to redevelop the regional sports centre at Morfa, in partnership with the local council, into an all-seater stadium holding 25,000. If the Secretary of State for Wales rules next month that there is no necessity for a public inquiry, the stadium should be ready for the season after next.

That is all some way off. For now, the cash-register rings again and a precious Cup ticket is handed over. Another bum on a seat; another brick in the wall.