Football: Hollins' Swans no longer ugly ducks

A former Chelsea hero can maintain the revival at Vetch Field with today's FA Cup fourth-round visit of Derby
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WHEN THE eight-foot swan arrived in John Hollins' office, pursued by a Sun reporter chasing an exclusive interview - with Sidney the Swan, not Hollins, it was time to leave. Now things were really getting crazy.

It was nutty enough when I had arrived an hour earlier. "Have a seat, take your coat off," Hollins said, "and your jacket, and you might want to take everything else off, too."

Had Swansea City's epic FA Cup victory over West Ham, which earned them today's fourth round tie with Derby County, gone to Hollins' head? Or was it the "glamour" calendars discreetly hidden around the corner, above the desk of his assistant, Alan Curtis? No, the problem was the heating.

Due to a long-standing thermostat problem the City manager had two choices. Shiver with the heating off, or sweat with it on. He is thus the only manager with an office sauna (at least until Big Ron hears about it) and that, not the golden beach at Mumbles, may be what he meant when he recently compared Swansea to Marbella.

But it appeared to come at a price. As Hollins dug a beer out of the fridge - all in the line of duty; it was to prevent me becoming too parched to ask questions - I looked around his desk. There, alongside the usual managerial paraphernalia - a copy of Rothmans, a pile of paperwork - was a collection of stamps torn from their envelopes. The financial problems of lower divisions clubs are well known but this took the biscuit: were Swansea so hard up that they had to collect used stamps to pay the heating bill?

Not so, Hollins said, he was saving them for a member of staff who collected them for charity. Swansea may have fallen a long way since the heady years when John Toshack took them into the top flight 20 years ago but they are not that desperate. Indeed, the Third Division side are in better health than for some time.

After two years of boardroom wrangles and managerial change the club is on the rise. A new ground is on the horizon, supporters are returning - tickets for today's match were sold in less than two hours - and the team, which came 88th in the League last year, is flourishing.

Much of this is down to a youth system which is bearing fruit, illustrated by the likes of the 17-year-old winger Stuart Roberts, who gave Julian Dicks a fearful chasing in the two West Ham games, but the majority is down to the unlikely partnership of Hollins and Curtis.

The latter is an old Swansea hero: born in the Rhondda Valley, he played for the Swans at the age of 18 and Wales by the time he was 21. But how did Hollins get to The Vetch? He can only remember ever playing there twice.

The 52-year-old from Guildford spent his whole career, which was illustrious enough to earn him the MBE for "services to football", in the capital with Chelsea, Queen's Park Rangers and Arsenal. He then managed Chelsea and coached QPR before being sacked last year to make way for Vinnie Jones. A fax from QPR, alerting clubs to Jones' availability following another upheaval at Loftus Road, is on the wall. Not, one suspects, with a view to acting upon its information.

Symmetry suggested a call from Arsenal but it was two acquaintances, now running Swansea, who rang. The club had just dispensed with its fifth manager in three years and third in nine months but Hollins, who had been pondering offers from America and South Africa, did not hesitate.

"That situation was not unique to this club. I can only deal with what I inherited, not what went before."

He inherited 28 players, many of them teenagers, and a possible 29th.

"As I came in on 2 July," Hollins said, "Martin Thomas was sitting there, about to sign from Fulham on a free transfer. He said `Shall I sign, do you want me?' I said: `Do you want to be here? If you do, I want you'." Thomas scored the winner against West Ham, but is absent today with injury.

No one else has joined, with Hollins giving youth its chance. As one Swansea supporter said, his voice deep with admiration, "It's not just that they're playing really good football, it's that he's done it with the same players as last year."

Swansea may still be only mid-way in the Third Division but they are just five points off the play-off places with two games in hand. The emphasis on playing football means they have done better against teams from higher divisions than their own. As well as defeating West Ham they have beaten Stoke and Millwall in the FA Cup and only lost to Norwich in extra-time in the Worthington Cup.

The young players are already attracting scouts but Hollins, while aware of the realities, is not keen to sell. "We are trying to build something here. I'm here to develop these players for this club and themselves. They might be lucky, have five good games and be snapped up but they don't understand the game yet. My education was not complete until I went to Arsenal at 33 and found out what a football club was really about. If they want to stay I'll develop them; if not not there's not much I can do about it."

Hollins continues to learn. He is noticeably more relaxed than when managing Chelsea - from 1985-88, a difficult period - and said of his outlook now: "I enjoy it, I enjoy every minute of it. It is a pleasure to work here because of the way people have responded.

"I'm older than I was at Chelsea. I don't know if I'm wiser but I have learned a lot. As someone said, `the first time you get sacked you realise what it is like. The second time it doesn't bother you.' I've been sacked twice now."

Hollins, who is full of praise for the modern Chelsea, will have two reminders of his side at The Vetch today. In goal for Swansea is Roger Freestone, while at left-back for Derby is Tony Dorigo. Both were signed for Chelsea by Hollins. Football is a small world at times.

"Dorigo was a good pro, I'm looking forward to seeing him," Hollins said, "Freestone was just a baby then, but he has developed into a good keeper." He will have to prove it today. Hollins added: "This could be the trickiest game, because Derby can play football in every area. The advantage we might have is that, unlike Plymouth [Derby's opponents in the third round], this is a tight ground. The crowd are close in and you get a great atmosphere."

When it is over, win or lose, Hollins will head for London. Linda, his wife of 30 years, has stayed in the capital and both his children work there.

After a Sunday at home Hollins returns to Wales at 6am every Monday. It is not ideal but it is inevitable, given the precarious nature of football management.

Home in Wales is a flat overlooking the beach and his sweltering office, which is bedecked with a Welsh flag, a newspaper cutting from Finland, a congratulatory fax from Cardiff (relations between the clubs are better than between their respective fans) and a clock stuck at quarter-to-nine.

At least it is right twice a day - more than some managers, a cynic might say. Of the many Hollins has experienced he cites Dave Sexton as his biggest influence. Sexton managed Chelsea, when Hollins played in their 1970 FA Cup win over Leeds, a night which, for him, was eclipsed by the victory over West Ham.

"I enjoyed it more, as this is something we have been building; then I was one person in a football team. I've always felt the FA Cup was special and this has really raised our profile. To have won over two games, and to have done so playing football, was very pleasing."

At which point Cyril the giant swan, one of the game's more renegade mascots, bursts in, shoves his beak in the empty beer glass and casts a threatening look in my direction. I am uncomfortably reminded of a resemblance to Rod Hull's Emu and decide to make an exit. Quite what the Bald Eagle, as the Derby manager, Jim Smith, is known, will make of it this afternoon is anyone's guess, but feathers might fly.