Football: Molby turns ugly ducklings into Swans

Phil Shaw meets the Dane whose first full season as Swansea player- manager may end in promotion at Wembley today
The door of the manager's office at Swansea City has been disfigured so that it resembles Jack Nicholson's handiwork in The Shining. The damage was done not by an underpaid centre-back or an irate supporter, but by a man steeped in the subtle art of unlocking the world's most secure defences.

Jan Molby, a shining presence with Ajax and Liverpool for half his life, has made few obvious mistakes in his first full campaign as Swansea's player-manager. A place in today's Third Division play-off final against Northampton before a 50,000 crowd at Wembley is testimony to that. Locking his keys inside the room just happens to be one of them.

Despite being built for battering down doors, the 33-year-old Dane's playmaking has tended to be characterised by precision rather than power. This season Molby has also belied the perception of him - which he shared before following the John Toshack trail from Anfield to the Vetch Field - as unlikely management material.

After all, he was famously detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure for a driving offence (Swansea's ground stands next to a prison, an irony which he says with a grin is "a taboo subject" with his players). Reputedly fond of a pint or two at his local on the Wirral, he often had the girth to prove it.

It was in his 11th season on Merseyside, working out a one-year contract, that Molby became resigned to the fact that he was not part of Roy Evans' plans. In spite of a bright spell on loan to Barnsley, moves to Birmingham and Coventry fell through before Swansea came calling in February last year.

"I'd never been interested in being a manager," Molby admitted, his distinctive Danish-Scouse accent showing no Welsh inflections. "I'd always been very easy-going and lived life to the full. But before I left Liverpool I was on loan at Norwich. The manager there, Gary Megson, said I should offer myself as a player-coach.''

Swansea were in a sorry state when they landed Molby on a free transfer. Mired in the Second Division relegation zone, they had just appointed the youth coach of Cradley Town, one Kevin Cullis, to the hot seat, only to withdraw the offer almost immediately.

"They were having a horrendous season and there were 15 games left," Molby recalled. "We won three and drew two of my first five and I naturally thought: `This is easy'. We then went six without a win. I realised I had to take things step by step, not cheat by taking the easy way.''

Soon after Swansea took the drop, I met Molby at Euro 96. The club had no money and nothing had gone right, he said, but he was loving it. "Little's changed," he chuckled when reminded. "Although we've made good use of the loan system, we've only brought in one new player and let three go.''

So how have the ugly ducklings of last spring become proud Swans again? "Because we didn't have the funds to bring in new blood, we took a better look at what we had here already. We've given them a run in the team and stuck with them even when we've been beaten.

"After winning the first game we lost six in a row. With a third of the season gone, we were second bottom of the whole League. Then we went on a tremendous run of 13 wins and two draws in 17 games.

"We try to pass and move, the Anfield way, but you can overdo it at this level. I believe in that famous Alan Hansen quote about hoofing the ball into Row Z if needs be.''

On the opening day, Molby was sent off and missed a penalty but has since made over 30 appearances. The legendary bulk has not been an issue. "People have been going on about my weight for years," he said, looking as trim as in recent memory, "but I don't need to run like a young kid. That's not how I play my football.''

Player-managers usually describe the dual role as impossible; to him it is "the best of both worlds". Similarly, players who have dabbled in the poacher's lifestyle often prove the harshest gamekeepers in management. Molby, while devoting his own spare time to "rest rather than partying", does not class himself as a disciplinarian.

"We try to treat people as grown-ups and give them responsibility. I have to laugh sometimes when I catch myself saying things to the lads that managers told me - `Do this, don't do that' - which I never imagined I could say.''

Of his four managers at Anfield, Kenny Dalglish is the one whose values he finds himself imparting. "Kenny had so many quality players to deal with, yet managed to keep them all involved and happy, even when they were out of the side. I try to do the same.''

In Molby, Swansea also acquired a figurehead familiar with the "European" methods now in demand in Britain. It is more than his adolescent allegiance to Arsenal (he used to travel by ferry to watch them) that makes him so impressed by Arsene Wenger. In Highbury's division of labour - the Frenchman coaching, an executive handling transfers and contracts - he sees "the way forward".

In one sense, however, Swansea are forever looking backwards. The club shop sells a video, Those Were the Days, which chronicles their extraordinary charge from the Fourth Division to the old First under Toshack. Molby acknowledges that many people expect him to recreate the era.

Twenty years ago, "Tosh" was able to bring former Anfield colleagues like Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan. Much as Molby would love to sign, say, Ian Rush, lower-division clubs cannot match the money to which Premiership players are now accustomed.

"I'm ambitious and I'd like to think we could win successive promotions, but it doesn't follow that history will repeat itself," he said. Maybe not, but the impending sale of the club by the chairman, Doug Sharpe, should give Molby the resources with which to test his judgement in the transfer market.

"We've got the potential to be a steady First Division club, which Wales is crying out for someone to do. Cardiff are potentially the biggest club outside the Premier League. Swansea don't have an open chequebook, but Barnsley and Bury have showed that you can succeed if you do things properly.

"Whatever happens this weekend, we're very excited about next season. We've got a good youth policy and a strong reserve side full of 18- and 19-year-olds who've held their own with Premiership second teams.''

Within weeks of his leaving Liverpool, they reached the FA Cup final. Molby was repeatedly asked how it felt to be missing out on the Wembley showpiece he had graced as a winner in 1986 and '92. "I was saying that all good things come to an end. Yet here I am, going back with Swansea.''

After seeing off one ex-Evertonian manager and rival of derbies past, Kevin Ratcliffe, in the semi-final against Chester, he now faces another in Ian Atkins. Northampton are a more direct side than Swansea, but the splintered mess which greets visitors to Molby's office is a reminder that force is not necessarily the way to open the door to the Second Division.