Swansea's 10-year trip to the top of the world
The Swans were facing relegation from the Football League a decade ago; now they are off to Wembley in Capital One Cup final. Ian Herbert retraces their steps on an amazing journey
It has been a 10-year journey from the edge of obscurity to what feels like the top of the world but for the man who started Swansea City off on their whole crazy adventure, a cold April Saturday in Rochdale will always live most in the mind.
Brian Flynn, the unassuming Welshman who in September 2002 took over and rebuilt a Swansea team six points adrift at the bottom of the Football League, had told his rag-tag bunch of loanees and old pros all that week how their professional status would be preserved if they won at Spotland, in the season's penultimate game. Flynn, recently appointed manager at Doncaster Rovers, remembers his assistant, Alan Curtis, giving the most inspired motivational talk he has ever heard in a dressing room that afternoon. "We won 2-1 and the dressing room was bouncing," Flynn recalled. Of course, no one banked on Exeter City, rivals for the drop, winning at York City – a top-six side –but they did and Football League survival came to depend on a dizzying 4-2 win against Hull City seven days later. That group of Flynn's included Roberto Martinez, rescued from Walsall's reserves, and Leon Britton, persuaded to swap his tag as a £400,000 West Ham United teenager for a life beyond the Port Talbot steelworks.
"'Calm' is the word. That's what we needed at that time," said Flynn, who had only 19 players for his first Swansea training session, discovered that half of them played in midfield and asked could any of them do something else – "like play on the wing". Chaos is what he actually found, at a club who had had four owners in the previous few years – including a detested businessman, Tony Petty, who flew in from Australia and summarily sacked seven players. A local consortium then owned the club but the farce rolled on: the brother of the former Bond girl Britt Ekland emerged as one bidder.
The seeds of the Swansea we now see were sown in that pantomime because Huw Jenkins, a lifelong fan, one-time building supplies company owner and now club chairman, vowed never to go back to those days, having helped save the club. The memory of 2002-03 is seared across every aspect of the club's development – the disinclination to splash the £15m secured from Liverpool for Joe Allen, for example. It has also meant that Swansea managers do not get the keys to the safe.
Jenkins also quickly fastened on to the idea that the only way for a small club to flourish was to do things differently. It's why Martinez, who graduated to manager in 2007, convinced him to invest his faith and meagre resources in players who could use a ball. One of the lesser appreciated aspects of the "Swanselona" story is Jenkins' own remarkable knowledge of the kind of players – and managers – to fit that style. "He understands the kinds of players who are needed in the different leagues and was very involved with that," Paolo Sousa, another of the mere five managers to have shepherded the club over the past eight years, says. "The proposal of a new type of football was a huge rupture from the English way. If you are not one of the big clubs, accustomed to the foreign style, it is difficult for supporters to accept."
Sousa credits Jenkins and Martin Morgan, the father of Wednesday night's ballboy, as men who were willing to stick with the plan, which required more patience than the over-simplistic narrative about a Swansea conversion to the passing game suggests. Ask Martinez about the boos that greeted a 0-0 draw with Brighton & Hove Albion in September 2007. The 2-1 win over Swindon Town that followed is a result many supporters feel was pivotal to this journey from the base of League Two to next month's Capital One Cup final.
Martinez, Sousa briefly in 2009-10, Brendan Rodgers and this season Michael Laudrup have maintained the same creed based on neat, angular passing, ball-retention and pressing, with Laudrup tweaking Rodgers' style by demanding the decisive forward pass be delivered more quickly.
Integral to the plan was Kevin Reeves, brought to Swansea by Flynn after their brilliant partnership in some very fine days at Wrexham. Reeves discovered Wednesday's hero Ashley Williams, Nathan Dyer, and Angel Rangel. Some say that Martinez's decision to take Reeves and his "black book" of numbers with him to Wigan hurt as much as, if not more than, the Spaniard going himself. Reeves was scouting in South America and unavailable to discuss his own part in this remarkable story.
Jenkins also ascribes great significance to Kenny Jackett, Martinez's predecessor, who achieved the hard task of getting Swansea out of the bottom league. Jackett imbued the club with discipline as he won the first promotion, from League Two, in 2005.
Never forgotten, either, is Lee Trundle, the colourful striker with the dyed hair and bright boots whom Flynn spotted at Rhyl and who dropped down a division to follow the manager from Wrexham to Swansea. He was a sensation in the difficult early years. "He made it cool to watch Swansea," says journalist Chris Wathan, who wrote the striker's excellent biography.
Trundle was integral to two straight promotions. Britton, persuaded by former West Ham chief scout Steve Shorey that a gamble on Swansea was worthwhile, has enabled them to play Jenkins' brand of football at every level. The 30-year-old's status in Glamorgan appeared to have reached its peak until he played with bandages covering a bump on his head the size of a golf ball against Chelsea.
It has not been a vastly expensive undertaking for Jenkins, for whom cash-flow loans and borrowing against Premier League money has formed a significant part of the financial strategy. The wage bill was a mere £34.6m in Swansea's first Premier League season, which brought them a profit of £14.6m, on the £53m increase in income which promotion delivered. Though two new training complexes are now being built, the players still share showers with the public at a private health club after training.
"It's a rollercoaster ride," Flynn reflected of that 2002-03 season. "The highs are so high it's not true so you've got to be ready for the unexpected. You can't drop your consistency and you can't lose sight of where you've come from." Jenkins would agree.
Managerial magic: Swans take flight
Roberto Martinez (2007-09) Current post: Wigan manager
Paulo Sousa (2009-10) Current post: Unemployed
Brendan Rodgers (2010-12) Current post: Liverpool manager
Michael Laudrup (2012-date) Next post: European giant?
Valleys tale: Rise from the ashes
3 May 2003 Brian Flynn's side beat Hull on the final day to escape relegation from the Football League. 18 March 2004 Flynn sacked, replaced by Kenny Jackett.
May 2005 Promoted to League One. Leave Vetch Field for Liberty Stadium.
2 April 2006 Beat Carlisle at Wembley to win Football League Trophy.
24 Feb 2007 Swans midfielder Roberto Martinez appointed manager following Jackett's resignation.
May 2008 Win League One by 10 points to go up to Championship.
23 June 2009 Paulo Sousa replaces Wigan-bound Martinez as manager.
5 July 2010 Sousa departs, to be replaced by Brendan Rodgers.
May 2011 Promoted to Premier League, beating Reading in play-off final.
May 2012 End season 11th. Michael Laudrup suceeds Rodgers and begins reign with 5-0 win at QPR.
Jan 2013 Reach League Cup final.
Williams: now let's make club history
Ashley Williams has challenged his Swansea City team-mates to become history-makers.
Michael Laudrup's team have already etched their names in the Welsh club's record books after beating Chelsea 2-0 on aggregate to reach the Capital One Cup final at Wembley next month. It is the first major final in Swansea's history and Williams says booking the date with Bradford City on 24 February ranks as one of his finest football achievements.
"A lot was said about making history before the game," said the defender, who featured in Swansea's last Wembley success, helping them win promotion to the Premier League in 2011. "You can earn money or whatever but making history and creating memories is what you remember. First and foremost it's a good day out but, now we're this far, we definitely want to win it.
"For the players, we work hard every day and it's nice to get an achievement and, for the fans, hopefully they can enjoy another day out at Wembley. At the moment the play-off final is top but, if we do win and create more memories, this will be up there as well. I haven't really thought about Europe, but it's another bonus if we win. Hopefully people will look back on this team and say they made history."
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