IT’S a gleaming white stadium is the Liberty, you see it very clearly as the train snakes its way into Swansea station, and it still looks clean enough to feature on a TV advertisement for white emulsion paint.
These are hopeful days in this corner of Wales. Hopeful because last season, the club was relegated after seven years in the Premier League, a period that had some highs and even a bit of silverware, the Football League Cup in 2013.
They’re also hoping that under Graham Potter, the former Östersunds manager, they can regain the mojo they seemed to have lost somewhere over the past couple of years. Potter is already being linked to Aston Villa after a dozen or so games, prompting Swans fans to ask, “surely not so soon?”, as the new manager has made a steady and encouraging start to his job at the Liberty.
Yet Swansea are not too good at hanging onto managers. Their recent record is really comparable to some of the more renowned “hire and fire” employers in the game. Nobody since Roberto Martinez has stuck around for 100 games and they’ve been through people like Michael Laudrup, Garry Monk, Brendan Rodgers and Paul Clement in that period, not to mention Carlos Carvalhal. Let’s not forget that Monk was touted as an England manager in the making when he was at Swansea, but he, like most of the others, was sacked. If Swansea forgot their mission of bringing progressive football to the people, it could be that a lack of stability was the root cause.
Life in the Championship will be different for a club used to the fruits of Premier League life. The local media estimated that Swansea would have made £ 99 million for finishing 18thin 2017-18. That’s a lot of cash for failure. And now, for three years, they will receive so-called “parachute payments”, starting with around £ 40 million for 2018-19.
That gives Swansea (and WBA and Stoke) something of a competitive advantage this season and as academics Rob Wilson, Daniel Plumley and Grish Ramchandari revealed in their paper on parachute payments, Championship clubs with this cash compensation are twice as likely to gain promotion to the Premier as their rivals.
Certainly it seems unlikely that Swansea will suffer the sort of collapse they experienced in the 1980s when they went from the old fourth division in 1978 to the first in four seasons, with John Toshack in charge. A team of veterans and some sparkling Welsh talent, along with Tosh’s managerial talent, finished as high as sixth in 1981-82, but a year later, they suffered relegation and just as quickly as they rose, they fell like a stone. By 1986-87, they were back in division four.
Of course, Swansea also made their mark in the FA Cup in the 1960s, beating Liverpool at Anfield in the 1964 quarter-final before losing against Preston North End in the semi-final. Preston were one of Swansea’s early opponents this season, opening the Liberty campaign in a game that ended 1-0 to the Swans.
With Potter joining in the summer, there was also a lot of player traffic at the club in the close season. Inevitably, with relegation, a lot of high-earning players left, including Łukasz Fabiański (to West Ham – £ 7m), Roque Mesa (Swansea – £ 6m), Alfie Mawson (Fulham – £ 15m), Federico Fernańdez (Newcastle – £ 8m) and Sam Clucas (Stoke – £ 6m).
The new signings were relatively low key, but included Bersant Celina, a Kosovan midfielder from Manchester City, Barrie McKay from Nottingham Forest and Joel Asoro from Sunderland. All started on the opening day of the season when Swansea won 2-1 at Sheffield United, a result that is starting to look like an achievement in itself. Since then, they have struggled to score goals, but they have also shown they can keep clean sheets.
They’ve met some of the early season front-runners in Leeds United and Middlesbrough, and both games have ended in draws. People have started to recognise that Graham Potter’s intelligent, possession-based style is paying dividends and rekindling the free-flowing football that characterised Swansea under Martinez, Laudrup and Rodgers.
Despite relegation, crowds are holding up well. The average in 2017-18 was 20,623 and it is just under 20,000 this season, so there is enough belief in Swansea bouncing back at the first attempt to keep the interest growing.
When GOTP visited the Liberty Stadium, Queens Park Rangers were in town. They had started the season abysmally, losing their first four games, including a 7-1 embarassment at West Bromwich. QPR are looking like a club that has really lost its way, a sad decline when one remembers they were once progressive and entertaining.
Frankly, they were poor against Swansea, who played some bright, thoughtful football in the early autumn sun. Potter, aware that his team was a little goal-shy, brought back Courtney Baker-Richardson into the attack and he repaid his manager’s faith by opening the scoring after 16 minutes, Kyle Naughton crossing to the far post, Oli McBurnie heading back across goal and the agile Baker-Richardson hooking the ball home.
Swansea had plenty of chances in the first half and should have gone in at the interval two or three ahead. They finally scored a second goal in the 76thminute, Connor Roberts sending a deflected left foot shot into the net. Then, in the 83rdminute, Jay Fulton added a third. “It was important to play well in front of our supporters,” said Graham Potter. “Today we took a step forward in terms of our performance and what we are trying to do.”
An entertaining game and a promising display by Swansea, who drew at Wigan a couple of days later, their fourth goalless draw of the season. But the mood is definitely positive once more in Swansea, in their early Premier years, they were the neutrals’ favourite in terms of their playing style and also became a benchmark for how mid-size clubs could prosper at the highest level, adopting an attractive style of football and running themselves in a sustainable way. They called it “the Swansea way”, but that was cast aside to some extent as they tried to stay in the top flight. This time, the Swansea way is very much Graham Potter’s way.