The parachute men

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.

Photo: PA

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.

Graham Potter Photo: PA

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.

 

 

The New Saints: Perrenial Europeans

Chairman as fan: Mike Harris of TNS Photo: TNS

THE UEFA Champions League kicks off next week with a handful of first qualifying round ties. The top seed in the draw was none other than The New Saints of the Welsh Premier League, and the Oswestry-based club will play host to Gibraltar’s Europa FC.

The New Saints (TNS) have been in the competition for the last six seasons – not even Manchester United, Chelsea and now Arsenal can say that in 2017-18. Furthermore, their list of opponents in Europe looks quite impressive: Legia Warsaw, Slovan Bratislava, Videoton, Anderlecht, CSKA Sofia, Liverpool and Manchester City. “We greatly respect European football and our ambition is to win through to the group stages of the Champions League,” says Chairman/Owner Mike Harris. “The gap is gradually being reduced.”

The New Saints won’t have much trouble in filling their tiny ground at Park Hall for this tie. “We love these games and although we may start as favourites, we take nothing for granted. It’s a cliché, but there are no easy games in a competition like the Champions League.”

APOEL of Cyprus found that out last season when TNS held them in Wales 0-0 before losing by three goals in Nicosia. “They were terrified of us and you could see that in the faces of their officials. The stakes are high, APOEL needed European success because the financial rewards are enormous. We lost but we gave an excellent account of ourselves,” recalls Harris

Essentially, in terms of crowds, finance and status, the Welsh Premier League, which TNS have stood astride for the past decade, is comparable to non-league football in England. The big difference is that the Welsh Premier is representative of a nation and its teams can find themselves rubbing shoulders with top clubs from across the continent.

Oswestry’s famous sons include Ian Hunter, lead singer of Mott the Hoople, poet Wilfried Owen and golfer Ian Woosnam.

Harris considers that the Welsh Premier is becoming more widely recognised, although attendances in 2016-17 did fall. TNS’ own crowds were down 30%, but he doesn’t sound anxious about that. “We are not reliant on attendances alone and we are selling more season tickets than ever before. There is strong momentum in the Welsh Premier and crowds are not necessarily an accurate barometer. We are competing against many factors.”

There’s little denying that TNS are the “poster child” for the league and for its broader development. As the only full-time club in the Welsh Premier League, they clearly have an advantage over their closest rivals. But it wasn’t very close in 2016-17 as TNS were champions by an astonishing 27 points, their best-ever margin at the top, and 20 more than 2015-16. “Going full-time gave us the chance to lay the foundations for what we see today. We were able to invest on and off the field, attract good sponsors and develop a philosophy for the club,” says Harris.

That philosophy is not just about an attractive style of football – they scored 101 goals in 32 games in 2016-17 – but also the way TNS are structured, managed and in its ethos of developing players. “We are not a selling club,” says Harris. “But we are committed to our scholarship scheme and in nurturing talent. If a player leaves our academy and suddenly becomes a star elsewhere, I would want to know why we missed him. Our manager would be in trouble!”

Bringing players through the system is important to a club like TNS. They may be full-time, and they may have a turnover that has risen from something like £45,000 to £2m, but Harris runs the club on a playing budget of £600,000 which may seem small compared to the top level of the game in the UK, but is significant in the Welsh Premier. “We have a strict wage structure,” he insists.

Six glorious years: TNS record

  League (32 games) Goals Pts Welsh Cup Europe (UCL*, UEL**) Av. gate
2016-17 1st 101 85 Final 2QR* 280
2015-16 1st 72 64 Winners 2QR* 375
2014-15 1st 90 77 Winners 2QR* 367
2013-14 1st 86 73 Winners 2QR* 368
2012-13 1st 86 76 SF 2QR* 324
2011-12 1st 75 74 Winners 2QR** 436
Photo: TNS

The next step for TNS and for Harris is the development of a new 8,000-seater stadium that can serve two football clubs and the local rugby club. “We are at an early stage of discussions, but if it comes off, it will mean we can host Champions League games in town and FC Oswestry can play FA Cup ties there. Alongside side that, we would use Park Hall for community and academy activities.”

And the latter is an important element for the club’s evolution. Originally founded in 1959 as Llansantfraaid FC (a team from a village of 1,000 people), they won the Welsh Cup in 1996 and played in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Total Network Solutions, an IT company owned by Mike Harris, sponsored the club and changed its name to bear the name of the company. It was the first example in the UK of a football club renaming itself after its sponsor. In 2003, TNS merged with Oswestry Town and three years later, Total Network Solutions (the company) was taken over by British Telecom. Hence, the club’s name became The New Saints.

The name gained some international notoriety last season as they won 27 consecutive games, breaking a record held by the Ajax Amsterdam side of Johan Cruyff et al. This may have contributed to their manager, Craig Harrison, being recognised by potential employers and at the end of May, he was hired by Hartlepool United. Says Harris: “Craig was embedded in the philosophy of the club and he stamped his mark on it. But he’s from the North-East and wanted a fresh challenge, so Hartlepool is a good fit for him, but he’s left an excellent legacy.”

Two former players, Scott Ruscoe and Steve Evans, have been put in charge in the interim and Harris will be watching their progress. “Both Scott and Steve were in our succession planning and were both part of the scholarship scheme. They know the club inside-out, so we are hoping that the change will maintain the momentum.”

Does that mean the Welsh title is a prerequisite? Harris has a refreshing attitude when it comes to expectation. “It is, of course, lovely to win the league, but only one team can do that. Our ambition is to also further the cause and development of the Welsh Premier. We’re proud of what’s been achieved so far and we are certainly seeing some positive progress in Wales. The better the league becomes the better it is for us. And we want to be involved in Europe and to build our reputation – I would like to think we can be a standard bearer for the league.”

 

Special thanks to Mike Harris and Stewart Bloor of TNS for their cooperation. GOTP wishes TNS the best of luck in their European exploits this coming season.