The 200% Premier League Pre-Season: Swansea City
It has been, by any stretch of the imagination, an extraordinary last ten years for Swansea City. A new home, the end of a spell of financial misery which threatened the very existence of the club, and a magnificent rise to the Premier League which didn’t end upon the club’s arrival in the division. Over the last couple of years this club has become a symbol for a different way of doing things. Twenty per cent owned by its supporters trust, ensuring that the club’s financial position can never be seriously threatened again, making an inspired and innovative choice in bringing in Michael Laudrup as manager upon the departure of Brendan Rodgers to Liverpool, the ascent has continued with a solid, mid-table finish in the Premier League at the end of last season and, even more significantly than even this, winning the Football League Cup with a win against Bradford City at Wembley earlier this year.
With new achievements, however, come greater challenges. The major significance of winning the League Cup – setting aside for one minute the simple pleasure of winning a major English trophy for the first time in the club’s history and so on – is the return of European football to Swansea for the first time since 1992. The Swans have already brushed aside the Swedish club Malmo in their first competitive match of the season over two legs in the Europa League, and now play the Romanian side Petrolul Ploiesti in a play-off for a place in the competition proper. It is further involvement in this competition, with its byzantine group stage, which potentially offers a challenge to Laudrup in this season’s Premier League. Should the club get past Ploiesti, how difficult might it be for the club retain its focus in these two competitions simultaneously throughout the autumn and winter?
The club certainly cannot be accused of having prepared for this assault on twin fronts, with nine new players having arrived at The Liberty Stadium over the course of the summer, which should at least ensure that Laudrup’s squad isn’t spread thinly over the two competitions. At the top of the list of new acquisitions is Wilfred Bony, whose £12m signature from Vitesse Arnhem earlier in the summer would have seemed inconceivable not so long ago. Bony scored thirty-one goals in thirty matches last season and ended last season as the Dutch player of the year, and he gave a taster of his potential with two goals in the first leg of the tie against Malmo. When coupled with Michu and Swansea’s particular brand of possession football, it’s not difficult to imagine that the challenge of European football shouldn’t necessarily be a stretch too much for this club at this time. Elsewhere, Jonjo Shelvey gets the opportunity of a fresh start after a spell with Liverpool which all might agree with the benefit of hindsight wasn’t the right move for that player at that particular time, and a clutch of players from Spain – Jordi Amat from Espanyol, Spain), along with Jose Alberto Canas and Alejandro Pozuelo from Real Betis – all add further depth an already strong squad.
Back in the Premier League, meanwhile, Swansea may be the best placed of the teams that finished last season below seventh place in the table to make that breakthrough into the upper reaches of the table. The club has, after all, already in finished eleventh and ninth places in their first two seasons at this level, and a stronger, more confident team with a manager who has already had a year in which to bed himself in might even be capable of breaking into the top six in the table, and this is possible, with so much upheaval at so many clubs over the course of this season. Yet at the time same time as the club may hope to continue its ascent of recent years, there remains a suspicion that there is a glass ceiling that it will meet at some point, and that a policy of “safety first” would be the best to take over the coming months. Swansea City are surely too good to find themselves anywhere near the wrong end of the table, but they might well find themselves considering this season a success if their can finish in the top half of the table again this time around.
In Europe, meanwhile, the odds are stacked against clubs like Swansea City by the still ludicrous decision of UEFA to allow the rejects from the group stages of the Champions League a second bite of the cherry if they finish third in their groups. Getting into the group stages of the Europa League would be a small achievement, but getting through this point of the competition would be something considerably more noteworthy, especially when we consider the fact that Swansea City can, on their day, give at least any club in the Premier League a significant run for their money. It’s a notion that might not please their rivals from up the road at Cardiff – who, of course, join them in the Premier League for a renewal of internecine hostilities that have had to be put on the back boiler for the last couple of years – might want to hear, but even getting to the latter stages of the Europa League might not, if Laudrup applies his resources to it, be beyond this team. After all, both Middlesbrough and Fulham have made the final of this competition in recent years. Add to that the two domestic competitions, and there seems to be much to look forward to for supporters of this club for this season.
Of course, there is always scope for things to go wrong. That is in the very nature of professional football. Chairman Huw Jenkins has had a tetchy relationship with Laudrup since his arrival and, although the hatchet seems to have been buried between the two of late, this could flare up again. Equally, injuries to key players or finding that a first foray into European football in the modern era doesn’t sit well with keeping up with the pace of the Premier League could equally torpedo Swansea’s hopes of further progress over the course of this season. But perhaps this isn’t the key issue with Swansea City. Perhaps the key issue with this club remains that there is a different way of thinking and a smarter way of acting which has outflanked much of the Premier League over the last couple of years. For a club whose very future in the Football League hung in the balance a little over ten years ago, just being here is a party in itself, and it’s a party that has shown few signs of winding down just yet.
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