For those of us in our mid-30s, Swansea City left a pretty indelible mark. Our coming of age coincided with theirs, as they rocketed up to the First Division under the managership of John Toshack. They had a team of grizzled old pros, none of whom were done any favours by the fashion of the day to wear kits as tight as possible. The likes of Bob Latchford turned out at the Vetch Field looking as if they had been sewn into their shirts in the way that Olivia Newton-John was stitched into those figure-hugging trousers at the end of “Grease”. Having won promotion, they consolidated themselves in the First Division, narrowly missout on a place in the UEFA Cup, before getting relegated back as football entered its mid-1980s great depression.
By 1986 they were back in Division Four, and it has proved to be a long route back. Promotion last summer was the first time that they have been back in the top two divisions, with its bye to the Third Round of the FA Cup, in a quarter of a century. With this revival have come benefits and dangers. They are competing with local rivals Cardiff City and the air of optimism surrounding the club. On the other hand, however, the vultures are starting to circle and manager Roberto Martinez is now starting to attract glances from Premier League clubs that need a quick fix solution to whatever problems they might have at the moment. The Vetch Field has gone, too – replaced in 2005 by the 20,000 capcity Liberty Stadium, home to Swansea City and the Ospreys Rugby Union Football Club. Their visitors this afternoon are Fulham. Both clubs are in ninth place in the table – Swansea in the Championship, Fulham in the Premier League. Swansea are only three points off the play-off places in the Championship whilst Fulham, who are arguably outstripping most people’s expectations themselves this season, will be starting to wonder whether they can make the FA Cup final for the first time in almost thirty-five years.
Swansea come out firing on all cylinders, and dominate the first half. Mark Gower, who proves to be a threat to the Fulham goal all afternoon, skips through and beats Mark Schwarzer only to hit the post, and then, a few minutes later, repeats the trick of getting himself into a lot of space but this time finds Schwarzer blocking his effort on goal. It seems difficult to believe that he hasn’t scored for the Swans since he signed for them from Southend United last summer. Swansea continue to pressurise. Alan Tate curls a long range shot just over the crossbar and it feels as if it will only be a matter of time before Swansea score. Then, though, ninety seconds from half-time, Fulham are granted a huge slice of luck. Mark Koncheskey floats in a corner from the right hand side, goalkeeper Dorus de Vries misjudges his punch and the ball bounces in off Swansea captain Garry Monk to give the most unlikely of half-time leads.
At the start of the second half, it doesn’t take Swansea long to get back into the match, and the move that creates the goal certainly looks worthy of the Premier League. Gower feeds Jason Scotland, who turns inside his marker and lashes a low shot wide of Schwarzer and in. As they continue to pile forward, the first time watcher would have been unable to work out which was the higher placed club. Swansea work every inch of the pitch, pushing the ball wide into space and then back into the middle, pulling the Fulham defence apart and back together again like a concertina. Gomez and Rangel both come close for Swansea, and then, with five minutes to play, Scotland again works himself into space and pulls the ball back across the face of goal but no-one is in front of goal and the angle is too tight for Nathan Dyer, who is charging in from the left hand side, and his shot hits the side netting. When the full-time whistle goes, one cannot help but think that Fulham are the more relieved of the two sides to hear it.
Fulham, then, have dodged a bullet here. They have been outplayed for much of the previous ninety minutes, with only a short spell just before half time during which they could properly assert themselves. Swansea will consider this to be an opportunity wasted. They were unlucky as well as profligate in front of goal, and it ‘s difficult to imagine them having an opportunity this good again to overcome a team of Fulham’s undoubted quality. They will, however, seek solace from the strength of their performance and the comfort with which they overcame Portsmouth in the Fourth Round. For both sides, the delight of winning their Fifth Round tie might be tempered by the draw for the quarter-finals of this competition. The winners will be at home against… Manchester United. In the FA Cup, winning one tie is usually only respite before the tension starts up again.