Certain sections of the media have long had the mildly irritating habit of treating 1992 and the beginning of the Premier League as football’s Year Zero. In this world, “the history of football” is substituted for “the history of the Premier League”, as if nothing that happened prior to the twenty biggest clubs cutting themselves free in the pursuit of all the television money – to which we can only say, mission accomplished – and anything that happened prior to then is treated as at best an relevance.
So it was that when Swansea City beat Reading in the Championship play-off final at Wembley in May, they became “the first Welsh club to reach the Premier League”, which, whilst it was true on the one hand, didn’t take into account anything that had happened prior to the great land grab of 1992. Swansea’s previous top division adventure had only lasted for two seasons during the early 1980s, but it left a lasting mark on the club, not least of which was the belief that it this status be managed again. How important might that have been during the dark days that have come between then and now? It’s worth bearing in mind because it it is only eight years since the Swans completed a then unlikely looking end of season double to preserve their place in the Football League. The notion of trips to the likes of Old Trafford, Anfield or Stamford Bridge for league matches couldn’t have looked further away than it did then.
Swansea City, though, have changed. The most visible sign of this change came with their departure from the tatty but homely Vetch Field for the tidy and ultra-modern Liberty Stadium in 2005, but equally important was a change in the ownership structure of the club after the close shave of 2003 which has seen the clubs supporters trust take a twenty per cent ownership stake in the club. They are the the first club to make the Premier League with such a significant fans share-holding, and this is as important as a symbol as it is in a literal sense. Swansea City gives the impression of being a club that is all pulling in the same direction, and if this counts for anything they may all be looking forward to the new season with greater optimism than their counterparts at, say, Newcastle United or Queens Park Rangers.
None of this, however, is to say that the challenges facing the club upon its return to the top flight are not immense. The organisation seems strong on the pitch, but this counts for little once the referee’s whistle blows at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon or four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Similarly. Brendan Rodgers’ team had a reputation for playing very attractive football last season, but this will become an irrelevance if the team does end up struggling to keep its head above water in the bear pit that is the modern Premier League.
How difficult Premier League survival is likely to be for Swansea this season is without question, but none of this means that their season should be written off yet and the club has invested modestly in players that they believe will allow them to keep their heads above water. Most notable amongst these is Wayne Routledge, who failed to make the grade at Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa and has had some wretched luck with injuries. He demonstrated a little more of the promise that had been assumed on his behalf earlier in his career. Thanks to a number of false starts and judicious usage of the loan system, Swansea will be Routledge’s ninth club in the ten years of his professional career, perhaps settling down after such an unfocused few year will bring out the potential that so many saw in him during his teenage years with Crystal Palace.
Elsewhere, though, there are issues. Leroy Lita has signed from Middlesbrough and two goalkeepers, Michel Vorm and Jose Moreira have also been drafted in but, while other signings are likely before the end of the month, the squad still seems a little thin on the ground and a run of injuries could cause Rodgers a major headache during the season. The good news on this front is that the clubs financial position is reasonably comfortable, meaning that, if further reinforcement to the squad should be needed during the January transfer window, the money should be there in order to facilitate it. Such a policy, however, carries, a level of risk attached to it – if players signed at short notice can’t gel into the squad, then club and player become, as it were, stuck with each other.
Such considerations, however, lie some way in the future. If anything, though, the thinness of the squad combined with the assertive way in which Swansea ended last season means that a good start to the season may be critical to their prospects of staying up next season, especially when we consider that their last two matches of next season are against a Liverpool side that is likely to be cometing for a Champions League place and a Manchester United side that is likely to be at the very least challenging for the title itself, two matches from which the likelihood of them getting much more than a point or two would appear to be slim. Ultimately, however, everybody in the Premier League has to play each other twice. Brendan Rodgers, however, will be likely to consider that he may need to be comfortable in the league a couple prior to everybody else if his team is to be able to say with confidence that they will stay up.
There will, of course, be plenty of comparisons drawn between this years Swansea side and 1981. John Toshack’s class of ’81 fought their way into the top division with style and class and, once there, provided one of the opening day performances in demolishing Leeds United by five goals to one in front of the Match Of The Day television cameras. No-one would expect this Swansea team to replicate that seasons performance – they finished the season in sixth place – but the difficult second season that Toshack’s team suffered should act as a reminder to the Swans of 2011 that, should they end up safe at the end of this season, the same cycle will begin again next August. Yet the doomsday scenario – relegation in the humiliating manner that, say, Derby County managed several years ago – seems slight, to say the least. The bottom half of last season’s Premier League had a much of a muchness feel about it, and little of the transfer activity over the course of the summer has indicated that this will be a great deal different this time around. If the other teams of the bottom half of the table do spend the next few weeks or months taking points from each other, Swansea’s job will be made that little bit easier.
The club’s financially frugal outlook means that even if they were to be relegated at the eend of this season, the prognosis for a quick return would seem good. Television money will raise the club upwards of £40m for one season in the Premier League, and paracute payments totalling £48m over the four seasons afterwards would leave the club in a financially strong position over the seasons to follow this season would give them a considerable advantage over their Championship rivals were this situation to come to pass. Having this as a worst case scenario for the forthcoming season would, to put it bluntly, have seemed unimaginable when it was sold for £1 in 2003, but even this is far from being a foregone conclusion.
The problem with assessing Swansea City’s chances for the coming season is that they remain very much an unknown quantity, and that jumping to conclusions about what they may or may not would be a dangerous game. What we can say is that Blackpool, the team that were promoted through the play-offs the year before, were promoted with considerably tighter wage restraints than Swansea City have this year and that they were only relegated on the last day of last season. As such, it remains plausible to see Swansea having enough in the tank, but that survival will be an enormous challenge to a club that has come a long, long way in considerably less than a decade.
This may, we could rationalise, be a year or two too soon for Swansea City and the Premier League, but the financial rewards that they will earn for simply being there, even if it does only turn out to be for the one season for now, would make it more than worth their while even if relegation next season were a foregone conclusion, but – and Swansea City supporters will likely feel this sentiment more keenly than most – nothing has been decided yet and a team that hit a rich vein of form in the latter half of last season could yet confound their critics and manage to survive for another season. Seventeenth place would be an achievement, higher than that even more so, but the fact of the matter is that Swansea City have achieved more than most clubs by simply being there in the first place.
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