Danny Graham, after scoring his momentous goal versus Arsenal.
Many football players (outside the U.S.) contest their sport on the pitch, clad in either home or away kits, with the hopes that a good result in their weekly fixtures will propel their sides upward in the table. That sentence may dizzy the average American sportsman, who probably wouldn’t comprehend why the most powerful football league in the world—The English Premier League, or The Prem, for short—not only permits draws, but crowns a champion at the conclusion of its rugged 38-game season, without carving itself into subdivisions and orchestrating multiple layers of playoffs. Incentives do await for victorious soccer that may not capture a title, as the top few finishers in The Prem gain admission to a couple lucrative, continental club tournaments: Champions League and Europa League. In addition, and most notably, the bottom three teams in The Prem must endure relegation, or demotion to an under-tier, to the Football League Championship division, or ‘Championship’, the teams of which can suffer relegation, themselves, to a lower division, or vault into the big show of The Prem. (Multi-tiered football associations in other countries operate in similar fashion.) On the concept of survival, the punk band Wire conveniently shouted: “Avoiding a death is to win the game / To avoid relegation . . .” and “that’s the lowdown,” baby. That’s the climate.
Enter our side, Swansea City FC, a.k.a. The Swans, who became the first Welsh team to compete in the current version of The Prem, and just the 45th club overall to reach this uppermost tier in English football, formed in 1992. The lads climbed into the rarefied atmosphere of The Prem fresh from an elimination contest among four hopefuls from Championship, amidst forecasts of great calamity. In short, the soothsayers predicted a swift return to Championship for The Swans, averring they would finish 20th out of 20, a one-hit wonder. The Swans, therefore, approached the season without donning any ridiculous airs. Their coach, at the time, Brendan Rodgers, frequently reminded spectators and sports writers that the mission revolved around survival, i.e., placing 17th or higher. They would strive to persevere, with Rodgers’ guidance, by attempting to control possession of the ball in the Spanish style, within a system of triangular passing schemes. Synonyms for this variety of ball movement might include “The Beautiful Game” or “Total Football”—the latter championed by Dutch legend Johann Cruyff. After their first few matches, it also became clear that The Swans, in Michel Vorm, were fielding a world-class goalkeeper, an acrobatic athlete with top-shelf reflexes and superior instincts, who led Swansea to four blank sheets (shut-outs) in their first seven Prem League matches. Two of these, unfortunately, involved scoreless draws at home, where a side would hope to prevail, instead, but The Swans knocked off West Brom and Stoke City at home, before drifting into the middle portion of their schedule.
Would they survive, they would likely require at least one signature win versus a Goliath, and the first of three such milestones materialized on January 15th, at Liberty Stadium, where The Swans hosted a traditional powerhouse, London-based Arsenal. Swans Forward Danny Graham struck in the 70th minute, just seconds after Theo Wolcott had knotted the score at 2-all for Arsenal, a goal that might have otherwise doomed The Swans to pursue a draw. Vorm preserved the 3-2 lead with notable point-blank stops, and in defeating the Gunners, The Swans had toppled a former champion and perennial title contender. The Swans would have needs to prevail on the road, and did so, for the first time, versus Aston Villa a day beyond New Year’s, and later versus West Brom, Wigan, and Fulham. In addition to Vorm and Graham, other Swans distinguished themselves throughout the 2011-12 campaign: defender Ashley Williams; midfielders Joe Allen, Nathan Dyer, and slippery Scott Sinclair; and striker Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Icelandic international on loan. Luke Moore subbed versus Manchester City and defeated the eventual champions with a header, and in the season’s final fixture, Graham tallied against perennial powerhouse, Liverpool; both games at Liberty Stadium ended 1-nil to Swansea. The Swans did engage in some maddening giveaways, among them yielding an agonizing equalizer to Chelsea in added time, a match that concluded 1-1 in late January, yet any student of The Prem would reason that such giveaways, in moderation, don’t represent outliers, but organic moments that bedevil all sides in all seasons. The Chelsea result would deprive Vorm, ultimately, from collecting his 15th clean sheet, but by winding up with 14, the Swans tied Tottenham for fourth overall, a badge of remarkable defense.
As the campaign wore on, The Swans tired a bit, and suffered a four-game losing streak to Everton, Spurs, Newcastle, and arch-rival, QPR. They clawed out eight points, however, over their final five fixtures, with a respectable loss to second-place finishers, Manchester United, two shaky draws but important notches, nevertheless, in the table, and two wins, punctuated by Graham’s goal in the 86th minute versus The Reds, with four minutes to play in the season. After the whistle blew versus Liverpool, Swansea City FC had engineered a good bit more than merely weathering the league. The club placed 11th in The Premier League table, the best of its graduating class from Championship. We could label the 2011-12 Swansea campaign as one that culminated in “wild success” or “success beyond imagination” but The Swans produced, simply put, a winning season, despite dropping more contests (15) than they won (12). They drew 11 times. I would guess that most American sports fans would react by sniffing at such a sequence, reasoning that “winning is everything” and if a team doesn’t capture a Super Bowl title, for example, or World Series rings, their exploits matter about as much as a shuffleboard competition in South Beach. Perhaps Americans have grown accustomed to various professional sports teams mired in chronic tableaux of miserable decrepitude, with little incentive to do more than concern themselves with solvency. Many U.S. sports, true, have become dominated by an elite oligopoly of powerful teams, but nowhere in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB do lousy clubs have to stomach relegation to lower leagues, or do hungry clubs receive promotion to the top leagues. Given the big corporate shoulders of the New York Yankees, on the other hand, we might conclude that the underfunded Kansas City Royals, for example, finished pretty darned well, under the circumstances, in winning 71, 67, and 65 baseball games out of 162 games over the past three completed seasons, 2011, 2010, and 2009, respectively, but American culture doesn’t really reward that kind of spendthrift endurance, spiritually or otherwise.
If we consider that half the current Premier League football clubs have enjoyed lengthy, uninterrupted stretches in The Prem, then the odds of Swansea out-scrabbling the other nine sides—each with more experience than The Swans—still seemed a bit meager, but cohesive play and clutch performances trumped the doubters. Out-scrabbling, of course, can exact its own price, and extraordinary manager Brendan Rodgers has left the club for the vacant managerial post at Liverpool. The Swans responded by hiring former Danish footballing star, Michael Laudrup, a chap who’s managed in Spain’s La Liga, who endorses a style of play similar to that of 2011-12 Swansea. He and his roster of likable Prem League upstarts will tour the United States for three exhibitions in the month of July, and after that, face an away date at QPR on August 18th, for the kickoff to the 2012-13 Prem. Allegedly, if Swansea survive a second year in the Premier League, then its ownership may expand Liberty Stadium by thousands of seats. Beyond a second Prem League campaign, who knows? The team could compete for “a place in Europe”—entry into Champs League or Europa. To support Swansea City FC, simply say “Up The Swans!” as often as you’d like. That phrase goes better with Single Malt Welsh Whisky distilled by Penderyn, a going Welsh concern that should certainly belong to a Premier League of World Whisky Distilleries, and a brand that could, indeed, survive—and take it all! Up The Swans!
(This post dedicated to Doug Lang.)
(This post dedicated to Doug Lang.)