Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Wilfried Bony aka ‘Daddy Cool’

I support a small club, Swansea City, in the English Premier League, arguably the most competitive professional sports league in the world. The Swans will face Manchester United in the first fixture of the 2014-15 season, a daunting first opponent for many reasons. Aside from their storied past—20 top tier titles; the most in English football history—United finished a lackluster seventh in the table last year, having sacked their manager late in the campaign.  The Red Devils, therefore, will have something to prove, as they open the season at Old Trafford in front of more than 75,000 people. By contrast, the Swans will return from Manchester to play their first home fixture in front of 20,750 people at the Liberty Stadium in South Wales, but the differences between a big club, such as United, and a small club, such as Swansea, extend well beyond stadium seating capacity. A larger club, by virtue of its payroll and the profiles of its players, can expect to challenge for the league title, as well as entry into lucrative European club competitions, such as Champions League. The allure of winning titles and competing with other powerful European clubs often proves, to the star players and coaches on successful smaller teams, too difficult to resist. Smaller clubs enjoy little peacefulness from season to season, as their best performers receive offers from suitors across the continent.

Last year, the Swans themselves competed in Europa League, a demanding European club competition that unfolds in parallel with the domestic league calendar. Swansea traveled throughout the season to Sweden, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, Russia, and Italy, in addition to enduring physical matches in the Prem. The Italian giants, Napoli, who entered into Europa League after failing to advance in the more prestigious Champions League competition, eliminated the Swans, 3-1, in Naples, after the two sides played to a 0-0 draw in Wales. Swansea had bulked up for the Europa League mission, by adding players at most positions, but in the end, the schedule wearied and battered the club, and they found themselves drifting downward in the league table. At one juncture in the second half of the campaign, Swansea sat just two points above the drop. Had their fortunes continued to sour, they could have faced relegation to Football League Championship, the immediate under-tier to the Premier League, into which three clubs tumble every year, and from which, three teams climb every year. Just as Manchester United parted with manager David Moyes, the Swans board of directors, reeling from the club’s tepid performance, sacked their manager, the legendary former Danish star, Michael Laudrup, replacing him with favorite son Garry Monk, a 35 year-old defender still on the active roster.

Monk, a long-time Swansea captain with no managerial experience, led the club to a respectable record of 5 wins, 3 draws, and 6 losses after Laudrup’s departure, with a plus-6 goal difference over that stretch. (Laudrup had amassed a record of 6 wins, 6 draws, and 12 losses, with a minus-6 goal difference.) Swansea’s triumph at Sunderland on the final day of the season earned the club a 12th place finish in the table, but it didn’t quite erase the club’s yearlong struggles. Many players, including the previous year’s ace, Michu, faced layoffs with injuries. The club owned the ball during many of its matches, employing its trademark passing schemes, but the possession, at times, rang hollow, with the club unable to create opportunities. In addition, the Swans often conceded a maddening early goal. They produced fewer clean sheets (shutouts) than in previous seasons and only took two points from big clubs: an early draw with Liverpool, and a crucial draw at Arsenal, where Swansea stalwart Leon Britton carried the ball into the defense, forcing a late own goal to earn the point. Captain Ashley Williams anchored the team with 34 league starts, the most on the club. Williams, a defender, had played on the back line with Garry Monk, before Monk became the club’s manager. Nobody will forget Ash hugging Garry on the sidelines after the club took a 1-0 lead in the second Welsh derby versus Cardiff, Monk’s first game as gaffer.

Wayne Routledge scored that goal, before tallies by Nathan Dyer and Wilfried Bony gave the Swans a comfortable 3-0 triumph over their arch-rivals. Wilfried, the undeniable man of the year for Swansea, scored 16 league goals—with his feet; in the air; from the spot—for Swansea, none finer than a blistering inside-out strike versus Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium, as part of a 2-3 home loss. The Côte d’Ivoire international, who arrived at Swansea last year from Vitesse of the Dutch Eredivisie, would finish tied for sixth in the Premier League scoring race. It was, however, another player to join Swansea last year, Jonjo Shelvey, who would produce the club’s greatest highlight, a wonder goal blasted from 45 yards away, that broke a 1-1 home tie versus Aston Villa. Shelvey, who joined the club from Liverpool, also scored crackers against his former club at Anfield and against Newcastle at the Liberty Stadium. His distribution from midfield led to several assists and frequently opened up the field for his teammates. Other players, such as defenders Angel Rangel and Chico Flores, rewarded the club with valuable minutes, although supporters sometimes bristled at Chico’s histrionics. Still, Swansea scrabbled toward the end of the season, garnering points in the table, avoiding a relegation battle, and offering the kind of likability and intense promise that inspires the club’s ardent supporters.

Ash Williams embraces Garry Monk after
Swansea take a 1-0 lead against Cardiff.

I could write about Ben Davies’ and Michel Vorm’s departures to a wealthy London club, Tottenham, or the likelihood that Dutch World Cup star, Jonathan de Guzman, won’t return to Swansea, or how the club, once dubbed “Swansealona”, has rebuilt without its star, Michu, and many of its other Spanish players who emulated the Barcelona style of play. I could explain my fears that some big club, either in the Prem or perhaps the Bundesliga, will prize Wilfried from the Swans, depriving us hooligans of seeing him partner with Bafetimbi Gomis, a promising recent addition from French Ligue 1 side, Lyon. In the end, small club supporters don’t expect their sides to actually win the Premier League title, but instead, hope the team will achieve the highest possible finish outside the big clubs, or, in some miraculous way, maybe sixth or seventh, should one of the big clubs stumble. According to the Guardian, Swansea City spent £49 million on player wages in 2012-13, a scant 27 percent of what Man U spent, £181 million, in the same campaign. There is a very tangible underdog purity in seeing your scrappy club step onto the pitch against a heavily funded, heavily favored big club, with a growing possibility—now three years in the Premiership and counting—that Swansea City will compete for the win, the three points, every time they battle a colossus. I wish them well at United and for the new campaign. Up The Swans!

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