Students of international affairs might recall a famous example of American ‘expertise’ when it came to educating local farmers in a distant country on how to expand upon their own endemic traditions. These farmers were, simply put, growing an array of crops on rocky surfaces, even as these rocky surfaces climbed up and down a remote landscape. They had been farming this way for decades, perhaps centuries. At the invitation of the distant country’s ambitious leadership, American engineers arrived with blueprints, and heavy machinery, and advanced agrarian know-how. They bulldozed the rocks, did the Americans, they smoothed the earth, they sowed the seeds, they clapped the local farmers on the back. “It’ll be so much better,” they promised. “You’ll be able to feed your families, your village, and your countrymen.” But the crops did not grow. According to the textbook where the famous example appeared as a cautionary tale, the engineers attempted to remedy the situation by churning up the soil again and again, applying fertilizer, installing an irrigation system. But the crops would not grow. Eventually, the befuddled Americans returned home, but the local farmers, who didn’t have the resources to relocate, could never farm there again. Who knows whatever happened to them.
In a moment, we shall describe a similar scenario that has played-out over the past couple years in Wales at Swansea City Association Football Club, where the Swans, once nearly purged from the professional football leagues altogether, not only regained their stability, but climbed all the way to the top tier, the English Premier League. In 2014-2015, Swansea’s fourth consecutive season in the Prem, the Swans defeated Manchester United twice and Arsenal twice en route to an eighth place finish on 56 points. At that juncture, the Swansea City ownership included a Welsh-led consortium of individuals as well as the Swansea City Supporters Trust, a grassroots organization which held a 21 percent stake in the club. Collectively, this ownership structure was responsible for rescuing the club many seasons earlier when its former owner might’ve fleeced it, misplaced it, and fled. Garry Monk, the team’s former captain, had managed the Swans to these 56 points. Yet scant months later, Swansea sacked Monk as punishment for the club’s tepid start to the 2015-2016 campaign, setting in motion a trend that would see managers and caretaker managers alike—Curtis, Guidolin, Curtis again, Bradley, Curtis again-again, Clement, Britton, Carvalhal—arrive and be nudged aside in short order.
The appointment of Bob Bradley, former manager of the U.S. Men’s National Team, is emblematic of how American ‘expertise’ would come to educate a Welsh football club on how they should expand upon their own endemic traditions. Bradley was installed by Americans Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan a short spell after they assumed majority ownership of the Swans. At the time, Swansea were entrenched in the relegation zone. Bradley had no experience in the English football leagues. An American—probably for good reason—had never managed a Premier League side. The appointment was a massive blunder and club legend Alan Curtis stepped in again-again as caretaker, before the English manager Paul Clement improbably pulled off a “great escape” and led Swansea toward another year at the top flight. And yet Clement himself would be sacked a few months into the 2017-2018 Prem, but this time, the team’s panicked squirming wouldn’t produce a survivor. Even before Swansea City suffered relegation into the second tier of English football they had already lost their possession-based playing style, their status as a community-owned team. They were adrift, lacking soul. They’d lost the incalculable gift of their identity, and the American owners, through their cold corporate aloofness, compounded the problem.
Swansea City supporters cannot heap blame entirely on the American owners. They must also scrutinize the figure of Huw Jenkins, the chairman who guided Swansea from the Vetch Field to the Liberty Stadium, and eventually to the top flight. He’s demonstrated greatness and great misjudgment alike, he’s a curious fellow. We could recite the list of dud managers and dud players, but we could also remember the brilliance we’ve all witnessed, in recent-enough managers like Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers, Michael Laudrup, and Garry Monk, and in recent-enough players like Michu, Wilfried Bony, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Garry Monk. We should probably say Ashley Williams, too, and of course, we should say Leon Britton, but to label Leon “recent-enough” would be to understate his lengthy devotion to the Swans. I can’t ‘un-witness’ Michu’s two goals at Arsenal, for example, or Bafetimbi Gomis celebrating as the Black Panther, or all the blank sheets kept by Michel Vorm and Lukasz Fabianski, or the life-affirming defensive touch by Garry Monk in the playoff win versus Reading, or the argument between Michu and Nathan Dyer over who would take the penalty when the Swans beat Bradford City at Wembley. Jonathan de Guzman ended up scoring from the spot. In the end, I return to the managers and to the players, who I can support under any regime.
What if the American engineers had listened to the indigenous farmers, rather than bulldozed their traditions? Last year, the Swans sold a captain, Jack Cork, and the leading goal-scorer, Fernando Llorente, and the club’s best all-around player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, without adequately replacing them. Those sales brought in tens of millions but where did those pounds go, exactly? Forgetting the sale of those players—where are the other resources for vital recruitment efforts? What if the American owners weren’t so cold and aloof? What if there were information-sharing and transparency? I don’t know much firsthand about the Swansea City Supporters Trust, but it has the word “Trust” in its title. I’ve watched a few documentaries about Swansea, including Jack To A King, and I recollect that the members of the Supporters Trust collected coins at the gate to the stadium. It would do the owners and the chairman good, to get out into the community like that, and establish some Trust. Luckily for them, and perhaps as a sign of hope, there appears to be a manager, Graham Potter, who cares about reestablishing the Swansea Way (of playing) and a cast of young players who appear hungry to reestablish this system as well. So yeah, because of them—the gaffer and the boys—I am still Swansea. It may be a little while before we beat Arsenal again, but I’ll be wearing the Swan on my chest when we do.
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