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The Day “The Swansea Way” Went South

(Originally published 12 Jan 2018)

Michael Laudrup’s comments this week regarding Swansea’s repeated relegation struggles made me wistful for the days when the Danish legend swept Swansea under his graceful wing, using a lanky, mononymous £2m midfielder nobody in Britain had even heard of to transform an overachieving top flight underdog into a cup-winning Europa league team that beat Valencia 3-0 at the Mestalla.

With hindsight, sacking Laudrup was a significant fork in the road in the Swansea story. I remember sitting in the car in the parking lot of a 5-a-side centre and getting the call from my then-editor that Laudrup was gone and could I give him 800 words by midnight. I remember breaking the news to my team mates and nobody could believe it, that’s how wrong it felt. Yes, ok, the game against West Ham was bad, Laudrup’s decision to play Jordi Amat as a defensive midfielder with a man-marking assignment on Andy Carroll completely failing, but that’s not the point.

Swansea were still the “model club” at the time, still positively perceived in the football world, still the neutral’s favourite. Laudrup had taken the club to Europe, and won the first major silverware in club history. Huw Jenkins defended his decision to fire the great Dane by declaring an “erosion” of the club’s principles, but on what basis? That Laudrup had been too ambitious? He had allegedly wanted bigger name signings which Jenkins was loathe to sanction large fees for.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Danny Rose were just two names I’ve seen suggested as among Laudrup’s targets. That seems crazy now, but bear in mind this was five years ago — those players’ talent levels and career trajectories were just about to curve upwards dramatically. If the talk is true, then Laudrup — the man who brought Michu to Swansea — really did have an eye for a player, and Jenkins was woefully shortsighted. Imagine the resale value. Those two names alone would have netted Swansea £100m in today’s market, and who knows what they could have achieved for Swansea in the meantime.

The question Jenkins should have asked himself before pressing what turned out to be the self-destruct button is whether the club were heading in the right direction at the time. I’d say that winning a first major trophy, getting into Europe (and doing relatively well once there), playing good football, and making astute signings was very much the right direction. Which principles were being eroded exactly? And what was the alternative?

Jenkins’ alternative was to employ an under-qualified career lower league player as manager, tarnish the club’s reputation through the manner of Laudrup’s dismissal and succession, lose Laudrup’s transfer connections, and start a cycle of playing increasingly aimless football with a squad built out of ageing veterans and the least poor remainder of whichever spare parts and wild overestimations the latest transfer window had dumped on the doorstep in a flaming bag.

Jenkins apparently balked at the asking prices of Laudrup’s targets, and it takes a special kind of hubris to refuse those suggestions but subsequently allow the club to spend over £30m on Borja Baston and Sam Clucas*. Anyone can sign a cheque. Identifying suitable talent is another skill entirely, and although Laudrup had his own misses (Alejandro Pozuelo never quite stuck, Jose Canas was not Leon Britton Mk II), they were bought for chump change, and yet still contributed more positives than negatives, so the harm was minimal.

There was talk of factions behind the scenes, that Laudrup’s players — all Spaniards — were eating on a separate table to the others (literally and figuratively). There was talk that Garry Monk’s eventual appointment was all a carefully orchestrated mutiny fronted by a clique drawn from the old guard — Monk, Alan Tate, even Ash Williams. Monk and Tate had been told by Laudrup they weren’t a part of his plans, and Monk had even been overlooked for a starting berth in the league cup final in favour of an out-of-position Ki Sung-Yueng.

It’s hard to filter out the noise and know for sure if any of this was real (Monk’s acquisition of Pablo Hernandez during his time as manager of Leeds suggests the clique talk might have been somewhat overstated), but if the choice was Laudrup, trophies, Europe, and exciting new signings on the one hand, at the cost of greater spending, or honouring the old guard out of a sense of sentimentality, keepings things cheap, and hoping for the best on the other, then there really should have been no choice at all.

This was the fork in the Premier League chapter of the Swansea story, the moment where the model club slipped and fell the wrong side of the razor’s edge. It’s impossible to know with any certainty what really went on, how much of any of this is even close to the truth, but from the outside, it looks like Jenkins couldn’t accept living in Laudrup’s shadow, sharing the success he brought to Swansea, and the “keep it in the family” strategy Jenkins chose instead has provided nothing since but a dwindling sense of identity; a once definable, attractive and ambitious team now rendered indistinct, just another Premier League makeweight in a small media market with a slim chance of success.

Somewhere in a parallel universe, the Laudrup-led Swans are battling for seventh, still have a knack for identifying talent, and rival Southampton for profits from player sales, while Monk is an out of work ex-player looking for a manager’s job. In this universe, Monk is still an out of work ex-player looking for a manager’s job, only Swansea are 20th, are on to their fifth permanent manager since Laudrup’s dismissal, have a squad of only partially compatible misfits seemingly assembled at random, and will need to defy all the odds for a second straight season to avoid relegation†.

So tell me, was sacking Laudrup really worthwhile?

 


* For the record I think both Borja and Clucas have quality, and could justify those transfer fees in the right environment. Bob Bradley’s Swansea didn’t suit Borja, and Carlos Carvalhal’s Swansea might yet suit Clucas, but the fact remains Laudrup was able to bring in equal or better talent for significantly less money; ironic given a difference of opinion over what the club should be spending on players was allegedly central to Jenkins decision to fire Laudrup.

† Now that’s an erosion