All happy football supporters are alike; every unhappy football supporter is unhappy in their own way. When you read fan forums and listen to fan podcasts as I do, you experience the endless varieties of unhappiness. Sometimes it’s a nagging sense that things at the club should be better; sometimes it’s straightforward anger at the board/manager/players; sometimes it’s depression as the season drags on and for the third year in a row you’re five places lower than where you want to be. And, of course, there’s the disbelief, horror, and desperate bargaining as you realise you’re sliding toward relegation.
But the deepest unhappiness of all is one I’m not sure has a name: when not only are you going to get relegated, not only do you witness debilitating failure on the pitch every week, but the club itself, your club, is being devastated by a management at best indifferent and at worst adversarial. In recent years at Premier League level we’ve seen and heard that unhappiness at Hull City under the Allams and Newcastle United under Mike Ashley. But maybe the most deeply unhappy voices I’ve ever encountered have been this year’s supporters of what used to be considered a model club: Swansea City.
You’ve probably heard how the Swans rose through the ranks, and if by some chance you haven’t, it’s the basic feelgood story. In 2002-03, they were in the fourth tier, and saved their Football League status with a victory on the final day. (It always seems to be that way.) The previous season, Huw Jenkins had taken over as chair, and under his leadership and the consortium of which he was a part, it was upward and onward. 2005, promotion to League One and the new Liberty Stadium; 2008, promotion to the Championship; 2011, promotion to the Premier League; 2013, League Cup winners.
The names associated with the rise are well-known. On the touchline, Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers, Michael Laudrup. On the pitch, Leon Britton, Garry Monk. But the most important names are the names you don’t know. They’re fans. Because in 2001, with the club in peril, they formed the Swansea City Supporters Trust, and have been an active force in the club ever since.
You can read the early history here. It’s as inspiring as you’d expect. From the beginning, the Trust has had at least one official director on the board, ensuring fan input at the highest level.
Since 2009-10, the Trust has owned 21% of the club. While in good times Swansea fans have cheered the on-pitch performances and hailed the management, they’ve never forgotten that they themselves have been an essential part of the club’s success. And anyone anywhere can join the Trust for ₤10 a year.
Over the years the Trust has been regularly consulted over events of importance to the club, and that bond has been crucial to the connection many supporters feel with Swansea City. But in the spring and summer of 2016, everything changed. The club was sold to a group of American investors, with the Trust ignored in the negotiations for the sale. The money went to the selling shareholders, without any further investment in the club. The Trust’s contention was, and still is, that the sellers, including Jenkins, had acted for their own profit and not in the best interests of Swansea City or the supporters. Soon after the new ownership came in, they created a new shareholders agreement and promulgated new articles of association that were implicitly hostile to the Trust’s interests, again without consultation.
High-handedness never goes down well. But it means a great deal more when the club is partially fan-owned, and whose excellence has been achieved with regular input from supporters. Roman Abramovich can act like Putin and everyone will shake their heads and move on. But at Swansea City, it’s betrayal.
All of this would be bad enough if the team were succeeding on the pitch. But they haven’t now for almost two years, and relegation, previously unthinkable, is now not only possible but likely. And as we know, the drop can go a long way and last a long time.
In retrospect, Swansea’s slide began in January 2015, when Wilfried Bony was sold. Garry Monk still managed the team to an eighth-place finish and record points total, although as detailed previously on this site, that was the textbook analytics example of overachievement. Perhaps overestimating the squad as a result, the club spent little money in the summer, despite the £25m received for Bony. The most important acquisition was André Ayew, who arrived from Marseille on a free.
By early December of next season the side had only one win in 11, and that against Aston Villa. Monk was sacked, and Francesco Guidolin was hired in mid-January. Guidolin led Swansea to survival, but his football was careful and functional, and the side managed results without ever convincing on the pitch or inspiring supporters. His chief January acquisition, Chievo striker Alberto Paloschi, was undistinguished. Tactics had been doubtful too, as he generally preferred a diamond midfield instead of the 4-3-3 for which the side seemed better suited. With Brendan Rodgers expected to make a dramatic return, it was a huge surprise when in May, Guidolin was given a two-year contract.
Swansea were more active in the market the following summer, but as it turned out, mostly ineffectively. There was no proven strong performer with Premier League experience. For ages it seemed they would sign Joe Allen, but they never met Liverpool’s asking price, and Allen went to Stoke. Ayew, who had led the side with 12 goals in 34 appearances, was sold to West Ham, where he’s been scoring at a similar rate. Fernando Llorente, one of his potential replacements, has become a stalwart, but the rest of the acquisitions have either been MIA or not good enough. In the former category are £15m striker Borja Bastón and defender Mike van der Hoorn; in the latter are Alfie Mawson and Leroy Fer. Mawson has had his moments and may develop, but he’s not top-flight standard yet. Fer is Fer.
Most importantly, in that same window, Ashley Williams left. He had declined a bit in recent years, but my goodness, what a leader. I can’t think of a single player in the league who has shown more dedication, spirit and endeavour. He was something very special for the Swans. The defence has never recovered.
Guidolin drew a bad schedule for the opening of the season. After games versus Burnley and Hull City, there came in order Leicester City, Chelsea, Southampton, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal. An unremarkable win and loss in the first two games, a loss at Leicester and a fortunate draw with Chelsea didn’t make for a great start, but wasn’t disastrous.
The next week wasn’t disastrous either, but it should have been. In one of the worst performances they had delivered in some time, Swansea were roasted alive at St. Mary’s, although the score somehow finished only 1-0. Something had to change, and soon.
So Guidolin got brave. In back-to-back games, hosting Manchester City and Liverpool, he pressed high, early, and often. It was tightrope football, and Swansea lost both games, but both were close, and at last the side was beginning to inspire. I remember being eager to see what Guidolin would do at the Emirates, where the Swans had won the previous year.
But he never made it. On his 61st birthday, he was sacked and replaced by Bob Bradley. You won’t be surprised to hear that the Trust wasn’t consulted. That Bradley was American led supporters to suspect that that’s what the new owners had in mind all along, and that the whole point of the choice was to expand the club’s profile in the USA. There’s a reason they call it the almighty dollar.
We all know how it turned out. But I urge you to listen to Bradley’s first press conference as manager of Swansea City. He talks a very, very good game. Just about everyone was impressed.
And it may be long forgotten, but his start, although hardly impressive, was by no means dreadful. In his first eight games, which included matches with Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham, Swansea picked up eight points. Only poor finishing kept them from a win against Watford, and only a late penalty denied them a win at Everton.
After that, the deluge. In the end, Bradley lasted 86 days, and you can look up ’86’d’ in American slang for a laugh. For Swans supporters, the laugh would be hollow: goal after goal conceded, loss after loss recorded, and all the while Huw Jenkins, now the ultimate sell-out, still chairman, watching from the stands. The jeers and chants from the fans were undoubtedly cathartic, for two hours at a time at least, but the results stayed the same.
So to Paul Clement, and with relegation a clear threat, management pursued a sensible and aggressive strategy in the marketplace. A full-back, Martin Olsson; an attacker, Jordan Ayew; a technical midfielder, Tom Carroll; a winger, Luciano Narsingh. All met very specific needs in the squad.
But after a fast start, another slide, which as of now measures one point from five games, four of which were against bottom-half sides, two against direct relegation rivals. Clement had some success last season at Derby County, and his sacking in February 2016 was almost certainly premature, but that team was going through a bad patch, and he had been generally critiqued for inflexibility and defensive tactics.
Although it’s very early in his tenure, there are similar indications at Swansea. Despite the winless streak, he hasn’t changed the basic system, a 4-5-1 with Gylfi Sigurdsson on the left, coming into the middle where possible in attack. When Ayew started ahead of the injured Llorente against Middlesbrough, the team seemed unable to adjust to a very different kind of striker, and sent in crosses as if Llorente were still playing. There’s still time to save the season, but slides demand changes.
Off the pitch, it’s hard to say if changes have been real or cosmetic. The new owners have finally engaged with the Trust, and the official line is that bridges are being built. In fact, last week Jason Levein and Steven Kaplan, the two biggest shareholders, actually held an 80-minute open question and answer session with Trust members.
Yeah, but. I listened to the tape of that session. The kindest possible interpretation is that it was all nice and courteous, but totally without substance, all management-speak: vague statements about growing the fan base, caring about the supporters and the club, opportunities, possibilities blah blah blah. A less kind interpretation I’ll leave you to imagine.
There were a few matters of interest content-wise. The new owners took responsibility for the Bradley fiasco, but several times praised their own “decisiveness” in both hiring and firing him. For folks like me, they touted a new analytics-based approach to recruitment. But it all means nothing if they don’t deliver, both on the pitch and off. It’s not a good sign that they also claimed they hadn’t seen the prior shareholder agreement before taking control – this past Tuesday the Trust officially responded that a copy of the agreement had been provided to the buyers’ legal team.
For the moment the Trust is looking to work with the new owners, but there may still be legal action over the shareholder agreement and articles of association. There are claims and counterclaims of what happened during the negotiations, and the Trust too is coming under fire for passivity and naïveté. The club says it wants to put the whole mess behind them, but that’s what organisations always say when they’ve been caught with their hands in someone else’s pockets.
The latest edition of the Jackcast was posted on Monday, a day before the Trust’s official rebuttal, and I listened. The podcasters had either attended or heard reports of the meeting, and for the moment were at least willing to give the new owners (although not Jenkins) the benefit of the doubt. But they spoke despairingly about performances on the pitch, and if not fully resigned to relegation, could muster very little hope. The mood was better than in the Bradley era, but still very, very unhappy.
At the end, as is their custom, the podcasters offered predictions for the upcoming game, Saturday at Watford. One picked a loss, one a draw, one a win. Football fans are wonderful. I sent in my ₤10 the next day.