Swansea City are in turmoil. With a fortnight to go to the start of their Championship season, they have yet to replace their talismanic forward with a proven star, their captain and long-serving midfielder is certain to be sold, and their manager has walked out as a result of these, and other, problems in south Wales.
It is astounding that the Swans were just 90 minutes away from the Premier League in May despite this raft of issues, and perhaps a Godsend that they did not soar into the top flight of English football.
To wish away a potential promotion may look anywhere from silly to ludicrous at first glance, and no Swan should bite the hand that feeds when it comes to success – however short term – but these problems would largely remain had that Wembley outing gone the Welsh side’s way instead of the Bees’.
Now it is Swansea who have an extremely busy couple of weeks and months ahead. Some will question former manager Steve Cooper’s decision to leave with no obvious job on offer elsewhere and even more will wonder why Swansea put up such little fight to keep him for the remainder of his contract.
In truth, there was little that could repair the damage accrued between Cooper and the US ownership now in place at the Liberty Stadium during the second half of the Welshman’s two-year stint with the Championship club.
Cause and effect is a phrase that comes to mind when discussing many of the problems that plagued the white-and-black corner of south Wales. Having watched largely through stuttering iFollow streams and second-hand social media commentary, it has been a challenge for fans of all clubs to remain as committed and interested in their clubs, particularly the 90 minutes of football every weekend and most midweeks.
For Swansea supporters, it was particularly tough. Their team played winning football, but at a cost. The style of play became the elephant in the room, particularly during the latter stages of the campaign. Going against what had become a classic Swansea style of play employed by a succession of managers in their last long-term ascent to the Premier League from the late noughties to the early teenies, Cooper almost had his hands tied with the lack of an out-and-out striker for three quarters of his spell in charge, the January 2019 loan acquisition of Rhian Brewster the exception to that particular rule.
Even had Swansea gained promotion to the Premier League, it is unlikely that Cooper would have managed even one top-flight game. His decision to leave may have even been accelerated in somewhat similar circumstances to Championship cheat code Slavisa Jokanovic after getting Watford promoted six years ago.
As such, Swansea City fans should be counting their blessings that they lost against Brentford in that sunny May showdown. Whereas the Bees were ‘buzzing’ with their long-awaited and well-deserved promotion, the signs prior to – and certainly since that – play-off final, indicate Swansea were nowhere near ready for a return to the top flight in many aspects of their set-up.
For every long-term plan employed by the Premier League’s newest outfit, there is almost the exact opposite at the Liberty Stadium. Any promotion would have emphasised those weaknesses further and set the club even further back in their quest to become their best selves. To turn your nose up at promotion is nonsensical of course, but there are more reasons to be grateful than not.
Despite making the end-of-season lottery two years running, Swansea felt like a club changing a flat tyre while still driving the car forward, applying plasters and short-term fixes as their motor fell to pieces behind them. In 2019/20, an end-of-season surge in form behind closed doors saw the Swans squeeze into the play-offs on the final day largely thanks to Nottingham Forest’s spectacular collapse, proof of how Sabri Lamouchi’s side were not Premier League ready.
Last season, the improvements were steady if not spectacular, but owed largely to huge presences in either box, top scorer and earner Andre Ayew scoring goals when the rest of the team were not performing and on-loan goal keeper Freddie Woodman earning the Golden Glove for most clean sheets in his second season-long loan temporary spell in south Wales. Now back with parent club Newcastle United, another return to Swansea was already looking unlikely and even more so now Cooper has departed and the ‘keeper crisis at St James’ Park means Woodman is looking good to stake a claim for the number one shirt at the start of the upcoming Premier League season.
But the problems run deeper than individual players, however difficult they will be to replace. Swansea have been getting much right – you don’t make two successive play-off campaigns without doing so – and a change in manager needn’t be a reset to square one. The new manager, and reports suggest former midfielder and QPR caretaker John Eustace is the progressive choice, will be aware of the issues at the club and that this season is likely to be one of the toughest since returning to the Championship.
Fulham-bound Matt Grimes will add his name to the high-profile departures from the club and some much-needed funds should be released, while previous squad players such as the versatile Ryan Manning may well soon find themselves propelled to first-team regulars.
There is no quick fix, but if the fans can get back on side and behind a manager willing to play the style of football to which they had become accustomed in the 21st century, while the club continues to adjust to its status as Championship regulars, the rebuild can continue with players and a manager dedicated to improving the club little by little.
That approach worked superbly for Brentford, who are reaping the benefits of long-term planning. Cooper did so much excellent work, and accelerated the progress made by his predecessor Graham Potter. Achievements in the Championship come not only via promotions, but by building blocks to success. Just as Potter achieved these, and Cooper even more so, the next man can continue the club on that trajectory.
Then it may be Swansea’s own time to make the step back up to the league they were once so comfortable in. For now, steady progression is the way forward.