x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Buying into Swansea City philosophy part of rise to Premier League

In an era when financial losses and debt are common, the Welsh club, part-owned by a supporters' trust, are the template for others: living within their means and organically growing, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Swansea City's Danish manager Michael Laudrup gestures during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Swansea City at the Emirates Stadium in north London on December 1, 2012. Swansea won 2-0. AFP PHOTO / OLLY GREENWOOD
Swansea City's Danish manager Michael Laudrup gestures during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Swansea City at the Emirates Stadium in north London on December 1, 2012. Swansea won 2-0. AFP PHOTO / OLLY GREENWOOD

Every now and again, a club comes along and makes you wonder why all teams don't behave like that.

Swansea City have no great resources, nor have they taken on preposterous amounts of debt; rather Swansea, in the top half of the Premier League table and in this afternoon's League Cup final, show what can be done by clubs who have a coherent and stable policy and live within their means.

The story of the modern side begins 10 years ago.

Then, the club was in the fourth tier, battling desperately to stay in the Football League, the top four divisions that make up professional football in England. They had a ramshackle ground and a ramshackle team and things looked so bleak that the businessman Tony Petty was able to buy the club for £1 (Dh5.7). Swansea lost 3-2 to Bury in his first game as owner, then 3-1 to York City. Finally a 1-0 victory over Lincoln City ended a run of six straight defeats. Swansea were not just bad, they were so bad they could easily have slipped out of the league.

Remarkably, in the present side, there is a survivor of those days. Leon Britton was 20 when he joined Swansea in December 2002, initially on loan from West Ham United. It said much for the community spirit around the club that his wages were in part paid by collections at home matches, a bucket being passed among fans at the Vetch Field. Britton joined Swansea on a permanent deal and remains their diminutive metronome, his passing drawing comparisons with Xavi, the Barcelona midfielder.

Perhaps even more remarkable, though, is the fact Swansea are still, as they were a decade ago, part-owned by a supporters' trust. One of the stated aims of the Football Supporters Federation is to increase supporter representation on boards; Swansea are the poster boys in that regard, an immediate riposte to those who claim fans are too reactionary, too impatient, ever to work on long-term strategy.

There is a realism about Swansea, a purpose, and a recognition that things are not always going to be this good. What happened in 2002, when the club could easily have folded, is burnt deep into the consciousness of fans and thus the 20 per cent of the board they make up.

The chairman Huw Jenkins is a lifelong fan of the club, a building supplies merchant who was a major figure in keeping Swansea going through the dark days.

"We're all pretty down to earth, we come from quite humble backgrounds," he said. "This is a run we could almost never have dreamed of 10 years ago, but there's no danger of us getting complacent. The most important thing: you have to have a clear vision of what you are doing."

In the book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanksi show how much money clubs waste by not having a clear strategy. They appoint a manager who brings in half a dozen players and when he leaves or is fired a couple of years later, a new manager is appointed who has a different way of doing things and so also brings in another half-dozen players.

Rather than appointing a manager and letting him set the philosophy, Swansea set the philosophy and then appoint a coach accordingly.

The first was Kenny Jackett, who established the passing style and promotion from League Two.

"We had to get away from the typical British 4-4-2 formation and 6ft, 2ins players who run around a lot," said Jenkins. "Most clubs don't have a clear vision, they allow the manager to set the direction, then they change the manager so often, they get stuck in a merry-go-round. We had to go down a different route, to compete with clubs who think spending money is the only way to get success."

In 2007, Jackett, feeling he lacked the full support of the board, left the club - despite the board asking him to stay - leaving them to find a new manager. Their choice surprised many as they approached Roberto Martinez, who had been a popular midfielder at the club but was then at Chester City.

"Swansea were League One, Chester League Two. And Swansea paid compensation for a player, to make him a manager," Martinez recalled in an interview with The Blizzard. "That was a bit surreal. One day, I was wearing the tracksuit of a Chester player, the next, I was watching my future team play against Yeovil, as a manager."

Vitally, Martinez's philosophy matched that of the club: hold possession, keep rotating the ball, seek to out-pass teams. It was a style of play instilled throughout the club, so youth players graduated already ingrained in the habits of pass and move.

It was successful as well, bringing promotion to the Championship. The next season, their first in the second flight for 24 years, Swansea finished eighth.

And then they reached a crossroads. Martinez was successful. His team played notably attractive football. So richer clubs wanted him. He moved to Wigan Athletic.

Swansea did not panic, but sought another manager of similar philosophy, settling on Paulo Sousa. He took them to seventh, before he too was poached, by Queens Park Rangers.

Swansea again sought a manager noted for his passing approach, and settled on Brendan Rodgers. He was respected from his days as an assistant at Chelsea and had done well at Watford before flopping badly at Reading.

Swansea persuaded him to reject an offer to work at Manchester City, saw their steady improvement continue and finished sixth in Rodgers's first season. Victory in the play-offs meant a first season in the top flight since 1983.

They finished 11th, playing a brand of attractive, possession-based football that - again - drew in the bigger clubs. Rodgers left for Liverpool, but Swansea were again prepared. Michael Laudrup has continued Rodgers's good work, perhaps improved on it, making Swansea a little more direct and decisive.

"He had to fit in with the parameters we set," Jenkins said. "We don't bring somebody in to run the club; we feel we have people doing that pretty well. He is here to coach the first team, to work with us."

That means sticking to the club's financial principles.

Almost incredibly, in an era in which losses and debt are almost taken as standard in football, Swansea made a profit of £14.6 million (Dh81.8m) last season, achieved largely thanks to the increase in income from £11.7m to £65m. That has allowed investment in a permanent training ground, and plans are in place to expand Liberty Stadium, the new ground they moved to from the Vetch in 2005, to have a capacity of 32,500. This again is a perfect example of gradual expansion - building what they can afford, slowly, organically expanding.

The wage bill doubled in the first season in the Premier League, to £34.6m, but given the increase in income, that is hardly a problem, and all players have a clause to reduce wages should Swansea be relegated.

Their summer business, meanwhile, was exemplary. Joe Allen was sold to Liverpool for £15m and Scott Sinclair to Manchester City for £6.2m, with Chico, Pablo Hernandez and Michu brought in for minimal cost.

Michu, at £2m, would probably count as the buy of last summer even if he does not score again between now and the end of the season.

Sensible, modest and effective, Swansea are the template for others to follow. Get the philosophy right, and the rest should come naturally.

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Scott Sinclair
Swansea paid £500,000 (Dh2.7 million) to pick up the winger, above, from Chelsea and he was one of their outstanding players in their first season in the Premier League. He opted for a £6.2m move to the Manchester City bench and Swansea replaced him with Pablo Hernandez, picked up from Valencia for £5.5m.

Danny Graham
The forward was signed from Watford for £3.5m in June 2011 and sold 18 months later at a profit of £1.5m. He scored 15 goals in 42 league starts for Swansea but the arrival of Michu from Rayo Vallecano for £2m had rendered him superfluous.

Joe Allen
A neat midfielder brought through the youth ranks at Swansea, he was sold to Liverpool last summer for £15m. He had been their totem, the player who set their tempo, but the arrival of Sung-yong Ki from Celtic has provided extra steel as well as passing ability.

Jason Scotland
Swansea’s acuity in the market is not a recent development. The forward, picked up from St Johnstone for a nominal fee, had rattled in 45 goals in two seasons when he was sold to Wigan Athletic for £2m in July 2009. A combination of Darren Pratley, Shefki Kuqi and Lee Trundle covered his goals the following season.

Lee Trundle
Trundle, happy-go-lucky and rotund, had been a key part of Swansea’s rise, scoring 78 league goals in four years after being brought in from Wrexham for £60,000 in 2003. He was sold to Bristol City for £1m, never settled, and was soon back at Swansea on loan.

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