x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Leon Britton relishes life at top after taking circuitous route

Swansea City almost went out of the Football League in 2003, now they are preparing to host Manchester United in the Premier League.

Leon Britton is enjoying life in the Premier League with Swansea City.
Leon Britton is enjoying life in the Premier League with Swansea City.

When football clubs have experienced obscurity, there is a temptation to brand the visit of Manchester United as the biggest game in their history. At Swansea City, however, there is a recognition that other matches had more far-reaching consequences.

For Leon Britton, the May 2003 encounter with Hull City will always remain the most meaningful. At stake was Swansea's Football League status as the Welsh club were threatened with demotion to the Conference, the fifth tier of English football, just 90 minutes away.

"That was a defining moment in the club's history," said the 29 year old. "If we'd lost the game who knows what would have happened?" They won, 4-2, and eight years later Britton is the sole survivor of that side who will face United on Saturday. Yet the question is not merely where Swansea would have been had they lost; where, too, would Britton be?

This is a player whose ability was first recognised at the age of eight, but who took more than two decades to fulfil his potential, a footballer with neither height - at 5ft 4 ins, he is one of the Premier League's shortest performers - nor pace, and whose focus on the technical rather than the physical can make him seem utterly ill-suited to the English game. Especially, arguably, its lower divisions, where he has spent the majority of his career.

That seemed like underachievement. Born in Wandsworth, South London, Britton had embarked on a tour of the capital's clubs in his formative years. On Chelsea's books at eight, picked up by Arsenal at nine, he moved to West Ham United at 16.

After attending the Football Association's centre of excellence at Lilleshall, he returned to Arsenal as Arsene Wenger was appointed as the Gunners manager.

"The club changed all over," Britton said. "He was bringing in young foreign lads from France, Brazil, everywhere. It's difficult enough as it is fighting against the best British talent, let alone the world's best."

So Britton swapped Arsenal for West Ham, becoming, at £400,000 (Dh2.34 million), the most expensive 16 year old in England. Yet while others - Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe - graduated to the first team, his career stalled.

By 2002, he had not even been in the first-team squad, let alone taken the field. Asking for a loan move, the only interest came from the foot of Division Three, as it then was.

"I knew Swansea is in Wales but I had no idea where," Britton said. "It seemed a million miles away." Metaphorically, it was.

"I was on loan but I looked around the dressing room and saw lads whose contracts ran out at the end of the season and whose mortgages needed to be paid," he added.

"I'd been at West Ham in a different world where top pros and top players were earning good money."

He debuted at St James' Park - Exeter, not Newcastle - saying: "I don't think anyone has ever been happier to play at Exeter in December than I was that day." Five months later, Swansea had 90 minutes left to stay in the league. They did, and Britton was signed permanently.

A colleague that day became an influence. Roberto Martinez was Britton's roommate - the Londoner, who wanted to watch the soap opera EastEnders, fighting with the Spaniard, a student of the game who was keen to see football, for the television remote control - and returned to Wales as the manager. He implemented the purist passing game that survived his departure and suits Swansea and Britton alike.

With the midfielder's reputation rising, the pair could have been reunited at Wigan Athletic in 2010. Instead, Britton chose to join Sheffield United, whose direct style of play was at odds with his game.

He swiftly deemed it a mistake and returned to Swansea on loan, before sealing a permanent move - coincidentally, the fee could rise to the same £400,000 he cost West Ham in 1999 - after helping City win promotion to the Premier League.

Now, approaching 350 games for the Swans, he is, along with the similarly diminutive distributor Joe Allen, helping the newcomers out-pass rather more garlanded opponents.

"Leon offers the team so much balance and control. He's been fantastic for us this season," Brendan Rodgers, the manager, said.

A player who can invariably find a colleague has taken the long route to the top. "I always said that, if I finished my career having never played in the Premier League, I would be unhappy," Britton said. "I would have felt I let myself down, though I don't think I ever expected as a kid that I would do it this way."

But it has given him an understanding of the lower-league footballers' struggles and an appreciation of how fortunate Premier League players are. "I saw the other side of football," he added. "It was nerve-racking."

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