x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Mark Gower is creative heartbeat of Swansea City

The English midfielder has had to work hard to get the top, but now he is in the Premier League he is making up for lost time.

Mark Gower, left, has made an impressive start to life in the Premier League.
Mark Gower, left, has made an impressive start to life in the Premier League.

In third place, David Silva. In second, Samir Nasri. And the leader? Mark Gower.

When the Swansea City midfielder was declared officially the most creative player in the Premier League last month, there was a sense of shock.

When statisticians concluded he created more goalscoring opportunities than any footballer in Europe's top five leagues, it was exacerbated.

Among the surprised was Gower himself. "If they want to tell me I'm more creative than Lionel Messi, I'll take that," he said. "It helps that I take free kicks and corners."

Indeed, it was the 33 year old's corner that Danny Graham headed in to complete Swansea's 2-0 win over Fulham on Saturday.

It was a fifth assist of the season for Gower, although another statistic is less pleasing. He is yet to score and a glaring miss at Liverpool probably cost his side a famous win.

There are, however, far worse things than leaving Anfield with a point, as he knows. A promising player almost disappeared off the footballing radar amid a series of setbacks before his belated revival in Wales.

Anyone glancing at a map of Swansea and spotting the adjacent Gower Peninsula could be forgiven for thinking the midfielder was Welsh. Actually, he was born in Edmonton, north London, and spent his life in the capital and the neighbouring county of Essex until his 2008 move west.

"I don't suppose I've had a straightforward career," he said. "It has been a roller-coaster ride."

It began at the top. At Tottenham Hotspur's centre of excellence from the age of nine, he then went to Lilleshall, where the English Football Association grouped precocious players earmarked for success.

"I learnt a lot at Lilleshall," he said. "It was seen as the breeding ground for future England internationals. Michael Owen and Wes Brown were in the year below."

Gower did indeed represent his country, playing for England's Under 15, 16 and 18 sides, and scoring twice in an international beneath Wembley's famed Twin Towers.

Then ill-fortune intervened. A serious knee injury sidelined him for a year, though his career took the best part of a decade to recover. He made two substitute appearances for Tottenham in the Carling Cup, although he never graduated to the first team. But, coming from a family of Spurs fans, he was reluctant to leave.

"I stayed at Spurs until I was 22, which was a mistake in hindsight," he has since said. When he did go, he only moved a few miles, but entered another world.

He joined Barnet, who were promptly relegated from the Football League.

Then it was the Conference "where the opposition would break your leg for three points," he said dryly.

"It probably took six months to get my head around what had actually happened to me. Where had it all gone wrong?"

But slowly it started to go right. Gower returned to the Football League two years later, in 2003, with Southend United.

Five years at Roots Hall brought almost 250 appearances and included plenty of highlights.

"When we first started I remember playing in front of 3,000 to 4,000 but we then went on a real run," he said. "We got promotion twice, played at the Millennium Stadium three times." They also beat Manchester United in the Carling Cup.

When his Southend contract expired in 2008, Gower faced a decision. Urged on by his wife, he rejected the Shrimpers in favour of Swansea, new arrivals in the Championship.

"That was a big move for me, approaching 30 to go to Swansea when I'd lived close to all my friends and family in London and Essex all my life," he said.

"He has the gift to win you a football game," said Roberto Martinez, the manager at the time and an admirer of technical players. "He is very talented on the ball."

A later Swansea manager reinvented Gower. Brendan Rodgers converted him from a winger to a central midfielder.

"The way we play, sitting behind the ball in a deeper midfield role, suits me," Gower said. "I think experience has made me a bit smarter on how to play the game. I think my decision making has got a lot better."

Swansea's subsequent promotion from the Championship in May, the third of Gower's career, was, he said, "the stuff dreams are made of."

In the eyes of Rodgers, it was a belated reward for the experienced Londoner.

"He is a great professional who is getting a chance in the Premier League when he probably should have been playing at this level many years ago."

Should Swansea stay up, more should follow. Gower signed a one-year contract extension last month, a further vindication for his persistence. "It never crossed my mind to give up," he said. "I had to just keep telling myself I was good enough." And now he is proving he is.

 

sports@thenational.ae

 

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