x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Premier League: A Welsh community is taking shape with Swansea, Cardiff and Bale

Swansea City's success and the addition of Cardiff City have meant that players from Wales are growing, writes Ian Hawkey.

Danish manager Michael Laudrup adapted well to the transition from Spain to Wales to steer Swansea City's fortunes while the Welsh Gareth Bale, next, was Player of the Year. Olly Greenwood, Ian Kington / AFP
Danish manager Michael Laudrup adapted well to the transition from Spain to Wales to steer Swansea City's fortunes while the Welsh Gareth Bale, next, was Player of the Year. Olly Greenwood, Ian Kington / AFP

When Michael Laudrup accepted the job as manager of Swansea City, word reached him that some people in Spain, where had previously worked, were puzzled.

Why, they asked, was the greatest Danish footballer in history, a European champion with Barcelona in his playing days, then an idol at Real Madrid and at Ajax and now an admired head coach across Europe, taking a gig in a country with so little renown?

"I heard," smiled Laudrup last August, "that they were saying: 'What is he doing going to work in the Welsh league?"

The misunderstanding was odd, but not illogical. Wales is in Britain, but it has its own national team. Scotland is in Britain, and it has its own national team and its clubs play in its own national league. Ditto Northern Ireland.

Wales does have its own Welsh league but its most powerful clubs have historically operated in the English system. And they have never been more relevant there than in 2013.

Swansea City will be competing in Europe next season, thanks to the emphatic victory in the League Cup final, against Bradford City, which bought them a ticket to the Europa League.

For much of the season, their league form suggested they might well qualify for that competition on the basis of their finishing position in the table, though their potency tailed off over the later months of the campaign.

By then they had become the team to whom many neutrals' affection was drawn, for a number of reasons: the way they played; Laudrup's charisma; the manner in which the club is run.

On non-matchday mornings, you find the players and coaching staff of Swansea at a health club in Neath, not far beyond the English-Welsh border.

They practice on a nearby pitch and shower and change and hold team-talks in rooms borrowed from the facility. They share the space with the local folk who go to the gym.

It is striking contrast, in modern elite football, to the remote everyday life of many professionals, sealed off in bespoke training centres, with guards at the gates and high fences surrounding them.

Laudrup was struck when he started by the sense of community at Swansea. He liked it, and saw some familiar aspects.

"I'm from Denmark, which has a population only five and half million people, so I know what it is like to be proud of small country, even if we don't have a Big Brother next door, like Wales does," he told this reporter.

"I lived in Catalonia for five years when I played for Barcelona. I got used to people there telling me 'We're not Spanish, we're Catalan'."

He also got used, when he arrived, to seeing predictions that Swansea in 2012/13 would battle to avoid relegation.

It was reckoned gravity was bound to pull on a club who over the last decade have been strikingly upwardly mobile.

In 1999, Swansea were in the fourth tier of English football. When they reached the top flight, in 2011, they became the first Welsh club to participate in the Premier League.

Brendan Rodgers had guided them up the final step, and Laudrup was deemed to have a hard act to follow.

A distinct Swansea style - ball-on-the-ground, pass-and-move - had evolved under Rodgers and his predecessors, Paulo Sousa and Roberto Martinez.

The suspicion lurked that, now that the rest of the division had become accustomed to it, they would be wiser after 12 months about how to neutralise it.

Swansea's success under Rodgers had also meant some senior players had offers elsewhere. In the summer, Joe Allen, the Wales midfielder, went with Rodgers to Liverpool. Scott Sinclair was enticed to Manchester City.

But Laudrup shopped cleverly for their replacements. His previous work, at Getafe and Real Mallorca, meant Spain was the market with which was most familiar.

He brought in Jonathan De Guzman, loaned from Villarreal, who would flourish in midfield, while Chico Flores and Michu, both Spaniards, established themselves in the spine of a team whose emphatic start to the campaign - eight goals scored in their first two fixtures, none conceded - stilled many of the pre-season doubts.

By the end of September, Michu, 27, was being celebrated as the bargain buy of the year, at less than £2 million (Dh11.4m) from Rayo Vallecano. He finished with 18 Premier League goals.

Some Welsh footballers also enhanced their reputations under Laudrup. Ashley Williams, the centre-half, became his country's captain on the back of his authoritative displays for Swansea, while Ben Davies, 20, emerged as a poised left-back and won his first international caps.

The Principality of Wales sometimes seems to specialise in talented left-footers and it was a good season for two very celebrated examples.

One, Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur, won the 2012/13 Player of the Year Award and another, Manchester United's Ryan Giggs, collected a record-breaking 13th Premier League title and passed the landmark of 1,000 matches as a professional.

A big year, then, for Welsh football, although a sadly familiar one for the national team. Despite the presence of Bale, Williams, Davies and other notables, such as Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey – Giggs has retired from national duty – Wales have again failed to qualify for a major tournament, their prospects of reaching the 2014 World Cup already extinguished.

But the season to come will be even bigger for the club game in Wales. The Premier League is about to inherit one of the game's noisier derbies.

Cardiff City, featuring the much-travelled Welsh striker Craig Bellamy, have earned promotion to the top flight as winners of the Championship, and will be among the elite of English football for the first time in 51 years. They, like Swansea, can look back with satisfaction on how far they have come in the 21st century.

Fourteen years ago, the so-called South Wales derby, Swansea versus Cardiff, was a fixture on the schedule of the old Third Division, with barely 7,000 turning up at the Vetch Field, Swansea's old home.

The next one will be broadcast to over 200 territories across the world.

Some Welsh players who moved to Europe

John Charles
Voted the greatest foreign player in Juventus’ 20th century history, Charles converted from a teenage centre-half, while at Leeds United, to a powerful and skilful centre-forward. In that role the so-called “Gentle Giant” scored 93 league goals in 150 matches for Juventus, where he won three Serie A titles between 1957 and 1962.

John Toshack
A rugged striker with the strong Liverpool of the 1970s, Toshack has become the most travelled British manager of his generation. Won the Spanish League with Real Madrid, and cups in Spain, with Real Sociedad, and in Turkey (Besiktas). Also had stints in Italy, Portugal, France, Macedonia and now Azerbaijan.

Ian Rush
Prolific striker for Liverpool, who earned a then British record fee of over £3 million with his sale to Juventus in 1986. He found goals harder to come by, though, in Serie A, than he had in the English league and struggled to adapt. He moved back to Liverpool after a season and was soon back in his scoring groove.

Mark Hughes
Left Manchester United in 1986, when English clubs were banned from European competition, and signed for Barcelona. The combative striker was less commanding against Spanish defences, however, and after a season Barcelona loaned him to Bayern Munich, where had better success, before rejoining United.

Dean Saunders
A lively striker who won 75 caps for Wales, he had two seasons outside the UK in the 1990s. For Galatasaray, where he scored 15 goals in 27 league games, he won a Turkish Cup. After two seasons back in England, Saunders then joined a clutch of British professionals at Benfica, where he hit five goals in 17 games.

Chris Coleman
The current manager of the Wales national team, Coleman in 2003 became one of the youngest managers in the Premier League with Fulham. He was only 37 when he was appointed Real Sociedad head coach in 2007. Six months into the job, pushing for promotion to Spain’s top flight, he resigned, citing differences with the board.

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