x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Premier League new teams: Swansea are breaking down the boundaries

The Premier League's first Welsh club were in the fourth tier 12 years ago. Now they draw comparisons with Barcelona, writes Richard Jolly.

Swansea City players celebrate promotion by throwing their manager Brendan Rodgers into the air.
Swansea City players celebrate promotion by throwing their manager Brendan Rodgers into the air.

In February 2008, the Premier League announced the latest scheme in its long-running plan for global domination.

By taking matches elsewhere, they thought, they could appeal to far-off fans and expand the brand. The 39th game brought a backlash from supporters and Fifa alike. The proposal had to be shelved.

Some three-and-a-half years later, however, the division will leave English soil in altogether less controversial fashion. When Wigan Athletic line up at the Liberty Stadium on August 20, the Premier League will be in its most westerly venue to date: not, say, Seattle, but Swansea. Asia, Africa and America remain uncharted territories, but Wales will not be.

"I'm so happy for the people of Swansea and Wales as a whole," Brendan Rodgers, Swansea City's manager, said. "The Premier League will be a better place with Swansea in it. It's part of a great journey Swansea are on."

For much of the past three decades, the eventual destination has appeared unpleasant. In 1985, the club was due to be liquidated, only for the High Court to revoke their decision. Eighteen years later, Swansea were 90 minutes from going out of the Football League.

After staring into the abyss in 2003, Swansea reached their promised land in 2011. If there is a recent tradition of outsiders, whether it be Hull City, Burnley or Blackpool, being promoted to the top flight, Swansea are underdogs in more ways than one.

Their story cannot be told in isolation. The arrival of the first Welsh representatives in the Premier League had long been predicted; it was just that the anticipated arrivals were Cardiff. They monopolised the limelight in the revival of the game in the principality.

As recently as 1998/99, both they and Swansea were in the fourth tier but, in a region regenerated by devolution, Cardiff appeared the beneficiaries. The capital was chosen to host the Welsh Assembly, while the Millennium Stadium staged cup finals. Swansea, some 45 miles further away from England, seemed an afterthought.

"I think people think Wales stops at Cardiff," Rodgers said. His team have proved otherwise.

Yet this is a place with a footballing pedigree. Only one Welsh team has played in the World Cup finals and, of the 11 who faced Brazil in the 1958 quarter-finals, three were Swansea players, while two others had a past and future there. Absent through injury was arguably Wales' greatest footballer, the Swansea-born John Charles.

They also, albeit briefly, produced probably Wales' greatest club side. After a meteoric rise, encompassing three promotions in four seasons, Swansea's topped the table as late as March 1982, in their inaugural season in the old Division 1. John Toshack's team eventually finished sixth but their subsequent slide was swift.

Swansea's second coming dates back to their days in the depths. They are a genuine rarity, a club that has progressed under five successive managers: Brian Flynn, Kenny Jackett, Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and now Rodgers.

The 2005 move to the 20,532-capacity Liberty Stadium was one of the catalysts. Another was the 2007 appointment of Martinez, a former Swansea captain. The Spaniard proved an amiable revolutionary, implementing a short-passing game and a 4-2-3-1 formation.

When Martinez moved to Wigan, Swansea kept his ethos. "It was about building," said Rodgers, who replaced Sousa last summer. "I wasn't having to create. They played a system. The club was clever: they understand the type of manager they want. Nine out of 10 managers wouldn't suit the Swansea way. It's a bit like the Barcelona way: they have a method."

Spanish football is a major influence on Rodgers; his side are nicknamed "Swanselona". It is understandable. "Nine times out of 10, if we make a certain number of passes we will win the game," Rodgers said. Last season they averaged 526 passes and 61 per cent of possession: not quite the statistics compiled by Xavi and co, but uncommon in the Championship.

Elevation came via the play-offs, a 4-2 win against Reading sealed by one of Rodgers' recruits. Formerly the youth and reserve team manager under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, the Northern Irishman worked with a promising winger at Stamford Bridge. When Scott Sinclair's career stalled there, Rodgers paid an initial £500,000 (Dh3m) to take him to Swansea. That fee was repaid many times over when Sinclair's debut year in Wales brought 27 goals, including a play-off final hat-trick at Wembley.

With a club record signing, the £3.5m striker, Danny Graham to bolster the forward line, Rodgers said: "We look to be creative and attack, but it has to be with tactical discipline. There's substance to us. It's not just about style, there's steel there too."

It will be required. "I read somewhere that there's more chance of seeing Elvis alive than seeing us stay in the Premier League," Rodgers said. After the threats of liquidation and humiliation, however, this could never be Swansea's Heartbreak Hotel.

sport@thenational.ae