Second-Season Swansea

Richard Heathcote

Swansea aren't the best team in the Premier League, but they're arguably the most impressive, and they're making a nonsense of received wisdom as they go.

It's a tough life, being a newly-promoted team in the Premier League. Up you come, all happy-go-lucky, flushed with the joys of triumph, and then bang. You've been turned over by a side that cost more money to assemble than your club has spent in its history, your exciting new signing's broken a bone you've never heard of, and Alex Ferguson's on the telephone demanding you play a weakened side next Sunday*.

* For legal reasons, I should make it clear that Alex Ferguson definitely does not do this.

But that's to be expected. More interesting - at least, most interesting for the purposes of this piece, which I am writing and therefore in charge of - is second-season syndrome, which usually comes with "so-called" in front of it, and is known on the sinister side of the Atlantic as the sophomore slump. (For ease of reference, we'll call it "S-C"SSS/SS.) Should a newly-promoted team have the brass neck to actually do well, so the theory goes, then it's the second season that will crush them.

Recent examples have included Alex McLeish's Birmingham (promoted in 06/07, 9th in their first Premier League season, 18th in their second) and Steve Coppell's Reading (promoted 05/06, 8th, 18th). Perhaps the most marked example in the post-Murdoch years was George Burley's Ipswich Town, who were promoted in 99/00 as play-off winners, then finished a remarkable fifth the following season, qualifying for the UEFA Cup in the process. The following season, though they doinked Internazionale 1-0 at Portman Road, they struggled desperately in the league and eventually finished 18th. They've not returned to the top flight since.

As this season began, the Premier League had a prime "S-C"SSS/SS candidate in Swansea City. Gone was Brendan Rodgers, the manager who had guided then kept them up; gone was Joe Allen, half of the midfield's possession-recycling unit; gone was nominative determinism's Steven Caulker, who'd excelled in central defence; gone, too, was Scott Sinclair, off to play a bit-part in the Mario Balotelli story. There was also a warning from history: while in no way relevant to the current side, it's at least interesting to note that the last time the Welsh side were promoted to the top flight, for the 1981/82 season, they finished 6th in their first season, only to tumble down to 21st and relegation in their second. Trouble was looming. Things were going to fall apart.

Pfft, said Michael Laudrup. Tish, and furthermore fipsy.

This is tempting fate, of course - there's still time for a Phil Brown's Hull-style slide down the table - but halfway through the season the Swans look thoroughly comfortable: ninth in the league; a two-goal lead over Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final; a replay in the FA Cup against Arsenal, who they've beaten once this season already. There's no particular mystery on the footballing side: some excellent and thrifty purchasing -- Only Two Million Pounds Michu, of course, but also Chico Flores and Jonathan de Guzmán -- has been supported by Laudrup's understated but effective tweaking of the team he inherited.

In truth, any talk of Swansea as "S-C"SSS/SS candidates always felt a little blinkered, a little Big Time-centric. If the slump follows a season of unexpected achievement, then Swansea, who finished tenth in the fourth tier in 2003/04, have been dodging the inevitable for a good long while. 69 places in nine years is the kind of rise you'd describe as meteoric if only meteors weren't famous for falling. Tenth-season syndrome just isn't a thing.

What's most interesting about their ascent is it flies in the face of one of the great accepted truths of football: the importance of managerial stability. Since Kenny Jackett took the managerial job in April 2004, Swansea have had five managers (Jackett, Roberto Martinez, Paolo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers, and now Laudrup), yet have made serene progress despite the dugout's revolving door*. In doing so, they've demonstrated that while the role of the manager is a crucial one, it is too often conflated with the identity of the side. Not everything that's good about Swansea now is down to Laudrup, just as it wasn't Rodgers and won't be whoever comes in next. (After all, if Swansea finish above Liverpool this season, presumably the Dane moves to Anfield.)

* No, dugouts don't have doors. PEDANT.

A manager is the obvious face of the team: he does the interviews, he picks the teams, he takes the credit and, if goes wrong, the blame. But the manager-as-centre-of-everything model is only one option. As Swansea's chairman Huw Jenkins told the Guardian: "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." One example of this thoughtful approach is clear from Laudrup's backroom staff. Assistant manager Erik Larsen joined alongside Laudrup, but the Dane's willingness to work with the staff already in post -- notably first-team coach Alan Curtis and head of player recruitment David Leadbeater -- was one of the factors informing his appointment.

Obviously, managerial chaos does nobody any good. Nor does appointing a succession of bad managers. But Swansea's refusal to crumble or stall after each of their managers has moved on demonstrates that managerial change in itself needn't be traumatic or destructive. By diffusing the responsibility for guiding the club, and by establishing an identity that exists outside of the demands or preferences of any one individual, Swansea have ensured that the club has resilience in the face of upheaval. This doesn't mean that replacing a manager isn't a risk, but it does provide a certain inoculation against the chaos that can consume a club when the dugout empties. Their clever purchasing and aesthetic football is admirable, but it's as an example of how to operate smartly in a stupid industry that Swansea really impress. That, and the fact they're staying up. Again.

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