Great Football League Teams 25: Swansea City, 1978-79
Quite frankly, I’m past being irritated with labels like “the first team from outside England to compete in the Premier League” but I’ll still admit to a pang of annoyance at the “It began in 1992” brigade. For Swansea City’s heady and miraculous march to the top division of the late seventies still seems fresh in my memory – even taking into account Huw Richards’ confession in his marvellous account of the Swans’ rise in My Favorite Year that the whole experience may have been “the consequence of mass experimentation in some hallucinogenic drug”.
For the admirable Brendan Rodgers and his charges will do well to come close to the achievements of these ancestors. Seeing John Toshack lurch from one ignominy to the next at the Wales national team helm before rolling up in Skopje, it’s easy to forget now how glittering his career in management has been when judged over its whole timeline. The man who scooped two Don Balà³ncoach of the year awards brought to Swansea a touch that, according to Richards, “made Midas look like a dry-stone wall mason,” Joining initially as a player, he was promoted to manager at the back end of the 1977-78 season – clinching promotion from Division 4 alongside a Watford stewarded by a certain Graham Taylor.
But if Toshack was to go on and achieve true greatness, the circumstances of his appointment were tragic – previous boss Harry Griffiths suffering a fatal heart attack before the April game against Scunthorpe United, having stepped down in favour of Toshack a few week’s previously. Five players who were to go on and feature in Division 1 had been part of Griffiths’ team that had been forced to apply for re-election from the football league at the end of the 1973-74 season.
It was this youthful cohort that Tosh blended with an assemblage of key contacts from his Liverpool days to fashion two more promotions. Our focus here is the first of those and youngsters such as Alan Curtis and the surname deficient duo of Robbie James and Jeremy Charles, all at the club since the dark days, were joined by a collection of old Liverpool lags to create a formidable grouping.
Tommy Smith, fresh from a headed goal in a European Cup Final brought crunch and gob to the brew while Phil Boersma and Ian Callaghan also joined from Merseyside – the latter with 640 appearances behind him and the distinction of being booked only once in his entire career. The verve of the youngsters and the experience of the old’uns helped the Swans to some notable achivements early on – with a 4-1 deficit against Rotherham and a 3-1 trail to Tranmere converted into a draw and win respectively. All this after Spurs had been dumped out of the League Cup – the talented Curtis acting as chief executioner.
Watford, again challenging at the top end of the table along with Shrewsbury, were defeated 2-0 at Vicarage Road and Sheffield Wednesday beaten 4-2 in a December meeting. Toshack himself continued to play a big part as a player and further shrewd signings such as keeper Geoff Crudgington from Crewe and the tireless fans’ hero Alan Waddle from Leicester kept the Jacks in the hunt.
But there was an inconsistency to the team too – 2-0 defeats pre-Christmas against Chester and Carlisle foreshadowed a pretty horrible February that saw the Swans’ remain winless. Thankfully, a dramatic 5-3 victory over Hull on March 2 was their first win since December 30 – January’s fixtures having been wiped out by the weather and leaving a lot of football to be played at the sodden Vetch Field.
But a back four including full backs Wyndham Evans (from Llanelli) and Danny Bartley, plus centre halves Nigel Stevenson and Leighton Phillips came into their own in that busy Spring. James was to finish the season on 21 goals as a twelve match unbeaten streak was chalked up to conclude matters. Taylor’s charges were again defeated – 3-2 on a Tuesday night and another crucial goal from James saw the side win 1-0 at Swindon’s County Ground. 25,000 showed up for the final game at home to Chesterfield, with promotion secured by a memorable header from the player-manager. There was delirium but also a sense of entitlement – the club spent 40 years in the second tier mid-century and very much regarded Division 2 as its natural home.
Of course it was to get even better with the Swans joining the ranks of the surprisingly large number of clubs which have quickly negotiated a rise through all four divisions – Wigan, Wimbledon, Northampton, Carlisle, indeed Watford etc. Two seasons later, famous wins over Chelsea and Preston in the run in helped the Glamorgan outfit into the top echelon and that 5-1 win over Leeds in the first game on ascension to the firmament remains the indelible high watermark of the era, although a 2-2 draw at Anfield and 2-0 home win over the Manchester Red Devils won’t be far behind in the memories.