Swansea City's woven web on the way to Wembley
Under Roberto Martinez, Swansea City forged a reputation for being one of the most attractive footballing sides outside of the Premier League. Next Monday, they will aim to join Martinez’s current club Wigan Athletic in the top flight. Swansea won many admirers during their rise to the top half of the Championship with the Spaniard overseeing a continental approach.
Among those taking notes, the man who would steer Blackpool to sixth spot in the season that followed Martinez’s move from Swansea to Wigan – a late-season burst that saw the Tangerines overhaul the Swans. Ian Holloway was impressed.
“I watched them five or six times. That was part of why I wanted to change. I didn’t want to be scared of losing matches. I wanted to win them, playing attacking football.”
In a predictable twist of fate, Holloway’s Blackpool return to the Championship next season and may be replaced by the club whose philosophy inspired him to develop the Tangerines into the entertaining, attacking team we know today.
In fact, Swansea could have beaten Blackpool to the top flight. The problem was that Martinez’s successor, the double European Cup winner Paulo Sousa, enforced a defensive style of play which stifled the side’s creativity. They finished seventh in the table, missed out on the play-offs by one point and recorded the lowest goal tally in the entire division in the process. Something needed to change.
The Welsh travel to Wembley two days after the English national stadium is graced by the Catalan masters, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. The current Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers will be watching:
“The model of my coaching life has been based around Barcelona. I have spent time in Spain watching them and they are my big influence.”
Rodgers has got the Swans back on track, retaining Sousa’s solid base while returning to the attacking ideals first introduced by Martinez. Swansea’s three leading league goalscorers this season – Scott Sinclair with 19 and Darren Pratley and Stephen Dobbie with 10 apiece – have between them netted just one goal fewer than the whole team managed in the previous season.
While Sousa offered continuity of Martinez’s lone striker and possession football, Swansea fans craved goals. When Rodgers lured Sinclair over the border from Chelsea for £500,000, he knew he had procured a player capable of providing a cutting edge to complement a squad that had grown to be comfortable on the ball.
The goal difference grew from +3 last season to +27 in the current campaign, the second widest positive margin in the division behind champions Queen’s Park Rangers. In his sole second-tier season with the Swans, Martinez drew 20 games and it was this inability to turn one point into three on a more regular basis that cost them a play-off place at the first attempt. Their third try brought third position and a semi-final meeting with Nottingham Forest, who had themselves finished third twelve months earlier.
Forest’s failure offered a cautionary tale. Taking a single-goal deficit into their home leg against Holloway’s Blackpool, Forest crumbled as DJ Campbell plundered a hat-trick at the City Ground despite Robert Earnshaw’s early strike for the Reds. Earnshaw scored again at the Liberty Stadium and the visitors piled on the pressure, but Swansea’s well-taken double in the first half proved enough and Pratley, a player coveted by Forest for well over a year, supplied late gloss with a famous effort from the halfway line.
The decisive second goal in the tie, which Forest narrowly failed to claw back when Lewis McGugan and Earnshaw both found the woodwork, was also scored by a player on the scoresheet when Blackpool visited the East Midlands a year ago. Stephen Dobbie was farmed off to the Lancashire coast by Sousa and the Scot duly played a part in lifting Holloway’s men above Swansea into the top six. Not only that, but Dobbie then grabbed a crucial goal in the second leg of the semi-final.
Dobbie is now a key player for Swansea, providing that important link between midfield and attack in the middle of the park. Following his early withdrawal on the banks of the River Trent this time around, Forest fans watched on grimly as he nutmegged their magnificent Player of the Year Luke Chambers and beat Lee Camp low to his left in the second leg.
Rodgers is now excelling in South Wales, but his previous assignment ended with the sack. He had just six months in charge of Reading before being replaced by the club’s chief scout Brian McDermott on a temporary basis. Of course, McDermott is now the permanent manager at the Madejski Stadium and Rodgers ends the season with his former club the only obstacle standing between Swansea City and the Premier League.
As if it could have happened any other way.