The admirable approach of Swansea City
Anton Rodgers winces. Nobody could enjoy this. Anton cuts a frustrated figure, struggling to exert the same level of influence on the game as usual. And it hurts.
Failure to dominate is unacceptable when you pull on a Chelsea shirt these days, even in the youth team. Anton’s team-mates are looking to him for leadership to try to haul them back from three goals down. No joy. It is, frankly, a bad day at the office.
He never gives up, though. He never hides. He still wants the ball and he still tries to make something happen.
Surely that must count for something among the hardened supporters who have travelled to watch Anton and his side?
“Not good enough Anton, pull yourself together!”
Clearly not. But, whereas Anton has just been caught in possession in a dangerous part of the pitch, this fan is also unaware of his surroundings and, in particular, a lurking presence nearby.
“Why don’t you keep your opinions to yourself, eh?”
Brendan Rodgers was never going to let that one go.
Back then, he was watching and waiting. Watching his son play for Chelsea’s youth side and waiting for another chance to prove himself as a football manager. Six months into that chance, Rodgers can hold his head high as Swansea City remain on course to achieve the play-off spot they missed out on last season.
Perhaps Swansea just needed a father figure. The club appeared almost dysfunctional towards the end of the previous campaign, with Paulo Sousa largely unpopular despite the improvement in league position during his time in charge. As soon as he was gone, the day-to-day handling of those in his care was criticised. Boyish midfielder Leon Britton scooted off up north to Sheffield United and Darren Pratley seemed to be on the verge of following him out of the exit door. After all, Ian Holloway’s happy family at Blackpool had stolen the final top six place that Swansea had looked destined to occupy for so long.
The Swans look like a band of brothers again now. Roberto Martinez’s popularity loomed over Sousa throughout his spell as manager, constantly reminding him that winning was not enough. Winning with style had become a pre-requisite at the Liberty Stadium. Things started well enough, but the final few weeks were painful. Swansea, struggling to convert possession into a decisive advantage over their opponents, were nationally earmarked as a side that did not score enough goals.
While that particular failing may be a lingering concern this season, the football is unquestionably better and there is more faith in the head of the family. Even Pratley seems to have settled down for the time being. Ahead of this weekend’s televised home game against relegation-threatened Crystal Palace, Swansea lie fourth in the table – level on 43 points with Norwich City and Cardiff City, who play each other.
Where Cardiff may have provided a warning sign for Norwich, Swansea surely offered a blueprint and it is one the Canaries are following superbly. A simple formula, admittedly. Instil a feelgood factor by fostering a winning mentality through playing good football and staff will want to stay at the club.
At opposite ends of the United Kingdom’s mid-section, supporters of both Norwich and Swansea will be delighted at the way they have retained important players and managers. At the present time, it looks likely that Paul Lambert will remain with the Carrow Road club despite strong interest in his services from Championship rivals Burnley. Across the border, Sousa may have left the Liberty last summer but there were few tears shed and now Rodgers is impressing in his wake.
Swansea have been buoyed by the retention of two key players as historically bigger clubs circled both in the summer and during the current January transfer window. With central defender Ashley Williams and midfielder Pratley both apparently remaining in south Wales until the end of the season at least, Rodgers must be confident that he has the resources to maintain his team’s momentum deep into the second half of the season.
There have also been additions in an attempt to solve Swansea’s goalscoring problem. The form of summer signing Scott Sinclair has been well-documented and the presence of former Chelsea coach Rodgers was clearly instrumental in attracting the highly-rated attacker to the club.
The centre-forward position has been more of a concern. Indeed, it could well be argued that no-one has ever effectively replaced striker Jason Scotland, now of Ipswich, since his departure to join Martinez at Wigan Athletic. They float like butterflies but, all too often, they lack the sting to hurt the opposition. Luke Moore is the latest to try his hand at being the Swans’ spearhead following a permanent switch from West Bromwich Albion.
Not everyone is a fan of Swansea’s aesthetics. A succession of players, managers and supporters from opposing clubs, Cardiff’s Dave Jones chief among them, have poured scorn on their insistence on building slowly from the back when in possession. There is an element of the grass always being greener on the other side. Most supporters, especially those of Football League clubs, dream of their heroes playing more attractive football. On the other hand, it would be understandable if Swansea fans grew tired of a lack of goal threat and yearned for a more direct style of play.
The patient approach makes sense for Swansea. Without the same level of resources as their near neighbours from the capital, the slow-burning move forward that characterises their football is an accurate reflection of the club’s approach to appointing managers. Placing faith in Brendan Rodgers may have seemed like a strange decision to some, especially given his qualified failure at Reading, but there was a sense that he ticked all the boxes for Swansea and chairman Huw Jenkins is now reaping the reward of such a considered appointment.
Similarly, Swansea’s budget dictates that they usually struggle to attract high-profile impact players such as, for the sake of argument, Jay Bothroyd, Michael Chopra or Craig Bellamy. That headache is what makes Sinclair, easily the equal of each of Cardiff’s star trio, an even more impressive capture. A large portion of Swansea’s success is built on gaining consistent excellence from unfashionable players like Garry Monk, Alan Tate and Mark Gower.
Dramatically high turnover of managers elsewhere is the main talking point in the Football League at the moment. As in their patient possession play, however, what Swansea City have, they hold. If they reach the Premier League, their approach is already marked out.
And if Anton Rodgers is fortunate enough to break into Chelsea’s first team next season, he will be hoping to see a familiar face on the sideline again.