It’s been around two years since the Trust wrote a series of articles looking at various aspects and challenges facing the football club, entitled “Where Do We Go From Here”. Given that the club is undoubtedly going to see significant changes as a result of our relegation from the Premier League, this seems a fitting time to reprise this.
In the first of these articles, we will look at the running of the footballing side of the club. As the famous quote goes, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and that seems particularly fitting as, to properly understand where the club needs to go from here, we should understand the reasons why we’ve seen a downturn of fortunes on the pitch.
As the Trust noted in a recent statement, the Swansea Way in a footballing sense has long since disappeared. The “Swanselona” passing game has gradually been ripped apart, with each change in manager and transfer window seemingly taking us further away, to the point where we have become one of the most negative and direct teams in the Premier League with our main goal threat coming from set pieces. For those of us who can remember the ironic “scored from a corner” chants during the Martinez era, this is a bitter pill to swallow.
It’s not just the Trust that feels this way. There is an excellent interview with Alan Curtis where he notes the loss of our footballing identity in recent times. We’ve lost count of the number of media articles all touching on the same themes regarding loss of identity and footballing philosophy and it’s a common complaint amongst supporters we have spoken to.
It was our style of football, bringing in quality technical footballers overlooked by other clubs who were obsessed by the physical attributes of the players, taking a different approach to our peers in League 1, Championship and then the Premier League, that saw us not only compete with teams with considerably bigger budgets but thrive. As a football club, we had a clear identity and we hired managers and players who could fit that ethos. Huw Jenkins even stated this himself in 2011, “We’ve built a team. A team will beat individuals any day. We’ve done it our own way with our own style of football and we’ve asked our managers to fit into certain parameters we’ve set.”
Clearly we have moved away from that model and, whilst we couldn’t stand still, it’s difficult to understand why we would move away from those principles. It’s difficult, and potentially unfair, to pinpoint one moment where the philosophy changed however during Garry Monk’s time in charge there was a lot of focus around ensuring the team had a Plan B in order to compete. That makes total sense and did bring some short-term success (we achieved our highest PL position under Monk), but this was the starting point for us signing a different, more physical, type of player, with many of the more technically gifted players being moved on.
A concern with searching for a Plan B is that we ensure we don’t lose what had made us successful until then but, from this point on, the club started to lose that footballing identity. That’s partly by design, to evolve, and we don’t think it was ever a conscious decision to lose the good things we had. Indeed with every new managerial appointment, one of the common themes has been to try and return the Swans to the style of play we enjoyed for so long.
This brings us to another problem, the turnover of people in the managerial hot seat. It can never be ideal to have 5 different managers in 2 ½ years, especially when they’ve all been sacked or released due to poor results and performances. Managers will always have their own views in terms of individual players and tactics so consistency is always difficult to achieve in that climate. The issue is not helped by the situation when each of the managers has been appointed – always in reaction to a crisis, with an immediate need to steady the ship and try and preserve our league status. Invariably (Bradley aside) this meant each manager focused on steadying the ship and more defensive aspects rather than implementing a more progressive style. Understandable perhaps, given the stakes at play and being appointed during the season, however not likely to solve the problem in the long term.
Two of those managers, Guidolin and Clement, did have the opportunity of a close season to try and implement a change in approach. Given that both were sacked before the year was out, we’re not sure we can judge whether they tried to implement a more progressive philosophy, however it’s safe to say that neither were helped by losing key players – Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew under Guidolin, Llorente and Sigurdsson (eventually) under Clement. It’s true to say that significant money was spent to replace them, however our success in doing so would have to be questioned.
This brings us onto player recruitment, which is always a passionate discussion point in recent times. A lot of flak usually gets directed at Huw Jenkins in this regard however he is not the only party involved. There are numerous scouts and analysts under Head of Recruitment David Leadbetter and, contrary to popular opinion, the manager has historically had a much bigger say on signings than many believe. However Huw Jenkins is the de facto director of football and does oversee that process. Going back to 2015, he stated “I oversee our recruitment … It doesn’t matter how many people you’ve got in a room deciding what players you want, somebody has to make a decision. It’s easier to have fewer opinions and keep it simple.”
It would be disingenuous to ignore the significant successes in recruitment in the past, however if we look at the times when we have been really successful, there has been a very close relationship between recruitment department and the manager. Under Martinez, he brought in Kevin Reeves as his chief scout and tore up the League 1 rule book by using his wife’s flight discounts to scout and bring in technically gifted players from across Europe. Rodgers leveraged his Chelsea connections to bring in Sinclair and Borini to help gain promotion and secured our Premier League status with the loan signing of Sigurdsson (who he managed at Reading). Under Laudrup, recruitment was clearly driven by his (and his agent’s) knowledge of the Spanish leagues. None of this is to denigrate Huw Jenkins’ involvement at that time – he chose the managers, all inspired appointments, and it is a quality of good management to be hands-off and let the right people make the right decisions.
That approach to recruitment has changed in recent years, with the recruitment department remaining in situ regardless of who is in the manager’s chair. In many ways this makes sense if the club was working to the model of bringing in a certain type of player and manager who are suited to that type of football. It is certainly desirable where we have seen the turnover of managers we have in recent seasons as there needs to be some sort of continuity in terms of recruitment. Unfortunately recruitment has, to be kind, been hit and miss during this time.
The answer to why that has happened is not straightforward. The turnover in managers is undoubtedly a big factor. A player who thrived under one may not thrive under another with different ideas. Another major factor has also been our failure to adequately replace key personnel who have either moved on or have come to the tail end of their careers. If we were to single one player out as fundamental to the “Swansea Way” then Leon Britton would be the obvious choice. For the last few years the club has tried to replace him, either with a different type of player or almost direct clones. Clearly those replacements have not been up to the task. The same could also apply to attempts to replace Angel Rangel, Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge. The fact we finished the season with all four playing a part in the final game shows the lack of success in that regard.
It is clear that the club has made some very expensive mistakes in the transfer market in recent years. For us to have spent £30m on transfer fees on players and end up sending them out on loan because they have been deemed not good enough for probably the weakest squad in our Premier League tenure is a big issue. We will never be a club who can spend our way out of trouble, so we need to work smarter than our competitors. It is clear we haven’t been in recent times.
Looking at the players brought in over the last couple of years, it is difficult to argue that we are getting the same sort of value for money we were getting prior to 2014. In fact it’s hard to make a case for more than 3 or 4 of the current team being capable of challenging for a starting place in a pre-2014 team, and that’s a pretty damning indictment of any recruitment process.
The title of this article is “Where do we go from here”, so how can we improve the situation? Well, learning from these situations would be an obvious starting point.
Let’s look at the management of the football side of things. In fairness to Carlos Carvalhal, for us to have taken this so close to the wire is an achievement in itself given the position he inherited. The revival was nothing short of miraculous, even if there was some grumbling regarding tactics, but the lack of quality eventually told. Looking forward, the club must appoint a football manager with a similar footballing philosophy to that which the club had when we were originally promoted and has the long-term vision to mould a squad that is capable of competing at the right end of the Championship and beyond.
This may mean employing someone completely left-field and it may not be a quick process. It isn’t the Trust’s job to provide names (the club has enough highly paid professionals to do that) however it was not the “Swansea Way” to appoint from the usual list of failed managers often chosen by relegated clubs. In essence, we need to replicate the spirit of 2007 when we appointed Martinez with the remit of changing the footballing philosophy of the football club.
It is the Trust’s view that the management structure of the entire footballing side of the club needs to be urgently reviewed. This is something the Trust called for last year and recently repeated in our statement of May 10. We urge the majority owners once again to implement that review with urgency. The club needs a consistent, joined up approach to ensure that the club returns to the progressive style of football that served us so well and that the right sort of players are signed. That consistency needs to apply to all playing levels of the club, to ensure that the best use is made of our increasingly excellent Academy (which, as we’re seeing with Connor Roberts, is capable of bringing through top quality talent).
Who is the right man to lead this review and make the necessary decisions? A few years ago that would have been an easy question to answer. If we look at this dispassionately, Huw Jenkins’ record for a long time was as good as anyone in the game. Sadly his track record in recent years is pretty much the polar opposite. Due to the continued failings in recruitment, both player and managerial, the Supporters Trust has called for the removal of Huw Jenkins as Chairman and as such we do not believe he is the right man to lead that exercise.
Failure to perform that review, or believe that replacing the manager alone will solve the issues of the last few seasons, and the Trust really does worry what fate will befall us in the Championship. Far too many teams have struggled and many have fallen further – just look at Sunderland. Our own history is a cautionary tale to what can happen after relegation from the top flight, although clearly our financial situation is much stronger than 1983.
This is a critical time for our football club. We are a medium sized club competing against clubs with historically bigger budgets, stadia and crowds. To compete in the Championship with parachute payments that will dwarf the budgets of other clubs provides us with an opportunity we will struggle to get again. It’s true to say we may be left with some Premier League contracts for players we may not want to keep in an ideal world, however we’ll still be in a better position than most.
Now is the time for the club to be brave and return to the principles that served us so well on our rise to the Premier League. We may never get a better opportunity to do so.