On the 13th of May 2018, seven years of dreaming were ended in tears as Swansea City’s remarkable, and perhaps inevitably doomed, Premier League adventure was bought to an end.
The players had tears in their eyes, the club legends of Leon Britton and Angel Rangel were given an anti-climatic farewell, and the manager addressed the press with a piece of paper about his own achievements. It was a disastrous end to a disastrous season, the inevitable end to a brittle few years for Swansea City, who have been batting eyelids at the Championship for a long time and have finally been courted to step down, away from the riches of the Premier League and away from the places where dreams are, supposedly, fulfilled.
So much has been written on how this has happened to a once admired club, focusing on the problems within, but perhaps the question of why is more appropriate in a more general sense: a look at Swansea’s surroundings, their change of environment in being promoted, points to a wider problem that the Premier League is guilty of. Mistakes have been made in almost every area of Swansea City, from the manager to the players to the boardroom, and yet there is a feeling of inevitability about this club’s regression that should concern anyone and everyone.
The first three years of Swansea’s Premier League reign should be remembered as a remarkable achievement. The style of play under Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup, particularly the latter at the peak of his tenure, seems almost impossible to repeat for a similar sized club in this current landscape. It is not an exaggeration to say the football they played was breathtaking; anybody who can remember Swansea’s counter-attacking master-class at the Emirates stadium or their now locally famous 3-1 win over West Brom, will remember the fluidity of their play, the way each attacker constantly switched positions, the manner in which they would kill off teams with quick tempo passing. The players they had obviously helped and yet since those days the club has only become significantly richer but somehow poorer in style and identity in the process.
Something has happened to Swansea City, a regression in quality so often attributed towards the American owners who took over the club in 2016, who while are definitely not blameless have perhaps invested in a club that was subconsciously resigned to a reality check. There was a feeling of inevitability about this relegation, confirmed within the club as something that eventually had to happen. Club legend Alan Curtis, who was tasked with a few caretaker manager roles in the past few years, said in an interview after relegation was confirmed that the club was always resigned to eventually leaving the league.
Is this not an extraordinary idea? That a club that had spent seven years in the top league of British football was always haunted by a resignation that relegation would happen, that it had to happen? Perhaps the club have been stuck in the past for too long, that for years now the club has been trying to recapture an old dream, a dead dream, instead of trying to forge a new identity. This is most obviously showcased by the club’s baffling, and so often repeated, attempts to bring back players and managers from the old days of glory.
The club attempted to bring back Brendan Rodgers and, reportedly, Michael Laudrup, in recent seasons, and they haven’t hesitated to bring back old players as well. Examples of players who have been re-signed or who were nearly re-signed are Andre Ayew, Wilfried Bony, Joe Allen, Jonathan De Guzman, Tom Carroll and now, reportedly, Ashley Williams as well. Many have described this as ‘lazy’ scouting but I would instead view it as a reliance on the past, a striving for the club to bring back success in the form of players who once had a part to play in building memories.
This is what the Premier League has made of Swansea. A club that was once held up as an example for others to follow has become desperate and unrecognisable, misshapen from years of trying to connect with its own past. Although Swansea has made many of mistakes of their own and deserve to go down, it is a concerning sight to see what the pressure and the structure of the Premier League has made of such an admirable club.
Of course every club wants to be at the very top, to challenge in the very best league they can be in, but the Premier League is a dead-end, a roadblock for ambition. Last year the gap between 8th and 9th was 15 points, while this year the ‘best of the rest’ team, Burnley, managed to secure a European spot despite not winning any of their final five games, losing three. The gap is becoming wider between everybody else and the top six teams in the league, to a point where a few of these clubs will fulfil the dream of finishing above the rest (but not near the top five) while the rest will be satisfied with yet another season of safety. It sounds critical to phrase it so cynically but it isn’t designed to be – this is simply a reflection of the nature of the league.
Perhaps Swansea show what happens to a club who are forced to prioritise the simple task of survival for seven years in a row; desperation takes over. Who has time for identity when you need to win your final few games at all cost? Even the biggest upset in the history of the league, Leicester City winning the title only two years ago, has done nothing to bring a sense of competitiveness – if anything, their win has only forced the richest teams to widen the gap further in fear of a repeat event. Now Leicester are in the same position as all of these other survival based teams, where they dare to dream of bigger things but must prioritise safety above all else.
To survive desperately in the Premier League for years is to give up on your values, to abandon style and pride and to instead resort to anything and anybody that will help you escape relegation. Everybody is talking about how relegation may be a good thing for Swansea, how it might allow them to recapture their long-lost identity, and they’re right, it might eventually achieve that. However, it should not take a drop down in league, quality and money for a team to be able to play in the style they believe is their own, for them to feel brave enough to re-discover their own values.
Swansea may rediscover their identity, they may return to the Premier League next year having played amazing, expansive, wonderful football. And yet, after the past few years of having that quality slowly taken away from them, the question perhaps should not be ‘will they return?’ but instead ‘why would they want to?’
Written by Jack Hall.