Thursday, November 24, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: December 2, 1:10 PM UK
Swans fly to the sun and back
Every season sees a team rise to the Premier League and delight with a refreshing approach. This season's breath of fresh air has been Swansea City, a team without stars, a coach with much to prove and all while carrying the flag for the Welsh nation. The last Welsh team to play in the English top division was none other than Swansea, under the aegis of John Toshack, and for some of the 1981-82 season they led the First Division. It had been a meteoric rise, but the fall would be equally spectacular.
The mining valleys of South Wales had once helped power the United Kingdom, as one of the key regions of the Industrial Revolution. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the surrounding area, of which Swansea was the port city and a centre for copper production, had lapsed into deep depression. Unemployment, crime and social problems took a tight hold. For a while, Swansea's football team, ironically led by Cardiff native John Toshack, lifted flagging local spirits, before being felled by the type of financial problems then so familiar to that part of the world.
Player-manager Toshack's arrival at the Vetch Field in March 1978 was the moment that a provincial club in the Principality began to go places. As part of a fabled Liverpool striking partnership with Kevin Keegan, 'Tosh' was the leading Welsh player of his generation, and had been a star since becoming Cardiff City's youngest ever player and goalscorer as a 16-year-old in 1965. His last days as a Liverpool player had been blighted by injury and he was now forced to accept that his days at the top were at an end.
Already qualified as a coach, at 29 he became the youngest manager in the league when replacing Harry Griffiths, a club stalwart who had performed the roles of player, physio, coach, trainer, assistant manager and manager at Swansea before deciding that he could not take the club further. Griffiths stepped aside to become Toshack's assistant, and actually bequeathed him a decent legacy considering the club had been forced to apply for re-election to the Football League at the end of the 1974-5 season.
Toshack's new team were in striking distance of promotion, having begun the month in seventh place, and they achieved promotion from the Fourth Division at his first attempt, finishing third behind Graham Taylor's Watford - another fast developer of the era. Griffths did not live to see his legacy realised, as he collapsed and died of a heart attack on April 25 1978 before a home game with Scunthorpe United, won 3-1 despite the circumstances. A further draw with Halifax Town was all that would be required for promotion.
"Most of the hard work had been done when I arrived two months ago, chiefly by Harry," said Toshack ahead of the game. "Gaining promotion would be a memorial to him." It was duly achieved with a 2-0 win, though celebrations were sombre. The following year, accompanied by Watford once more, Swansea were promoted into the Division Two, with Toshack himself coming off the bench to score the goal against Chesterfield that secured promotion.
By then, Toshack's side was his own, blending local youngsters like strikers Alan Curtis and Jeremy Charles and all-action midfielder Robbie James with former Liverpool colleagues like Phil Boersma, Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan. The latter pair had been one-club Liverpool men, but were convinced to South Wales by the charms of 'Tosh'.
"Myself and Ian were coming towards the end of our time at Liverpool," Smith told the Western Mail last month. "The club said there were happy to continue to pay us even though we wouldn't play much, but we were both keen to carry on playing. So I called up John, who I obviously knew well from his time at Liverpool and he sorted things out. We would train at Melwood in the week and then Ian and I would drive down to Swansea for the games. We had some good times there."
A season of mid-table consolidation in the Second Division followed in 1979-80 before the promised land could be struck for. It was reached on May 2 1981, at Preston North End, the Swans holding their nerve as rivals Blackburn Rovers also won at Bristol Rovers. Leighton James, Tommy Craig and Jeremy Charles were the goalscorers in a 3-1 win. Toshack received the highest of praise when Bill Shankly, his Anfield mentor, said of his former charge, to whom he remained close and offered help along the way until his untimely death in October 1981, that "he's done a remarkable job, I would say he's possibly manager of the century - what he's achieved at Swansea in such a short space of time. He hasn't forgotten what he'd learnt."
Swansea, for the first time, were in the First Division, and made their bow in terrific style. Record signing Bob Latchford, another emigre from Merseyside though from Everton this time, scored a hat-trick against a Leeds United team headed for relegation in a 5-1 win at the Vetch Field. Bryan Flynn, a boyhood Swansea fan who played for Leeds that afternoon, described it as "a Roy of the Rovers day for them".
It was true. Swansea, in the first season of three points for a league victory, were top of the heap, a position they would occupy several further times through 1981-82. Having swept aside former kingpins Leeds, elite names Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur would all be victims of Tosh's Welsh raiders.
As March 1982 drew to a close, Swansea led the league from a Southampton team fired by Kevin Keegan, and a late-surging Liverpool who had been mid-table at the year. Yet a 2-1 home defeat to Bobby Robson's Ipswich Town on March 27 was their final moment in the sun. Injuries to stars like Latchford and new signing Ray Kennedy, yet another Liverpool alumni, meant that the Icarus-like flight of the Swans came to an end. A goal-of-the-season contender from Gary Stanley against Manchester City on April 17 was the last hurrah as Swansea won just one of their final six matches, to eventually finish in sixth place.
In May, Toshack had told the Sunday Express that "only Bob Paisley and Brian Clough are better managers than me" but his hubris would never match the achievements of those men, at least in the English game. "Second-season-itis" for a promoted club was clearly as much a factor then as it is now, and the Swans were relegated at the end of the 1982-83 season, with the relative big spending of the Toshack era leading financial resources to be too thinly stretched.
The club's golden generation was cashed in during the summer of 1983. Charles, Curtis, and both Leighton and Robbie James departed, and soon a bereft club was in freefall. Farce soon took over, when Toshack resigned in October 1983 before coming back in December, only to be sacked at the end of a 1983-4 season where relegation occurred once more. Three successive managers in Colin Appleton, John Bond and Tommy Hutchison would all fail to steady the ship.
Football fortunes took a back seat amid the club's other worries when they faced extinction in December 1985, having been wound up for bankruptcy. Only the intervention of local businessman and committed "Jack" Doug Sharpe saved the club from an even worse fate than the footballing reality that by the end of the 1985-86 season, Swansea were back in the Fourth Division. They were right back where they had started from in 1978.
What happened next? Swansea City would partially revive in returning to the Third Division in 1988, where they stayed for eight years. A period of yo-yo-ing followed until a series of ownerships ended with the involvement of fan ownership and the move from the Vetch Field to the Liberty Stadium in 2005. A far less rapid rise was confirmed when a Scott Sinclair hat-trick secured a Championship play-off final victory against Reading. Toshack headed to Iberia to seek his fortune, first managing Sporting Lisbon before finding success at Real Sociedad in Spain. He has enjoyed three spells at Sociedad, and twice coached at Real Madrid, where he won the Spanish league title in 1990. He has also managed Wales twice, once for just 41 days and then again between 2004 and 2010, and is now manager of Macedonia. Swansea is now a city dominated by service industries, most notably the UK's Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.