Alfie Mawson is a leader. At the beginning of June, just before the Swansea centre-half flew out to Poland with the rest of the England u21 squad, he gave an interview to The Guardian’s Stuart James. The character described within, in wonderfully vivid detail, is very likeable. Mawson, like many players who graduated late to the professional game (he didn’t make a football league appearance until 2014), seems to have a rare appreciation for how privileged footballers are.
The interview, with its swirl of car-boot sales, encounters with civilian strangers, and its overarching humility, is an important read at a time when players have never seemed more distant from the public.
“If you’ve never been with England before, you have to turn up in your club tracksuit, so I sat there in my Swansea gear at St George’s Park. I didn’t know what was going on, to be honest. Then I got given my England tracksuit so I put it on straight away and took a photo, which I sent to my mate and said: ‘Look at this – I’ve got the kit!'”
It’s a charming anecdote, but one which implied that Mawson, making his first appearance in an international tournament, would be a reticent character in Poland. Aidy Boothroyd’s team was stocked with players who had grown familiar with one another during the journeys through the FA’s age groups and, in Nathaniel Chalobah, James Ward-Prowse, and Calum Chambers, England had a cast of confident characters ready-made to lead. It was descriptive, then, that by the tournament’s end Mawson had emerged as the side’s emotional barometer. He may not have actually worn the captain’s armband, but he became a towering figure within that group, belting out the national anthem before kick-off and booming instructions all over the pitch once the games began.
His style of play helped to create that perception. Mawson is a very traditional centre-half, all aerial domination and physical denial, and those qualities have an obvious intangible worth. While admittedly routed in the past, it’s easy to watch a defender who fits into that profile and assume him a leader. Nevertheless, there’s a texture to Mawson which is hard to deny: whether it’s his natural enthusiasm for the game, his pathway into it, or a maturity honed from a few years’ exposure to ‘real life’, he has an intangible quality which a lot of contemporary players don’t.
What he eventually becomes for England is a discussion for the future but, for now, it’s heartening to read that he has no plans to leave Swansea City. Despite weeks of speculation linking him with a move to Tottenham, Mawson has been quick to reaffirm his commitment to Paul Clement:
“I love it here. I want to kick on and do great things at this club. There’s always talk and there’s loads of speculation, but I’m happy to be here under the gaffer. So it’s onwards and upwards at this club.”
Jordi Amat has recently been sent to Real Betis on-loan for the season and, although a mainstay of the defence for three years now, Federico Fernandez did not enjoy an impressive 2016/2017. So Swansea are in a state of defensive flux and Mawson’s commitment could not have come at a better time. If Clement and his players are to enjoy a season away from the relegation zone, Mawson will be incredibly important.
But there’s something about this player and that club which heightens their importance to one another.
Mawson was born in Greater London, but the connection which exists between Swansea City and its community is suited to his personality. It’s perhaps trite – and naive – to talk of modern football in those terms, but Swansea are not like Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal, and there isn’t the same distance between its team and its public. Most of the characters from Jack To A King have now left and the first-team, Leon Britton aside, is unrecognisable from that era. Nevertheless, the culture remains. The town itself is not comparable to London, Liverpool or even Cardiff, and the locals’ relationship with the side reflects that – as you would expect from a club who made a quantum leap up the divisions, much of the lower league closeness survives.
Swansea were very nearly reintroduced to the Football League last year but, while that would have been chastening, their continued Premier League tenure comes with its own risks. Every year they spend at the highest level brings another vast broadcasting payment and every twelve months the moorings between the people and the players stretch a little further. How can it not? In parts, Swansea is a lovely place to visit, with its modern high streets decorated with all the usual brands and outlets. In others though, it bears the scars worn by many other Welsh towns and is an unlikely place to find wealthy footballers. That disparity threatens the club’s identity. The transient nature of modern football, where the relationship between players and their club is often solely defined by a wire transfer, offers a contrast to everything which brought Swansea to this level. Embracing modernity is a prerequisite to Premier League survival, but this place still needs its anchors.
Last year, the bonds between the people and the pitch were nearly broken. The performances were dreadful throughout most of 2016, but the off-field drama which raged in the background was particularly destructive. Tensions have since cooled between the supporters and the new ownership, though the anger still burns in Huw Jenkins’ direction, and Swansea were briefly in danger of becoming just another football club full of disenfranchised players and distracted decision-makers. Paul Clement is rightly credited with leading that recovery, but Leon Britton’s late re-introduction to the side was, in a footballing and emotional sense, also particularly telling. Britton is the mainstay, the link between the present and the past. He remains an excellent footballer, albeit one entering the shadows of retirement, but the way the Liberty Stadium responded to his return to the first-team was descriptive of the qualities it still desires in its football team. Honesty, humility and hard work: technical ability is fine, celebrated foreign stars are most welcome but, deep down, this is somewhere which still wants its footballers to be three-dimensional. Maybe that’s about trust or responsibility, but there’s a sense that Britton is loved not only for his service, but because he understands what life can look like beyond the walls surrounding these ivory towers. He understands the value of what has been built.
Alfie Mawson can never be Leon Britton. He will never play at the Vetch Field and he will never, no matter what he does, be able to weave himself into the club’s fabric in nearly the same way. What he can be, however, is another touch point for the public; someone who has seen the other side of the divide, who understands the responsibility that comes with his privilege, and who can occupy the key player/everyman void once Britton’s career eventually ends.
He’s in the right place at the right time: a player who will perform a vital twin-function at a club which, to its credit, isn’t quite ready to sacrifice its differences to superficial superstar culture.