In the end, it wasn’t even particularly tense. Hull were so abject at Selhurst Park and their collapse came so early, that the watching Swansea players had little to ever fear. They were safe and, realistically, had been so since the moment Kyle Naughton had scored at the Stadium of Light.
At the end of a wretched season, then, a moment of light: Sunderland and Middlesbrough may have been so inept as to have virtually relegated themselves, but the battle with Hull has been very real. Paul Clement and his players have won at Anfield and Selhurst Park in 2017 and have taken a point from Old Trafford. In more recent weeks, their form at the Liberty Stadium has also returned: Everton and Stoke were both beaten and Tottenham looked like they were for 88 impressive minutes.
So, irrespective of others’ failings, this has been very much a success against the odds.
Ordinarily, the value of avoiding relegation is obvious – particular so now, particularly at a time when the value of the broadcasting contract would make Croesus blush. But while Swansea will be financially rewarded like everybody else, perhaps this escape was more ideologically important? After all, they faced down this peril because of reckless unilateral decisions which were taken in the boardroom and which defied the spirit of cooperation which brought them Premier League football in the first place. For the people who led them down this path, this will be that most perfect of lessons: one which has illustrated the error of their ways, but which has ultimately spared them any long-term consequences. Escaping relegation has afforded Swansea’s decision-makers the opportunity of a re-set; the luxury of learning from their mistakes without having to do so from within the Football League.
What’s next, though?
Fortunately, the strained relationship between the club’s Supporters’ Trust and its ownership is under repair. Huw Jenkins may have tarnished his reputation permanently, but Jason Levein and Steve Kaplan – with the help of COO Chris Pearlman’s conciliatory touch – now appear to have a far greater appreciation for what they’ve bought. It’s unfounded, of course, but the suspicion until the early months of 2017 was that, while undoubtedly having a firm grasp of its asset value, Levein and Kaplan didn’t truly appreciate the complexities of their new club. Slowly that has been remedied and the club appears stronger as a result.
But there are many on-field lessons to learn, too. Tempting as it is to assign sole responsibility for the current malaise to the botched takeover, it would be reductive. While much of the instability has come from the shifting of those boardroom plates, many of the current squad’s weaknesses are a product of a flawed philosophy which has been apparent for some time. Since their promotion to this level, Swansea have been generously praised for the consistency of their football, it’s aesthetic virtue, and the stability it has brought, but such tangible success has arrived in spite of a transfer policy which, in retrospect, appears to challenge many of those values.
Looking back over that s market activity, the volume is striking. Not necessarily the hit-and-miss ratios, but the amount of players who have been through the club over the last four years: nine major arrivals in 2012/13, eight (plus the loan of David Ngog) the following season, ten significant signings in 14/15, and a further eight and ten over the course of the next two years. Swansea have now had six different Premier League managers and with that has come an inevitable degree of wastage, but that doesn’t necessarily justify the scattergun approach; they’ve employed far too many players who have had far too little worth.
Transfers will always be a toss-of-a-coin business. In this particular case, Swansea’s financial realities prevent them from having free choice in the market and so, more than many teams above them, they are prone to having to gamble on players with visible imperfections. But this doesn’t relate to the 50% deals which could have gone one way or another – the Mike Van Der Horn, Jonjo Shelvey and Borja Baston type of signings, which seemed logical in principle – but rather to those players who were recruited with no obvious necessity in mind. Franck Tabanou and Eder, for instance. Marvin Emnes and Alvaro Vazquez. Nelson Oliveira and Alberto Paloschi. Not all of those players failed for the same reasons, but they each departed quickly and predictably having offered little.
It is easy to judge after the fact, but this is (and they are) still representative of something which needs to change: Swansea haven’t improved efficiently enough.
If the most recent precedent is to be believed, refinement is already underway. Luciano Narsingh, Martin Olsson, Jordan Ayew and Tom Carroll arrived at the Liberty Stadium in January and all four have contributed to the team’s survival. Primarily, all have added value by being good players, but also because they’ve addressed specific needs: Narsingh’s width and pace, Carroll’s reliable passing, Ayew’s adaptability and movement at the top of the pitch, and Olsson’s speed and delivery from deep. Those four were identified as having specific traits which would suit Clement’s style of play and, reliably, they have all made Swansea better.
Prior to that transfer window, Daniel Altman and his North Yard Analytics team were also engaged by the club. Although Swansea actually have a history of data analysis which dates back to Garry Monk’s time at the club, that would also seem to represent an assault on a traditional weakness. Analytics cannot provide a magic bullet cure and tends only to be as useful as the people offering and receiving its advice allow it to be. Clement, judging by his public comments at least, has the appreciation expected of someone who has worked with these systems in bigger clubs before, but also the nous to recognise where the line between traditional and contemporary thinking should be drawn. By all accounts, Altman and his team (presumably tucked away in an air-conditioned office) are there to provide due diligence rather to actually lead transfer policy. Clement appears comfortable with that and, consequently, the chances of an harmonious and productive relationship seem high. No talk of revolution, no warring factions.
So with the last six months as evidence, it seems accurate to present Swansea as a club who have won themselves a second chance at the right point in their history. They are an organisation who evidently recognised their own faults at exactly the right time and, thanks to their playing and technical staff, now have the opportunity to fully clear their philosophical haziness and cure some of their more literal failings. In time, perhaps, these last frantic weeks may eventually enjoy relative parity with those desperate days at the Vetch Field. Not because they’re anything like as desperate, but because they’ve seen the conquering of downward momentum.
Swansea have lived to see another day. Because they have – and because they appear to understand why they found themselves in the darkness in the first place – their future should be bright.