It’s been another difficult week at Swansea. International breaks are supposed to provide a respite from the grind of the Premier League season, but while the tumbleweeds no doubt rolled across the training pitches in south Wales, the stench of acrimony hung over them too.
The notion of what Swansea is continues to unravel at alarming pace. A small and peaceful supporter protest before the game with Brighton & Hove Albion was aimed, principally, at the role Huw Jenkins has played over the last eighteen months. A majority shareholding has obviously been sold, to owners whose motives as yet remain unclear, and Jenkins’s migration into a more sporting role has been associated with ineffective, inefficient recruitment.
And the team are struggling badly. Paul Clement has installed a vague sense of discipline, but with the ball Swansea are hopelessly blunt. Ahead of Saturday’s game with Burnley, they have won one Premier League game from their last six. A bad enough statistic, but one which still doesn’t do justice to the standard of football within those matches.
Across the board, everything is different. The atmosphere between the club and its public has changed, the native style has been sacrificed in aid of flawed pragmatism and, this week, the chairman of the Supporters’ Trust resigned.
The original identity has gone and Swansea, regrettably, are now just another football club pocked by distrust and in-fighting. It’s a time, then, to cling to whatever positives are floating within the wreckage – and there is one: Leon Britton, the longest serving player, has surrendered his club captaincy to become a player-coach.
He was the one handing out DVD copies of Jack To A King, he was the one reminding the players around him of how long it took to build a club capable of employing them. Intangibles are hard to price, but the uptick in performance that coincided with Britton's reinstatement is too neat to ignore.
Under normal circumstances, that’s the kind of the internal adjustment which would barely warrant a mention; It’s not unusual for ageing, highly-respected players to be promoted into a coaching structure. In this case, though, Britton is a necessary dose of permanence.
At the tale end of last season, he was integral to the survival effort. Of course, that was an unwittingly damning indictment of how poor the squad was and how short it may have been on direction, but Britton was genuinely excellent in the final-third of the campaign. In his mid-thirties, he had visibly lost a yard of acceleration and asking a player of his age to complete 90 minutes in this league is borderline unreasonable, but he made a difference.
Not with his passing, not with his yapping tackles, but just by being there. Britton is Swansea’s conscience and within a squad which, Angel Rangel aside, is largely transient, that proved a precious commodity. He was the one handing out DVD copies of Jack To A King, he was the one reminding the players around him of how long it took to build a club capable of employing them. Intangibles are hard to price, but the uptick in performance that coincided with Britton’s reinstatement is too neat to ignore.
Appointing someone a player-coach is, in a sense, the polite way of suggesting that time may not be on his side – and it’s true, Britton’s footballing usefulness is on the wane. However, maybe this is the right place for him. While already carrying gravitas on the training ground, this formal promotion deputises him a stage further. He is not only someone to be respected, but also a genuine authority figure.
Swansea need that – they actually need many things, many of those of far greater importance – but they certainly require a figurative anchor at this point in their history. The situation away from the pitch remains opaque and fluid, describable only by fragments of hearsay, and at the training ground is not much clearer. Clement is not really responsible for the current malaise, but he could depart the club at almost any moment. Similarly, the most important attacking player is a Chelsea loanee, the best centre-half will surely be a transfer target for others in January or next summer, and – judging by their body language – those players who are actually coveted by different sides wouldn’t have to be asked twice to leave.
Appointing a coaching assistant isn’t a cure for that. In Britton, though, Swansea have one of the more admirable personalities in the Premier League and someone who, for want of a description less trite, understands the value of the shirt on his back.
It may be the kind of wifty proper football man-ism the modern game has decided that we should sneer at and discard, but for the want of any other positives it’s something. He, aside from whatever coaching abilities he has or develops, both understands what a club is required to do to dig itself out of deep holes, but also stands as a reminder that Swansea do not have to be characterised by the current dysfunction.