Swansea City are rearranging deckchairs on a sinking ship

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 22, 2017
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Farewell then, Paul Clement. Goodbye to your ultra-cautious football and your inability to construct a balanced midfield. Swansea have swung the axe and Huw Jenkins, via a club statement, has said that in spite of a strong working relationship the club had no choice but to act decisively.

It’s interesting, isn’t it. When making a decision which costs millions of pounds in severance pay and promises an illusory, short-term carthasis, a football club can act with all the clarity expected of an elite sporting organisation. Perversely, when it comes to organising a executive structure which creates the best possible conditions for progress, the same organisation can’t get out of its own way and can spend year after year repeating the same mistakes.

Swansea City are kidding themselves. Those who watched Clement’s team will know that he’s been on borrowed time for a while. Most of the natives grew frustrated with the impotent football a long time ago – many have made that audibly clear during home games – but all of those people – universally – recognise that this team’s problems extend far beyond the technical area and the training pitch.

On Thursday, The Guardian’s Stuart James wrote at length about these issues, which include but are not confined to the owners’ ambition, Huw Jenkins’ ill-defined role, and Daniel Altman’s job performance. The portrait is of a club with muddled processes and with little idea of the way forward and, inarguably, it’s a very fair account.

Under those circimstances, changing managers is a cheap trick designed to create the impression of change whilst being little more than a cosmetic tweak. In this case, Swansea are a badly-run restaurant serving rotten ingredients who, in an almost insulting affront to their clientele’s intelligence, are hoping for a more prosperous future under a different chef.

Ronald Koeman, Roberto Martinez… Tony Pulis. What does it matter? Maybe the club will pick up enough points to avoid relegation this season – perhaps some quick-fire motivation and declining form elsewhere in the league will be enough to save them. But then what about next year. And the one after that.

Being a smaller club in the Premier League is tough and, as one of them, Swansea have to battle all kinds of long odds. They don’t have the finances to compete for the very best players in the market and, ultimately, attracting players to south Wales over London, Manchester or most of England is extremely difficult. What that means, though, is that the club has to be smarter. Smaller animals in the wild survive on their wits and the same is true in the sporting world. Without natural advantages like size and strength, it’s imperative that a club of their profile makes more good decisions than bad.

And yet, Swansea don’t. They don’t benefit from the continuity enjoyed by Burnley and Bournemouth. Their executives don’t have the same local relationships that Dean Hoyle has cultivated at Huddersfield or that have helped animate Brighton’s recent rise. They have none of those organic advantages. They did, but they’ve been squandered – and, as a result, they exist in a ‘worst of both worlds’ situation. They’ve snapped their ideological moorings, betrayed local privileges and even the Supporters’ Trust seem to exist in an ineffectual pergatory between those it represents and those whom it is supposed to hold to account.

Once, this was one of the most admired clubs in the league. Now, Swansea are Sunderland or Randy Lerner-era Aston Villa. Caught in a death swirl towards the Championship and characterised by opaque processes which are never explained properly and a transfer policy which nobody ever seems to take full responsibility for. Do we blame Clement for this, on the basis that Renato Sanches has been an expensive disaster. Do we knock on Altman’s door and accuse him of trying to be far too clever. Or should the finger be pointed at Jenkins, who has become a sort of hobbyist sporting director.

Or maybe Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan, about whom so little is really known. Forget the soundbytes and crowd-pleasing statements, what was the rationale behind the Guidolin, Bradley, Clement decisions. Three managers who were dramatically different to what came before and who are all, in different ways, ideologically distanced from the club’s footballing principles.

When people can look at your club and wonder what you’re trying to do with it, that’s generally a sign that it’s not working as it should. It means that your communication is bad and that the decisions you make are often wrong. It means that the mismanagement has been so pronounced that an actual identity has been eroded. Unfortunately, there isn’t a head-coach working in world football today capable of filling cracks which are that wide.

Until Swansea fix their institutional failings, they might as well be painting these managers on the dressing-room wall. They’re rearranging deckchairs on a sinking ship, redecorating a crumbling house – essentially, doing nothing to avert imminent disaster. Leon Britton will take temporary charge this weekend, but whomever succeeds him will again by hamstrung by the same scattergun recruitment and will be equally undermined by the growing insitutional distrust.

This is such a shame, almost a tragedy. For much of the past decade, Swansea have been a counter-point to many of the assumed imperatives surrounding modern football. No longer, though, as now they’re just one of many. Another set of faceless executives swatting away the native concerns in the mistaken belief that they know better.

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