With recent results having been disappointing, hopes of claiming an automatic promotion spot seem to have receded as far as the sea in Swansea Bay at low tide. If not exactly sharpening knives, some critics of Brian Flynn have cast away their sheaths and picked up the stone. If the issue of tactics is something that the manager can mull over, more worrying has been the evaporation of form of certain players who back in the heady days of September had arguably looked the best crop of talent since the Toshack era. Whilst some of the players returning from injury undoubtedly need match practice to return to a peak, some supporters are worried that the season will descend into massive anti-climax.
Whilst there undoubtedly are current issues as to both personnel and tactics, and it is understandable that supporters are feeling both frustrated and disappointed, the season is far from over. Before we start recriminations, it would be as well to reflect that promotion years are rarely as straightforward as they would be in our fantasies, and that even in the Toshack era matters were not always plain sailing.
Twenty-odd years on its easy to think back to those glory years with rose tinted nostalgia. A look at the final placings, and the accounts given of the era in some sources would have one believe that the Toshack years were a continual upward trajectory, and that there were no glitches as the Anfield philosophy was efficiently applied at the Vetch. The reality was, of course, a little more complex. Whilst the team invariably brought home the bacon when it ultimately counted, there were mini-crises along the way, and times when if Tosh was not exactly doubted by the faithful, then at least the club’s collective patience was tried.
Toshack’s first full season in charge had started spectacularly, as the promotion winning squad of the previous year was strengthened by the likes of former Liverpool legends Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan. In one incredible week the team hit the national headlines as they famously won 3-1 at White Hart Lane to knock Spurs out of the League Cup, and 2-0 at Graham Taylor’s Watford. In mid-September the Swans stood top of the league, and it seemed nothing could stop us. That was until we ran into Chester and Carlisle, who both beat us 2-0 in a rather more forgettable few days.
It never rains but it pours, and we soon lost Alan Curtis to injury. The team maintained its position in the top four until Christmas, but without the swagger of the opening weeks. The traditional Boxing Day bogey saw us lose 2-1 to rival Swindon at the Vetch, whilst a series of postponements in January saw us slip down the table. Not even the return of Alan Curtis could prevent February becoming the worst spell of the young manager’s reign. Suddenly the doubts were almost tangible. Was the Toshack factor a flash in the pan? Had teams sussed a way to stop us playing?
The Cassandras should have saved their breath. The turning point arguably came in a re-arranged match against Watford who continued to fly as high as their Chairman’s rocket man. In a thrilling match which bore a resemblance to the current side’s victory over Yeovil, the Swans went two up, were pegged back by a second half come back, and scored a dramatic late winner. The footage on the “Golden Years” video suggests that Robbie James winner was about as far over the line as Geoff Hurst’s legendary goal, but was arguably the stroke of luck we needed to set our season back on course. The win seemed to be the fillip to confidence the team needed and there was no turning back, culminating in the 2-1 win over Chesterfield that confirmed Toshack’s messianic status.
In a strangely similar way, the promotion to the First Division followed an almost identical pattern. Following a season of consolidation in the old second division, the early part of the 1980-81 season saw a team buoyed by new signing Leighton James get off to a flying start. The attacking football was irresistible, and Alan Waddle, David Giles and Robbie James got amongst the goals. The return of Alan Curtis from Leeds immediately after BBC Match of the Day cameras had captured a 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle seemed the icing on the cake.
Again, however, the New Year brought disaster and doubt. It seemed business as usual when we led 3-1 with five minutes remaining at Ninian Park a few days after Christmas. Then suddenly the world fell apart, as Cardiff staged an unlikely come-back to steal a point, care of an incredible thirty five yard free kick from John Buchanan. If this was hard to take, worse was to follow. Some have questioned whether our current FA Cup run has had a detrimental effect on league form. It certainly cant have had as negative effect as the cup thrashing we took when Middlesborough came to the Vetch in the next game and won 5-0. The irony was – and most people who weren’t at the match stared at you as if you were a wild-eyed loon if you ever made the point – we could have won the game! We dominated vast tranches of play, but couldn’t score, whereas it seemed every ‘Boro venture into our half ended with a goal! Whatever the justice, the effect on the team’s self-esteem seemed devastating.
Promotion rivals West Ham came to the Vetch the following week and ran out comfortable 3-1 winners. Worse was to follow as the team chalked up five consecutive league defeats and fell away to upper mid table. With no play offs in those days, this seemed an end to dreams of a further promotion for the time being.
Redemption came from unlikely sources. Wyndham Evans had been a stalwart of the club for years, a survivor of the re-election team. Great club servant that he was, few thought that Wyndham would be a vital part of a team to win promotion to the First Division. Sixteen-year old defender Dudley Lewis was a complete unknown to all but those die-hards that attended reserve team fixtures. Yet through a mixture of injuries and desperation, Tosh started with this pair at the back in a match against Bolton at the Vetch. The 3-0 win care of Leighton James’ hat-trick was the first in weeks, and kick started a revival that was to culminate in the never to be forgotten trip to Preston. Wyndham showed that in some circumstances commitment and spirit can be as important as natural ability. Dudley bossed the defence like a putative Franco Baresi, as he precociously enjoyed the highlights of a career that was to suffer as the club later floundered.
In both instances these promotions looked unlikely in February, proving the old cliché that the league season is a marathon and not a sprint. Both seasons had seen a cracking start drift into a mundane new year, and promotion credentials questioned. On both occasions the team dug deep and found a second wind to take them through to the finish line.
Robbie Martinez has stated that life with the Swans is always a roller coaster ride. He could do worse than have a chat with his fellow Sky TV Spanish football pundit John Toshack who would surely confirm that even in the club’s glory days, promotion was rarely straightforward. A gloomy January doesn’t preclude sunny days come May. Good players don’t become bad overnight, and if the current squad can emulate the spirit of the likes of Robbie, Wyndham and Dudley, we could still have something to cheer come the season’s end.