So it all came good in the end, in the best Hollywood traditions. Not even Stephen Spielberg could have manipulated our emotions more effectively in a tale that kept twisting to the very last. Now the final credits are rolling, and if the story had been turned into a multiplex blockbuster, an emotive theme song awash with strings would ring out, whilst grainy slow-mo images rolled of bedraggled but smiling James Thomas, the local hero who achieved his destiny.
Pan to Leon Britton, the tiny man with the heart of a giant who couldn’t persuade the blinkered folk of the big city to take him seriously, and was told to go west to prove himself and make his fortune. There he found a mentor and repaid the faith of Brian Flynn, a man who had overcome similar prejudice when a young man. Grown men are seen to cry as Leon mounts his bicycle and waving goodbye to his new friends rides off back to where he came from, silhouetted against the moon. Meanwhile, exotic latino strategist Robbie Martinez reflects on a job well done in saving the far away club that he had heard of as a boy. Just like the cavalry, it turned out the guys in red shoes arrived in the nick of time.
If those were the heroes of the hour, the plot also featured it’s fall guys and villains. The former represented by Nick Cusack, the decent and honest man of the people who finds himself out of his depth, let down by the ageing cowboys he employed to bring life back to the old ranch. Meanwhile, Mike Lewis, who if he appeared as a villain in a Batman movie would be dismissed as too far fetched to be believable, receives his final denouement. Foiled in his attempt to pull off a last minute stunt to give his team an advantage at the final fence, the portly hate figure has to sit and endure public humiliation as his cunning plan fails with dire consequences. Many will hope that football’s answer to Mr Buyrite sat uncomfortably through his Warholian fifteen minutes – every good blockbuster requires it’s moral judgement.
Never can I recall a season with so much drama, and so many twists and turns down to the final nerve stretching scene, which even the most hardy must have been tempted to watch peeping through fingers as hands covered eyes. If I could have taken a sofa into the ground with me at Rochdale I would have gladly watched from behind it, ready to cower and hide when it all got too scary and horrible. Oh that I could have climbed into a time machine and been mysteriously transported back to 1981. With hindsight, even the last day dramas of previous seasons now seem so straightforward as to be boring and predictable. In those days we were essentially a good team with good players, who always came good when it mattered. This time around the finale couldn’t have been more tense if Alfred Hitchcock had been sitting in the director’s chair.
The nearest precedent had come in 1985-86 when a team of apparent no-hopers were turned around by a management change and introduction of fresh, but experienced blood. However, whilst it was true that our fate that season also went to the final game, that was a match we approached with a degree of confidence on the back of a good run. This time, literally anything could have happened, and it seems that most of it did. Two morale sapping defeats in the run-in turned up the tension, particularly where a defeat was likely to have led to the Swansea story becoming a B feature destined to show at the flea pits and backwaters of the football circuit.
Perhaps we should have anticipated what was in store last summer when closer examination of the Cusack signings suggested a collection of old repertory hacks living on doubtful past glories which had drawn only critical pannings. Yet, as with many a good thriller, the opening scene was played out with light hearts and great hope on a perfect summer’s day near the sea. The club back in local hands after the disasters of previous ownership. The team back in traditional all-white with black trimmings after more than a decade as victims of British fashion design’s most questionable graduates. A large, vociferous crowd in bright sunshine against a team clad in yellow. Squint your eyes a little and we could have been back on that glorious day twenty one summers before when Leeds were put to the sword.
Rather like a bad re-make of a cinema classic, the new soon paled against the original, and we soon realised that the latest version was going to make difficult viewing. However, like reviewers trying to find something positive to say about a well loved old stager who had kept us entertained in our youth but now seemed sadly lacking, we tried to accentuate the positive. Post mortems of the opener centred on James Thomas’s classic header and Paul Reid’s spectacular long range shot. The latter, which evoked memories of Gary Stanley’s blast against Man. City in happier times, proved to be a high point in Reid’s otherwise poor impersonation of that footballer turned film actor, Vinnie Jones.
The sheer lateness of Rushden’s equaliser could not entirely disguise the shortcomings and the fact that our midfield resembled less the Crazy Gang than the Three Stooges. Still we told ourselves that Rushden were the bookies’ favourites for promotion, and that we were unlikely to face such strong opposition on a weekly basis. It would be all right on the night. When both Bury and unfancied Bristol Rovers handed out similar treatment the writing was on the wall. Nick Cusack had held the auditions and chosen the cast. A series of shambolic defeats brought forth brickbats rather than bouquets, and the shout of “cut” was inevitable.
The second act of this drama of three unequal parts saw the arrival of Brian Flynn with a brief to stop the production bombing. His first action was to alter the black comedic script and cut out the amateurish defending which had made the team compulsive viewing for the neutral in the manner of a Dennis Norden compilation. Whilst Flynn succeeded in stopping the scenery from falling over with the introduction of a tighter more organised approach, and a few results were ground out, it was obvious that the cast list itself needed upgrading if the show was to go on.
Bright young hopefuls arrived in the shape of Alan Tate, Marc Richards and Leon Britton but despite some encouragement in a victory over Shrewsbury, the storyboard continued on course toward a tragic conclusion. The feeling grew that whilst Flynn had added some teen appeal he was employing formations as outdated as Busby Berklee. Meanwhile, players who had performed promisingly in the past disappointed, particularly Andrew Mumford who many began to see as a modern day version of Fatty Arbuckle.
Six defeats around Christmas saw us fall six points adrift at the foot of the table, and the second act closed with January’s gloom giving a sense of deep forboding of disaster to come. Cue the arrival of some seasoned old hands to lighten the mood. Nugent, Johnrose and Martinez quickly learned their lines, and the team immediately assumed a more professional appearance. The likes of Britton, Tate and Richards were undoubtedly to benefit from the presence of these experienced heads, who were able to change the mood and persuade the watching crowd that survival was now a credible outcome. Martinez in particular proved to be the perfect leading man, dominating proceedings, prompting others and radiating a class and control which many believed had disappeared with the departure of John Cornforth.
Suddenly the team were playing what the wider world might recognise as football, and picking up points to boot. Still the script took many quirky left turns and refused to follow predictable lines. A shocking refereeing decision against Carlisle was only matched by the ineptitude of the team’s performance. Two awful defeats over Easter set up a finale that kept everybody on the edge of their seats. Happily, Flynn reviewed his script before the final scenes, tinkered, and made some necessary last minute changes.
Up to that point, rather like many a post MacCarthy Hollywood director, Flynn had shown an aversion to left wingers. Re-enter the man seen by some as the Vetch Field’s own Charlie Chaplin, the prodigal and sometime vagrant Jonathon Coates. Capable of stirring performance or anonymity, Coates provided a cameo which was to win him an opportunity in the sequel. So we arrived at a happy ending which prompted tears of joy rather than sadness and left the possibility of a follow up.
The lows of the season are all too easy to list. Inept hammerings at Wrexham and at home to what proved to be a distinctly ordinary Kidderminster side. Home defeats to fellow strugglers Bristol Rovers, Carlisle and Exeter when even draws could have spared the final tensions. The schoolboy defending of the opening games. The goal drought which saw us fall to six straight losses. Off the field, the re-emergence of crowd trouble and the throwing of missiles against Carlisle which risked fines the club could ill afford, and potentially negated the fund raising efforts of the Supporters Trust.
The appearance at certain away games of a section of crowd who did their best to appear like extras in a Leni Reifenstahl film. Many felt it was time that the club wielded the censors knife to such displays, although the very appearance of this group did put their political pretensions into context. Some critics believe it is time the club made a decision as to whether it wishes it’s name to be associated with such causes.
Ultimately, despite the traumas on the field, the season’s highs have exceeded the lows. On the field the team gradually developed into one that was capable of playing the type of football that most of the club’s supporters believe consistent with it’s traditions, even if content became more important than style in the final games. The ball control of Leon Britton was at times mesmerising, and the team’s results following his return to fitness and form in the last two fixtures were surely not coincidental.
Both James Thomas and Marc Richards provided some spectacular goals and if they can add consistency to their talent they could grow into a formidable strike force. The team are now attired in both home and away kits that are recognisably “Swansea City”, and not something resembling grandad’s pyjamas. The new board have had to grow up very fast, were brave enough to acknowledge a mistake quickly, backed the new manager with signings and appear to have paid off the club’s debts. The Supporters Trust have consolidated, and played a major card by paying the wages of Alan Tate and Marc Richards.
Most importantly of all, there were signs that the population of Swansea and south west Wales rediscovered it’s football team. Attendances in the second half of the season averaged around the 6000 mark, and were probably at the most consistent high since the Toshack era. Possibly the threat of relegation from the Football League galvanised many who for too long had taken the presence of professional football in the city for granted. The area has lost much during the last twenty years, and the recent loss of regular County Cricket and problems of the rugby club had underlined that years of sporting tradition are no guarantee of a future. In addition there seemed to be a new mood abroad in the city, recognising that after years of suspicion as to the true motives of those who ran the club that the present board do have genuine football interests at heart.
The board played their part with a campaign to bring the crowds back through a concerted series of special offers on admission prices. Under previous regimes such attempts have smacked of tokenism, but on this occasion one sensed that the board were genuinely interested in reaching out to the potential fanbase and attempting to bring back the missing thousands. Despite the struggle on the pitch, there does now seem to be a genuine feelgood factor about the club, which if it can be translated into results on the field could see support grow even further next season. The Supporters Trust must renew it’s recruitment drive in the lead up to the opening home game of the new campaign, as increased crowds must surely make the doubling of current membership numbers a credible goal.
They might be assisted in this if the so-called “national newspaper of Wales” abandoned it’s fixation with sporting sugar daddies and instead came to see broader bases of club ownership and a reconnection with local people as the genuine way forward in the new millennium. Many fans of both football and rugby across Britain are heartily sick of the money men who are destroying years of tradition, but one would not think so from the utterances of the Western Mail sports pages. In any event one would hope that certain people who have recently moved to a new home up the M4 will have watched and realised that talk of “one team for Wales” is nonsense and learned some short sharp lessons in the complexities of Welsh cultural identity.
Some people have questioned why Catherine Zeta Jones has not followed up family interest by becoming involved in the club. Perhaps Mrs Douglas knows that however many Oscar nominations she may receive, when it comes to dramatic quality she would always be upstaged by the boys in white. Bayern Munich are sometimes referred to as “FC Hollywood” due the prima donna antics of it’s stars, but their’s seems a slow moving existential tale of German angst in comparison. This season we have survived a potential footballing tragedy, and are alive to perform in the sequel. Out of adversity can sometimes come genuine strength. This has certainly been the case at clubs such as Charlton and Brighton where periods of off the field struggle have seen the local population rally round, and a new relationship based on trust between board and fans has seen the clubs grow both on and off the pitch.
Let’s hope that with a joint effort between management, board, trust and fans that by this time next year we will be reading from a fresh script which has a far more positive content and causes faces to smile at the conclusion for all the right reasons. In 1985-86 our last day escape from relegation proved only to be a reprieve rather than redemption, as we struggled both on and off the field the following season. This time lets all do our best to ensure that Brian Flynn II leaves us feeling that it’s a “Wonderful Life” – after all, “The Great Escape” might be exciting on the first viewing but is rather tedious when repeated.