At one point of the “Golden Years” video, former coach Phil Boersma is interviewed telling viewers that there is no room at Swansea City for players who cannot play under pressure. The implication is clear that those who couldn’t stand the heat were not welcome in the kitchen at chez Toshack. Whilst it’s not easy to view that interview twenty years on and suppress the giggles at Boersma’s mix of Harry Enfield style Liverpudlianism and use of 1980’s football clichés, the serious point still comes over. Football fashions may change, and even Graham Souness has lost his scouser’s ‘tache, but the need for a combination of cool heads and resolute character is universal. Admittedly, following the Swans this season has been a little like being a contestant on “Blind Date” in that you never know quite what you’re going to get until it’s too late, and there have been a fair amount of nasty surprises and inevitable disappointments. However, those who pull on the white shirt for our remaining matches cannot afford stage fright. The professional Liverpudlian may have turned into a figure of fun, but how we could do in the run in with a slice of the professionalism and ability to snatch success from the jaws of failure that the men from Anfield brought to the Vetch.
Promotions have rarely been straightforward events at the Vetch, although with one notable exception relegation has been done and dusted before the final game. For most Swans fans of a certain era the end of season conjures up memories of nail biting run-ins and fraught tension packed final matches. Rotherham in 2000 was for younger fans just a taste of what became an annual ritual for the Swans between 1977 and 1981 – the crucial last match. On no less than four occasions in those five seasons we went into the final game needing a result to go up. Starting at Cambridge in 1977 where even winning the final match turned out not to be good enough, the club embarked on a sequence which stretched nerve endings in a manner that even the Spanish Inquisition never thought of. Halifax and Chesterfield at home, Preston away. For those who were there, those games will never be forgotten. Just a few years later similar situations occurred against Bristol City at the Vetch and Torquay away. Unable to secure a ticket for the last mentioned, I remember lying on the sofa at home listening to the final minutes on Swansea Sound with a cushion held over my ears. Too nerve shattering to listen to, too frustrating to not listen and know our fate – I lay there condemned to twenty minutes or so purgatory, unable to see what was going on, imagining the worst every time the home crowd got excited.
What are the qualities needed to emerge from those crucibles with heads held high? Certainly skill was a factor. We actually needed to win most of these games, and being the Swans it wasn’t for us to shut up shop and nick a goal from a set piece. In each of the games we won there was normally a turning point which required either a piece of outrageous luck or skill. Against Halifax Tosh took a free kick which was defected past their wrongfooted goalkeeper. Against Chesterfield a perfectly floated free kick from Danny Bartley found an unmarked Toshack to power a header past their keeper. At Preston Leighton James settled nerves after a nervous opening with one of the best and most spectacular goals I’ve seen the Swans score. Jimmy Rimmer produced an outstanding save from a downward header from a corner in the last minute of the Bristol City match in 1985. In each case a player of lesser skill or confidence could not have pulled off a match winning or saving play.
However, skill is not the sole criterion for success in crucial matches. Winning football matches is not simply about having eleven players on the pitch who are superior to the opposition. Sometimes character, desire and determination are qualities that are needed as much as the ability to control a football. The beauty of this game is it’s constant ability to spring the unpredictable. The best side doesn’t always win as of right. The Germans have a football saying that “the ball is round”, meaning that it can roll in any direction. Sometimes sheer will power has to make it roll the way you want. We know that players such as Britton , Tate and Martinez are good enough – we’re about to find out if they can be winners as well as good players. The likes of Wyndham Evans, Nigel Stephenson and Alan Waddle may not have been contenders for anybodies best ever Swans side, but they came good when it mattered, and showed huge amounts of spirit and resolve.
Not that this should be misinterpreted as a call for all out aggression. Needless sendings off and suspensions are the last thing we need. Seldom do lost heads win matches. The recent experiences of Welsh rugby tell us that passion alone is no substitute for talent and an effective gameplan. Too often in Britain we mistake over the top aggression for effective effort. National stereotypes of the kind rammed down our throats by ITV talking heads in Champions League encounters would have us believe that over emotive, passionate latins fall apart at the slightest hint of pressure whilst the cool stiff upper lipped British calmly field all that fate throws at them. If that were true then anybody watching the closing stages of the England –Brazil game in the summer would have wondered which team was which. The “overexcitable” latins appeared to do a fine job of calmly keeping the ball and running the clock down, whilst the “cool” Brits panic- strickenly humped the ball forward to nobody in particular at every opportunity. In practice we rarely see the latin teams falling apart in the manner bigots predict, whilst all too often our British traditions of effort and spirit are misdirected into a blind alley. Doing things faster and with more huff and puff doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better. Calm intelligence and poise are always likely to win out over ill focused energy. Effort and determination are positive virtues. Being a headless chicken is not.
Confidence is surely a major factor in players passing such tests. If a player doesn’t believe he can score he probably won’t shoot, but will pass the buck to another. Thus we must add self belief and an ability to take responsibility to our list of qualities. If Toshack had chipped a “percentage ball” into the box against Halifax the race up the leagues might have been postponed for a year. If Leighton had headed for the corner flag instead of taking his man on and shooting from 25 yards we might never have made the old first division. No player can afford to hide in these games.
If we accept that success in such situations is brought about by players possessing a blend of skill, confidence, character, determination and an ability to stay calm under pressure, are there also qualities which the fans can display? Turning up in large numbers and providing loud and passionate support are two very obvious answers, and to date the Jack army has not been wanting on this score. As with the players, however, cool heads can be added to that list. In the previous edition of this column I warned of the potential dangers of a fraught last day of the season. Those predictions came true rather quicker than expected in the Carlisle fixture. Whatever the injustice of a bad refereeing decision, both players and fans should not lose their heads. Right or wrong the players have to get on with the game and not let a bad decision make heads fall. Equally certain sections of the crowd should remember that their actions could cost the club, and that any delays for crowd trouble are quite likely to work against us. On a more general note the crowd should try not to let their anxiousness and impatience transmit itself to the players. The tension in the air was palpable in the Carlisle game, and possibly affected the players, many of whom seemed to seize up. Whilst an ability to remain calm when lesser players would lose their heads is a necessity in vital fixtures the crowd must remember that a tense and cowed player is likely to be an ineffective one. Undermining confidence is unlikely to help the cause however frustrating we may find a particular individual’s performance.
To modern eyes, the likes of Phil Boersma may have been reduced to Harry Enfield like caricatures, but it would be foolish to ignore the fundamental message. Otherwise, some of the current management and squad may forever be plagued by the city’s football fans sounding rather like another Enfield character – the one that constantly says, “you shouldn’t have done it like that”. Don’t even think about what Mr Loadsamoney and his thuggish mates up the M4 will say. Let’s just hope that the current team pass the Toshack kitchen test – otherwise we’ll probably be spending a weekend amongst Boersma’s scouser chums at Southport next season.