From near oblivion to the Premier League… the story of Swansea's rise
‘The players' careers are on the line. If we go down then there could be 16, 18 or 20 lads unemployed next year. It will have a far bigger effect on the players, who will have no jobs, than the supporters, who will have no team to watch in the Football League.’
Swansea defender Jason Smith, South Wales Evening Post, January 15 2003
Savior: Brian Flynn kept Swansea up
Nine years ago Swansea City were bottom of the Football League, four points adrift of Exeter City. They had just lost 3-2 at home against Bury; a match that featured two consolation goals from Jason Smith – Swansea’s first for 449 minutes.
‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt,’ shouted fans from the North Bank at Vetch Field as Brian Flynn’s side went three goals behind inside half an hour. As the former Swansea boss told Sportsmail, his old club were facing ‘oblivion’.
Less than a decade has passed since that night, when Flynn and his players faced not only the humiliation of relegation, but the very real prospect of unemployment. Nine years on, Swansea are celebrating a 3-2 victory over Arsenal, a result which moved the Welsh club into the top half of the Barclays Premier League.
Arsene Wenger’s side, incidentally, were five points clear of Manchester United at this stage of the 2002-03 season. What Arsenal fans would give for that now.
Flynn, 56, said: ‘I’m from Port Talbot, which is six miles down the road from Swansea, and all my family still live there, so I understood what was at stake nine years ago.
‘Relegation could have been the final step backwards; the step into the abyss. It happened to Newport County – they went out of existence altogether – and, for Swansea, it would have been oblivion.
‘I didn’t want to think about that at all. I had never been relegated as a manager and I didn’t want that on my CV.
was always quite confident that we would do it. There are so many highs
and so many lows, but you’ve got to keep everyone on one level. People
had written us off so we had to be unpredictable.’
They stayed up that season, but only just. It took a hat-trick from Swansea-born striker James Thomas on the final day of the season to beat Hull City 4-2 and maintain their league status at Exeter City’s expense. It was a real ‘Roy of the Rovers’ moment, as Flynn calls it.
Back in the day: Swansea used to play at the Vetch Field
Nothing quite illustrates the Swansea of then and now like Vetch Field, the club’s home until it moved to the Liberty Stadium in 2005. Flynn played in the first top flight game there, as his Leeds United side were ‘hammered’ 5-1 by John Toshack’s Swansea in August 1981, but the place still holds ‘special memories’ for the current Wales Under-21 boss.
‘It really was some atmosphere,’ he said. ‘Intense, it was. The North Bank was volatile. The terraces were for you, they were on your side, but it was volatile.
‘The North Bank held about six or seven thousand but as much as three times that some days. It was so intense: such a small ground, all higgledy piggledy. It had a small main stand and two stands that looked like they were made of Lego.’
Thomas, 32, was in Flynn’s starting XI back for that defeat against Bury. He was forced to retire prematurely with a knee injury and now works for the Welsh Ambulance Service and holds a Swansea season ticket.
He said: ‘When I signed for Swansea (in 2002) I came from Blackburn Rovers. I was used to all the top facilities and to come down to the Vetch was a bit of an eye opener. The atmosphere, the North Bank, but the pitch was full of divets. You couldn’t pass it round like they did on Sunday.
‘I do think to myself: “I would love to play now.” At the Vetch, every pass you made bobbled. Now look at the way they play. You think: “I would get a few goals in that team.”’
Times have changed in Swansea, but there is continuity, too. Leon Britton played against Bury and Arsenal, while Alan Tait and Garry Monk are still at the club.
How times have changed: Swansea are in the top half of the Premier League
‘Leon was on loan from West Ham initially,’ said Flynn. ‘It was a brave move for him and he deserves enormous respect for leaving a club like that, going down three divisions and taking a massive salary cut just to play football.
‘He just wanted to play. He gave up an awful lot of money – some people forget that.
‘Alan Tate’s another. I signed him from Manchester United when was only 18. He was a bit similar to Leon – they were pals then and now.’
Thomas added: ‘Garry Monk lives on the same estate as me. So does Alan Tate. I know Leon went to Sheffield United and then came back, but he showed loyalty to the club, too.
‘The majority of the players from my era are gone, but credit to them for hanging on in there. They’ve certainly seen the bad times, as well as the good.’
Where are they now
Swansea City 2 Bury 3
January 14 2002
Roger Freestone – 43 The former Chelsea goalkeeper, nicknamed ‘Tombstone’ and capped at every level for Wales, spent 13 years at Swansea before joining Newport County, where a persistent ankle injury led to his retirement. Managed a side in the Islwyn Youth League and has played Masters Football for Chelsea.
Jason Smith – 37 The defender both goals against Bury, but had to retire with an ankle injury in October 2003 aged just 29. Went on to coach at a college in north Devon.
Alan Tate – 29 The former Manchester United trainee is still at the club but has not played since August after breaking his left leg in a ‘bizarre golfing accident’.
Loyal: Defender Alan Tate (left) has remained with Swansea
Michael Howard – 33 The left-back on to play for Morecambe, Oxford United and Llanelli. Currently at Aberystwyth Town.
Stuart Jones – 27 Left Swansea in May 2005 to become Llanelli’s first full-time player since the 1950s. Still playing in the Welsh Premier League.
Paul Reid – 43 The former Bury and Leicester City midfielder went on to play for Carmarthen Town. Coached Swansea’s junior teams after retiring before becoming manager of Port Talbot Town.
Gareth Phillips – 32 The midfielder, a product of Swansea’s youth system, was released at the end of the season. Went on to play for Newport County, Port Talbot Town and Merthyr Tydfil.
Kieron Durkan – 38 The former Republic of Ireland Under 21 midfielder left Swansea in June 2004 and played for Carmarthen Town.
Leon Britton – 29 The midfielder was on loan from West Ham in 2003 but has been a Swansea player ever since, bar a year at Sheffield United.
Mainstay: Leon Britton has helped Swansea climb the leagues
Marc Richards – 29 The striker, who was on loan from Blackburn Rovers, joined Northampton in June 2003, then Rochdale and Barnsley. He now captains League Two Port Vale, the club he joined in June 2007. Richards scored in the 2-1 defeat by AFC Wimbledon last Saturday.
James Thomas – 33 The forward picked up a serious knee injury in 2004 and after three operations was forced to retire a few years later. Now a Swansea season ticket holder working for the Welsh ambulance service in Port Talbot.