When Leon Britton was pulling the strings at the Stadium of Light last weekend, a journalist on the BBC’s rolling blog accused Sunderland of making the Swansea City midfielder look like Andrea Pirlo. Robbie Britton, who is a Team GB ultra-marathon runner and the Swansea player’s cousin, picked up on the comment and responded on Twitter with: “Hey, BBC Sport, Andrea Pirlo wishes he was Leon Britton.”
Sitting in the canteen at Swansea’s training ground, where the sunshine gleaming through the windows reflects the upbeat mood inside after the Welsh club secured a seventh successive season of Premier League football, Britton breaks into laughter when told about his cousin’s remarks. “That’s nice of him to say that but I don’t think Pirlo’s too worried about me over in New York. I think he would be like: ‘Leon?’”
Whether Pirlo has heard of Britton or not will make no difference to the people of Swansea. Britton is a legend in the eyes of the club’s supporters, who took him to their hearts when he arrived from West Ham United in 2002, and it is becoming increasingly clear his status in the city transcends football. This week a headline on a Wales Online article read: “Should Swansea’s Leon Britton be awarded the freedom of the city?” Within the story a spokesman for the council talked about how Britton, who was born and raised in London, continues to be a wonderful servant for the club and is also a “great ambassador for Swansea”.
“My wife, Laura, who is from Swansea, mentioned it to me. I really don’t know what to make of it,” Britton says, smiling. “I’m not saying it’s happening, but it’s just something you’d never expect. Something you wouldn’t dream of. I was actually surprised the council publicly commented. I guess it shows the affection that people in the city have. Everyone is just so nice to me, not only the fans. At the club’s awards dinner on Wednesday night an elderly lady said to me: ‘I don’t follow the football but I know who you are and I don’t know anyone else.’ She said I should take that as a compliment.”
So many professional footballers merely pass through clubs, like trains pulling in and out of stations, but Britton’s relationship with Swansea runs deeper. The 34-year-old has represented Swansea in every division, racking up more than 500 appearances, and even supported the club as a fan when he left to join Sheffield United for seven months in 2010.
“Swansea were playing Wigan in a League Cup game, it was October and I was a bit wary of going over because I didn’t know what reception I’d get,” Britton recalls. “But in the concourse they were all singing my name, thousands of Swansea fans. I knew I’d made a mistake leaving the club, and that moment, hearing the singing, made me want to go back to Swansea even more. It was surreal and I’ll always remember that night.”
All of which goes some way to explaining why Britton wanted to do more than just help out on the pitch when Paul Clement brought him into the team for the first time since he was appointed head coach in January, in a must-win game against Stoke City last month. Swansea had taken only one point from their previous six fixtures and Britton felt it was time for a gentle reminder about the club’s journey. He picked up 25 copies of Jack to a King, the film that documents Swansea’s rags-to-riches rise, got to the training ground early on the day before the Stoke match and placed a DVD on each player’s seat in the changing room. Britton then sent the players a text, asking them to try to find an hour to watch the film before the Stoke match to “see just see how much this means to not just the fans but also to the city”.
It is a story that says so much about Britton and there was no real surprise a fortnight later when Clement revealed after the 1-0 victory over Everton that the same person was responsible for coming up with the idea for the players to pay for 3,000 tickets for the away game at Sunderland.
“The DVDs and the tickets – I don’t do that to get praise elsewhere,” Britton says. “I was just doing things to try and help get us out of the situation we were in. During the season we’ve had so many words spoken, whether from players, different managers or different coaches, like: ‘Come on, boys, this game’s important’, or ‘This is a big one’. I’m not saying that doesn’t have the effect but it’s the same and people start to think: ‘We heard that last week.’ So the DVDs were just something different.”
As for Britton’s influence on the pitch, the fact that his return to the side has coincided with Swansea collecting 10 points in four matches to stave off the threat of relegation speaks volumes. There is also something of a theme developing in recent times, whereby managers seem to turn to Britton whenever Swansea are up against it. “Someone was making a joke to me about that the other day, saying in 10 years’ time they’ll be finding me in Morgans Hotel [in Swansea] and getting me down to the Liberty,” Britton says, laughing.
Britton lasted 85 minutes against Stoke before departing to a standing ovation that seemed genuinely to move Clement. “I suppose he hadn’t seen me on the pitch until that game,” Britton says. “I think he was surprised by the way the fans just love me. They back me through anything. It’s incredible. I don’t score goals, so I don’t get that feeling of a goalscorer. But I get the feeling of 20,000 people singing my name when I come off, and that’s special. I could never get bored of that. Even now it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
It was similar against Everton in the next home match when Britton, who is 5ft 5in, beat Kevin Mirallas in the air. “The fans go nuts if I win a header,” Britton laughs. Then came a full-blooded challenge on Idrissa Gueye that left the Everton midfielder in a heap. “That was a bit old school,” Britton says, smiling. “I wanted to win that game so much. Little things like that, we can talk about ‘the Swansea way’ and playing football, but the crowd still love a 50-50 tackle and seeing one of your players going in fully committed, especially in the situation we were in then. That sort of thing lifts the crowd.”
Although Swansea are delighted to have stayed up, Britton makes the point that they also strayed into relegation trouble last season and warns “lessons need to be learned because we’ve seen that, if you keep flirting with it, eventually you do go down”. In Clement, however, he is confident that Swansea have the right man to take the club on an upward trajectory. Britton speaks extremely highly of the 45‑year‑old’s “top-quality” training, attention to detail when it comes to analyzing the opposition and the level of thought he puts into his communication with the players.
As the captain, Britton had the job of ringing Clement last Sunday afternoon, once survival was confirmed, to see if the head coach would allow the players to enjoy a two-night break in Ibiza. Britton was in London at the time with Lilly, his daughter, and was being badgered by his team-mates to follow up a carefully worded text that Gerhard Tremmel, the third-choice goalkeeper, had sent to Clement “on behalf of the players” requesting a bit of sunshine. Although Clement made it clear to Britton that he wanted to finish the season strongly, he agreed to the players’ trip to Spain – provided they were back at the training ground for 1.30pm on Wednesday. “And he was waiting by the door,” Britton adds, smiling.
Britton is looking forward to finishing a difficult season on a high against West Bromwich Albion on Sunday as well as spending some time on the pitch at the end with Lilly, Shayne, his stepson, and Alfie and Charlie, his four-year-old twin boys, who have been pestering him for weeks about running out at the Liberty Stadium. “They keep asking: ‘How many more sleeps?’”
Given that Britton’s children were all born in Wales, as well as his wife, it is not surprising that he talks about developing a strong affiliation with the country where he has lived for the best part of 15 years. Britton stresses that he is “obviously English through and through”, yet he admits that he briefly let his guard down last summer.
“I got a lot of stick when I went to the Euros and I wore a Wales shirt,” he says. “I went to the Belgium game [in the quarter-finals] with a group of friends from Swansea. I was a bit skeptical putting the shirt on, but I did it. We were with the fans, soaking up the atmosphere, and pictures went round on social media – Garry Monk [the former Swansea manager] was on the phone to me within an hour of the photos appearing. I only did it for one day, and if England play Wales, then I want England to win. But I’ve been here so long now that in any other game I’d support Wales and want them to do well.”
The interview is drawing to a close and, as Huw Jenkins walks into the canteen, it seems a good time to check with Britton that he has only one year remaining on the 13th contract he has signed during a distinguished Swansea career. “That sounds about right. Where’s the chairman, I need to see if we can make it 14,” says Britton, laughing and looking over his shoulder in Jenkins’s direction. “I’d like to stay on longer, but that’s a decision for the club. Hopefully I’ll remain here anyway. That’s something I’d like to do when I finish, because this place is like home for me now.”