It was a chilling warning that Alan Curtis issued and there was no reason to suspect that Swansea City’s caretaker manager was scaremongering. Spelling out why he thought it was crucial that the board focused on the club’s short-term future when choosing their new manager, Curtis spoke with typical honesty when he predicted that Swansea would struggle to return to the Premier League any time soon if they suffer relegation.
“Somebody has got to get us out of trouble,” Curtis said, reflecting on the predicament of a team who are bottom of the table, four points adrift of safety. “If we were to go down – and there is obviously that possibility – then if you look at the Championship, it seems to have got a lot stronger. There are so many big teams in there that there is no guarantee we could make our way back quite as quickly as some of the other boys. I know Norwich and Burnley have done it but I think it would be difficult if we were to go into the Championship.”
Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County were mentioned as examples of former Premier League clubs that have toiled in the second tier and, in some cases, beyond. Curtis, who had three spells as a player at Swansea and has filled just about every position going at the club since hanging up his boots, warmed to his theme: “It’s taken those clubs a long time and you’re talking big powerhouses there. I don’t think we’d come into that category. We’ve done it our way. So if we go down, it could be tough to get back.”
By “our way”, Curtis is referring to what became known as “the Swansea Way”, which is the playing philosophy of the club as it climbed through the divisions. There is a board on the wall at the top of the stairs at the club’s training ground, at Fairwood, that runs through the principles behind that mantra, serving as a permanent reminder of what Swansea are all about and, essentially, what makes them different.
Yet these days there is nothing particularly distinctive about the way Swansea go about their business in the Premier League, on and off the pitch. They hire and fire managers, just like so many other clubs, the owners are from overseas rather than lifelong supporters, and that easy-on-the-eye brand of fluid, attacking football which won so many matches as well as admirers is no longer so recognisable.
Swansea, in short, have lost a bit of their identity. “I think absolutely we have done,” Curtis said. “Maybe it’s just the change of management all the time. I think everyone has maybe diluted it a little bit. Certainly the best eras were probably Roberto [Martínez], Brendan [Rodgers] and Michael [Laudrup]. No disrespect to the ones who followed – Garry [Monk] was obviously a big part of the team who went up – but we’ve probably lost a little bit of the Swansea Way. It has been diluted.”
The irony was not lost on Curtis that Bournemouth, who are Saturday’s opponents at the Liberty Stadium, have plenty in common with the Swansea of old. “We are the role model which they set out to copy,” he said. “I remember when Eddie [Howe, Bournemouth’s manager] was out of a job he came to watch us train on a regular basis when Brendan was manager. I think a lot of the blueprint they have followed has come from us.”
Yet while Bournemouth are thriving, Swansea are going backwards and Curtis questioned whether selling players and not adequately replacing them had contributed to the malaise. He spoke about how Ashley Williams’ voice had been missed on the pitch and in the dressing room, highlighted a lack of leadership within the current squad, and expressed his hope that a “dominant centre-half” would be brought in during the transfer window to strengthen a defence that has conceded 41 goals in 18 matches. Bob Bradley, who was sacked on Tuesday, tried just about every defensive combination going during his 11 games in charge and as Curtis ruefully admitted, the end result was nearly always the same.
“We work on defending on a regular basis. We work on set pieces. But come game time, for whatever reason, players either haven’t got the ability to do it, can’t take instructions, or they freeze,” he said. “That’s why all the different combinations have been going on – we could all pick a different back four at the moment. None of them seems to have worked. If it’s one thing we need, it’s probably a dominant centre-half and ideally a leader. We probably haven’t had a big dominant centre-half for years. We’ve probably concentrated on how good he is on the ball. Even the players would know that we need a centre-half.”
The obvious problem for Swansea is finding one. Curtis has been privy to some of the transfer discussions and said that some of the fees being asked for players who are not even making the substitutes’ bench elsewhere are “astronomical” and, realistically, well beyond what Swansea would be able to pay.
First things first, though, Swansea need to appoint a manager, with Paul Clement, who is currently working as Carlo Ancelotti’s No2 at Bayern Munich, now the clear frontrunner to replace Bradley. Curtis, who was thrust into the same position this time last year, when Monk was sacked, has no idea how long the managerial search will go on. The 62-year-old said he is just taking things on a day-by-day basis, trying to bring some stability to the chaos at a club that means so much to him.
After the poisonous atmosphere at the Liberty Stadium on Boxing Day, when Swansea were beaten 4-1 by West Ham, Curtis fully expects the supporters to get behind the team against Bournemouth. As for the players, he will demand nothing less than total commitment. “I will certainly remind them that we don’t want to give up without a fight,” he said. “It’s not quite time for a call to arms yet, but they have to do better. They have to do everything they possibly can, so that when we come off the park, whether we win or lose, they have given their all. That’s all we can ask.”