Bilic Mutes the Mutiny at the Last but West Ham’s Battlers Need a Plan


London — Midway through the first half, Slaven Bilic switched his wingers. Michail Antonio went left, André Ayew went right. It was a sure sign that Bilic’s tactics were malfunctioning.

In theory it made sense for West Ham United to start in a 4-4-2 system, which plays to the strengths of both Andy Carroll and Javier Hernández, for the first time this season. Yet a plan that looks good on paper will never work if players are confused by their instructions and in practice West Ham’s ponderous approach rarely stretched Swansea City. There was no flow, no rhythm, and the disgruntled atmosphere at the London Stadium grew to a mutinous pitch when Diafra Sakho replaced the ineffective Hernández in the 78th minute.

A dire game was drifting towards a goalless draw and for the first time there was a sense of the narrative shifting against Bilic, whose hold over a hitherto adoring public seemed to be slipping, belatedly allowing the board to contemplate sacking the Croat without having to worry about a supporter backlash. Hernández furiously shook his head on the bench and the crowd sympathised with the £16m striker’s incandescence at having made way instead of Carroll.

Yet a prominent theme during the past 12 months has been West Ham’s knack of grinding out an ugly win just when Bilic is thought to be on the brink. It happened on several occasions last season and the pattern continued when Sakho, who tried to engineer a move to Rennes in the summer, vindicated Bilic’s unpopular decision by converting a cross from his fellow substitute Arthur Masuaku in the 90th minute.

There was a similar vibe when West Ham responded to losing their first three games by earning an unconvincing victory against Huddersfield Town last month and there is a temptation to conclude that winning while playing poorly is proof that a decent team will break out once confidence comes flowing back. It is partly this sense of longing that has protected Bilic, an intelligent and charismatic man who speaks articulately and wears his heart on his sleeve.

He is hard to dislike, which explains the desire to see him do well. Other teams in West Ham’s position might have downed tools in an attempt to force their manager out, but Bilic’s players continue to fight for him, masking the lack of any discernible style of play by demonstrating their battling qualities.

“I see that they want to do it,” Bilic said. “After the first three games, when we were on zero points, I didn’t see no discipline in the camp. On the contrary, I felt that we wanted to do it all together. Are they doing it for the manager or themselves? At the end of the day, it’s not important.

“You can talk about the quality of our performance today but we won the game because we didn’t give up. We didn’t raise unbelievably the quality of our game in the second half, but if I am on the pitch and I don’t care, it was the perfect situation not to care. But we didn’t. We forced that goal.”

The problem is that the longer this persists, the more Bilic will come across as a motivational cheerleader rather than a tactical mastermind. That might be enough to keep West Ham out of the relegation zone but it is not a solid foundation for success.

Having risen to 15th after picking up seven points from four games, West Ham have an opportunity to build after the international break. “Now I’m expecting for us to do much better,” Bilic said.

He is safe for now, but ultimately this was the kind of uneven performance that shows why his long-term future is less certain. Unless Bilic can snap them out of the wearying cycle of constantly needing a scrappy win to ward off a major crisis, West Ham will have few compelling reasons to extend his contract at the end of the season.

The Guardian Sport

Leon Britton: The Anonymous Soldier Who Saved Swansea from Falling

Leon Britton: ‘Swansea fans back me through anything. It’s incredible’

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.”

(The Guardian)

Confident and Capable: How Paul Clement Saved Swansea City


London – When Paul Clement was appointed in January by Swansea City, one of the questions at his first press conference was framed around the club’s dire predicament, specifically what made the third manager to take charge in as many months think that relegation was not a formality for a team anchored to the bottom of the table with the worst defensive record in the division.

To give a fuller picture of just how bleak things were at the time, Swansea had lost their previous four league matches – against West Bromwich Albion, Middlesbrough, West Ham United and Bournemouth – conceding 13 times during a woeful run that poured fuel on the fire of the supporter unrest that had been simmering since the takeover in the summer. Swansea, in other words, were in a mess on and off the field, and Clement could have been forgiven for thinking he was better off staying away. Not only did he have a high-profile position in Germany, where he was working as Carlo Ancelotti’s No2 at Bayern Munich, but he was also entitled to feel that the time to take the Swansea job was in October, when Francesco Guidolin was sacked. The calamitous decision to appoint Bob Bradley instead – Swansea’s owners felt that experience was needed in the dressing room – meant Clement was being asked to clear up the mess that two men had left behind when the American was sacked after 85 days.

Yet Clement never thought for one moment that Swansea was a lost cause and his answer to that press conference question, which was phrased in a way that suggested he was on a hiding to nothing, said much about the 45‑year‑old’s self-belief as well as his way of working. While some managers would have made a big fuss about needing funds to make signings in the transfer window, or offered up a throwaway line about how many points were still available, Clement explained that he thought Swansea could survive because he would get out on the training ground and coach.

“There are capable and able footballers here,” he said. “Over recent games, to ship three goals, four goals, five goals, I’m confident in my ability as a coach that that won’t happen under my reign. I can’t say 100% it won’t – there is a lot of randomness in football. But I’m pretty confident it won’t happen because with the players that I’ve currently got, I think I can get them more organized than they’ve been, give them a bit of solidity in the defensive work and that’s the foundation to build what they’ve already shown they can be good at, which is the offensive side.”

He was right. A team who shipped 44 goals in the first 19 matches of the season, including three or more on eight occasions under Bradley, conceded only 25 in the next 18 fixtures, during which Swansea had to negotiate away trips to Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United. The Welsh club’s points haul has more than doubled, only Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Everton and Arsenal have won more matches since Clement took over and a league table since his appointment shows Swansea in eighth place.

That sort of shift does not happen by luck. It is a result of hard work, especially on the practice pitches, where Clement is in his element, but also in the team meetings, which are frequent but short. Since taking over at Swansea, Clement has never gathered the players together for more than half an hour at one time – on that occasion there was plenty of video feedback used – and the longest he has spoken for in one sitting is 10 minutes. By the time the players leave a meeting Clement expects them to be able to reel off three key points without any hesitation, which is why he spends so much time thinking about the clarity of his own messages.

Everyone at the club has bought into his way of working and it also says much for the Swansea manager that three of the new faces that arrived in January made a positive impact in such a short space of time, especially as two of that trio were recruited from the Championship (Martin Olsson signed from Norwich and Jordan Ayew arrived from Aston Villa), while Tom Carroll was in effect a reserve player at Spurs.

Arguably the pivotal moment for Clement this season came in the wake of a chastening defeat. His decision to bring 34-year-old Leon Britton into the side after losing 1-0 against Watford, play with a midfield diamond with Gylfi Sigurdsson at the tip, and start with Ayew up front alongside Fernando Llorente, reinvigorated the team at a critical juncture in the season and culminated in Swansea collecting 10 points from four matches to climb clear. They were bold tactical changes that reaped huge reward.

Clement, however, is not the sort to blow his own trumpet and is refreshingly honest about his mistakes. A self-confessed perfectionist, he believes he should have put more pressure on the players at the start of a damaging six-match run that yielded one point, regrets his tactics in the closing stages of the Spurs match, which Swansea lost 3-1, and wishes he had turned to Britton a game earlier. Yet few of the club’s supporters will be dwelling on any of those decisions right now.

Survival was the be-all and end-all for Swansea this season and Clement, given the awful mess he inherited, fully deserves to be among the nominees for Premier League manager of the year after his act of escapology.

In the process he has made Derby County look rather silly for sacking him last season, when they were fifth in the table and only five points behind the Championship leaders. Mel Morris, the club’s owner, said at the time that not enough progress had been made on “building on the Derby Way”. Fifteen months and four managers later, it would be interesting to get an update on that Pride Park project.

As for Swansea, amid all the relief and euphoria of the last 48 hours, it is hard to escape the feeling that Clement has got the club’s board off the hook after a catalogue of mistakes, from flawed managerial appointments to poor recruitment last summer. Lessons have to be learned in that respect as Swansea look forward to a seventh successive season in the Premier League.

Premier League: 10 Talking Points from the Weekend’s Action

From the plight of David Moyes and Aitor Karanka to the unstoppable force of Fernando Llorente, there was plenty to chew over this weekend. Composite: BPI, Rex/Shutterstock, EPA, Getty Images

1) Pochettino’s side finally look set to end Arsenal streak

In a cartoon history of Arsenal’s ongoing run of springtime top-four escapology acts – the battle, above all, to stay ahead of Spurs – Arsène Wenger would probably be depicted right now wriggling furiously inside a sealed lead trunk, still rattling his padlocks but descending towards the seabed. Tottenham are six points ahead of Arsenal with 11 games to play, to Arsenal’s 12. Tighter spots have been negotiated. But as Spurs beat Everton to take their half of the weekend’s London-Merseyside derby exchange it was hard to avoid the feeling that 22 years down the line the quest to finish ahead of Wenger-era Arsenal has its best chance yet of success. Tottenham have a better goalkeeper, better defense, better midfield, better gameplan, a greater sense of cohesion generally. All that is missing is that final wrench of the neck muscles. Arsenal go to White Hart Lane in April. Barring a genuine reverse of the prevailing tide, it could be a fairly traumatic experience. Barney Ronay

2) Strange times for Wenger and Arsenal

Here was Arsène Wenger’s rebuff to the importance of Arsenal regaining a top-four berth following their 3-1 defeat at Liverpool: “I’ve been asked this question many times in March. So we just have to focus on the next games and turn up with performances.” Wenger’s response implicitly concedes his side are in a perennial struggle for a Champions League berth rather than in a fight for the title. Of his reasoning behind the decision to drop Alexis Sánchez, Wenger said: “[To play] direct – I mean to win the balls in the air, winning the second ball.” Wenger, the pass-and-move chief advocate, playing the punt upfield stuff? When it was put to him that he hardly ever (if ever) uses long ball, Wenger said: “We sometimes play that way. For example, in this game.” Still, we now know rather more. Nonetheless, these are odd times for Wenger, and the club he adores. Jamie Jackson

3) Maguire dreaming of England

There were few positives for Hull City to take from this defeat at the King Power Stadium. After dropping two points against Burnley last week, they let go of another lead against Leicester and are four points from a safe position with 11 games remaining. Despite Marco Silva’s positive early impact, the sense is growing that Hull’s squad is not strong enough to stay up. Much will depend on whether Harry Maguire can maintain his impressive form. While Andrea Ranocchia struggled badly alongside him in central defense, failing to cope with Jamie Vardy’s pace, Maguire produced two stunning blocks to deny Leicester certain goals. “To be thought of for an England call-up is very special to me,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s something that I’ve dreamed of as a kid. The gaffer said some nice things about me that can only give me confidence but for me to play for England I’ve got to play well for Hull City week in and week out.” Jacob Steinber

4) Shaw still cannot convince Mourinho

It seemed to sum up Luke Shaw’s season that, even as he made his first Premier League appearance since October, he was substituted so Jesse Lingard could take over as an auxiliary, attacking left-back. With José Mourinho concentrating on other issues, the only mentions of Shaw afterwards came from the Bournemouth assistant manager, Jason Tindall, who thought Andrew Surman’s challenge on the 21-year-old did not merit the first of his two cautions. Shaw hobbled away, as he did from an earlier crunching challenge, but initial fears that his injury problems would recur were unfounded. He went untested defensively, with Bournemouth pegged back, but there were signs of the attacking verve that prompted his swift rise. He delivered a penetrative pass to release Paul Pogba, who should have scored, and, after Marcos Rojo’s traumatic afternoon at left-back in the EFL Cup final, suggested he has more to offer than the Argentinian on the flank. Richard Jolly

5) Karanka’s numbers not adding up

Steve Gibson has a big decision to make. Should Middlesbrough’s owner sack Aitor Karanka or keep faith with the stubborn Basque? Under Karanka’s management a lot of good things have happened at Boro (promotion and the dramatic improvement in Adama Traoré’s wing play), but now something is very wrong: 10 Premier League games without a win, 433 minutes without a league goal, just four league victories this season and unwanted status as the division’s lowest scorers highlight problems exacerbated by dissent between manager and some players. If the club hierarchy has been disconcerted by Karanka’s willingness to blame fans and the club’s medical staff for setbacks while persisting with a cautious tactical mindset, obvious replacements seem thin on the ground. A largely Spanish backroom team would almost certainly depart with Karanka and require swift replacement. Louise Taylor

6) Moyes’s men must make most of March games

Sunderland battled gamely for much of the first half but Manchester City were patient and the result was never in doubt after Sergio Agüero’s goal. By the time Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle, gloom had fallen over the Stadium of Light. With 11 matches left, Sunderland are bottom of the table, six points off Crystal Palace in 17th place and in desperate need of yet another miraculous survival bid. The task looks beyond this bedraggled group. As Aston Villa found out last season, years of stagnation catch up with a club in the end and there has always been a sense that Sunderland’s feats of escapology were merely delaying the inevitable. But they should not give up yet. There was no lack of effort against City, who were simply too classy in attack. Sunderland have two winnable fixtures before the international break and they could put points on the board against Burnley and Watford if they keep fighting. JS

7) Purchase of Llorente paying off

When Athletic Bilbao reached the 2012 Europa League final, embarrassing Manchester United along the way, Fernando Llorente led the line with poise and class for Marcelo Bielsa’s vibrant side. He was one of the most respected forwards in Europe and part of the Spain squad who won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. But his best days appeared to be behind him when he joined Swansea City from Sevilla last summer. His early performances in England were less than encouraging. Yet the 32-year-old has thrived under Paul Clement and made some vital contributions in Swansea’s battle for survival, the latest coming when he scored two towering headers in the 3-2 win against Burnley. He had already scored twice in wins against Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Sunderland and his late intervention against Sean Dyche’s side brought his tally to 11 goals this season. Still got it. JS

8) Redmond goal a reminder of his ability

The complaint from Southampton fans after the 3-1 home defeat against West Ham last month was that their team’s attacking spark had fizzled out under Claude Puel. They have responded well since then, though. They played some outstanding football despite losing the League Cup final last weekend and the 4-3 win at Watford on Saturday means they have scored eight in their past two league outings. With Charlie Austin still out with a shoulder injury, the arrival of Manolo Gabbiadini from Napoli in January has restored Southampton’s menace. The Italian scored for the fourth consecutive game against Watford. But this time it was not all about Gabbiadini’s goalscoring exploits. Nathan Redmond had not scored a league goal since October, but the young forward underlined his potential with two smart finishes. His talent should not be underestimated. JS

9) Pulis can afford to give youth a chance

Poor Jonathan Leko. The West Brom teenager was given a rare opportunity from the bench against Crystal Palace. With the home side 1-0 down to a superb Wilfried Zaha goal, the prodgiously talented Leko was asked to use his skills to open up a determined Palace rearguard. Instead he was the player robbed by Andros Townsend on the edge of the Palace box at the beginning of another superb solo goal. Leko can look at both goals and observe the efficiency required to make the difference at Premier League level. But he will never get the chance to practise it unless he plays. With West Brom on 40 points there were some supporter grumbles after the match that the players might have taken their collective foot off the pedal. Tony Pulis is not a manager renowned for throwing caution to the wind but giving Leko and other promising Baggies youngsters such as Sam Field their head might keep the first team on their toes for the rest of the season. Paul MacInnes

10) Arnautovic needs to maintain hunger for goals

Marko Arnautovic’s two goals against Middlesbrough on Saturday were only his fourth and fifth of the season, but it’s still easy to see why some have compared him to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There are obvious differences, but the Austrian’s touch for his first goal was one his Swedish counterpart would have been delighted with, plucking a long pass from the air with a Zlatanesque certainty. Not that the comparison entirely holds up, according to his manager. “He needs to enjoy scoring more than he does to be compared to Zlatan,” said Mark Hughes after the game. “I think he’d be just as happy with an assist, which as a striker I get a bit confused about.” Despite the relative lack of goals, Arnautovic is still Stoke’s most dangerous attacking threat, something he displayed with a buzzing pest of a performance against Boro. “At times we probably lean a little bit too heavily on him,” said Hughes. “When he’s in the vein of form he’s shown today, he’s very difficult to stop.” A few more goals from him, and perhaps Stoke will be, too. Nick Miller

(The Guardian)

Alfie Mawson: ‘I’ve Got a Football Signed by Ranieri and the Chelsea Players … But My Dog Chewed It’

Mawson battles with the Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus during Swansea’s 2-1 defeat at the Etihad.

Alfie Mawson is thinking about the times when he would drive home from training and spend the afternoon working on his dad’s fruit and veg stall at Ealing market, happily swapping life as a professional footballer for a few hours as a greengrocer, back in the days when he was picking up apples and pears rather than Premier League strikers.

There was only one occasion when Mawson can remember someone doing a double take. “It was December and Dad sells Christmas trees at that time of year,” Mawson says. “I was on loan at Wycombe from Brentford and was putting the trees through the ‘netter’ when one of the Brentford physios turned up. He just looked at me and said: ‘What on earth are you doing?’ But that’s the person I am. I used to help out last year when I was playing for Barnsley. I’d still do it now, although I guess I might get recognized: ‘There’s that ginger one from Swansea!’”

Mawson, who does a nice line in self-deprecating humor, laughs at that last remark. After making his way to the top in a hurry, climbing from the Conference South to the Premier League in the space of three years, including playing in every division in between, Mawson doubts whether his Premier League opponents know who he is, let alone the wider football public.

Plenty of people have struggled to keep up with his meteoric rise, including the recruitment agencies that were still sending Mawson job alerts on his mobile phone long after he was making a name for himself in professional football and his proud parents, Gary and Paula, who were watching their son play in front of a few hundred people not long ago.

“My dad said to me last Sunday: ‘Agüero came on against you, Alf,’” Mawson says, smiling at the excitement in his father’s voice. “It’s mad and a bit surreal. But you’ve got to take it in your stride. You can’t give these players half a yard or they’ll punish you. Because these players don’t care who you are – they won’t know who I am.”

To fill in a few gaps, Mawson grew up in Hillingdon, in west London. He supported Chelsea, started his career at Brentford and joined Swansea from Barnsley for £5m in the summer. Powerful in the air – he scored last month in Premier League wins against Crystal Palace and Southampton – and comfortable on the ball, the central defender won his first England Under‑21 cap in November and has impressed since Paul Clement took over as Swansea manager last month.

As well as being a promising young footballer, Mawson also happens to be a thoroughly nice guy and there is no better example of that than the heart-warming story that he tells about the lovely friendship he formed with a seriously ill boy in Barnsley during his time at Oakwell. Alfie Ledgeway, who is four years old, suffers from Chiari malformation, which means the lower part of his brain is being pushed towards his spinal cord.

“He was a mascot one day,” Mawson explains, “and before the game they come in and have a walk around, so I said: ‘Hello mate. What’s your name?’

“He said: ‘I’m Alfie. Alfie Ledgeway.’ I said: ‘That’s funny. That’s my name.’ He said: ‘What, you’re Alfie Ledgeway as well?’ I said: ‘No! I’m Alfie Mawson.’

“After that he’d always run to me whenever he saw me and say: ‘Hello Alfie Mawson.’ It was never ‘Alfie’ because he was worried people would get us confused. I later got speaking to his mum and his nan, and I got him a shirt with ‘Little Alfie’ on the back. I became known as ‘Big Alfie’. We went on Facebook and my mum started talking to the family as well, so they then built up a good relationship.

“Alfie used to FaceTime me on his iPad and ask if I was going to see him, so I’d pop round with Beth, my missus, and play with him. An hour of your time is like a day for him. He’s a little legend. He’s had surgery again recently and I haven’t seen him this season because of the distance. But I want to sort out for him to come and watch a game, probably Everton, because that’s who his family support.”

It is a tale that breaks with all the stereotypes about modern footballers and partly explains why Mawson was wearing the captain’s armband at Barnsley at the age of 21. He is an old head on young shoulders and it is not surprising that comparisons have been drawn with Ashley Williams, who left Swansea for Everton in the summer and also had a stint in the non-league game.

Mawson smiles at that suggestion. “When I signed for Swansea my agent asked me what number I wanted. I said 26 because it’s my favourite – it’s my dad’s birthday and John Terry’s number. But Kyle Naughton had that number – my mum had already told me that, she’s my No1 fan and knows everything before I do. So I looked at the other numbers and there was only one I was going to take – No6, which was Ashley Williams’s old shirt.

“People were saying that I had big boots to fill and that I was coming in to be Ashley Williams. I wasn’t. I was coming in to be me. Ashley’s a class act. He arrived at Swansea when he was a bit older than me and he got promoted with the club and was on that journey. But it’s a different task for me because I’m coming in to fight for a place in the Premier League.”

Top-flight football was a long way from Mawson’s mind three years ago. Brentford had offered him a second chance after he was released by Reading at the age of 15, but there was little sign of a breakthrough as he reached his late teens. “I wasn’t getting any games in the reserves, so I applied to loads of job websites,” Mawson says. “Growing up working with my dad on the fruit and veg stall, you learn people skills from a young age and so I wanted to do something hands-on. I remember going on loan to Maidenhead and wondering if I could nick a move to a Conference South side and have a job on the side.”

A season-long loan at Wycombe Wanderers in 2014-15 proved to be the turning point as Mawson swept the board at the League Two club’s end‑of‑season awards. Brentford offered him a new contract but he signed for Barnsley instead and went on to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and promotion from League One via the play-offs. Swansea decided to make a move and had a bid accepted at the end of August.

Excited rather than daunted by the prospect of playing in the Premier League, Mawson was blown away by Swansea’s training facilities and the surroundings – he has an apartment in Langland, overlooking the beach – but not everything clicked. “I wasn’t involved for the first couple of weeks and I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t been in that situation for the last few years. I’d find myself getting the weekend off. It was 3pm on a Saturday and I was having lunch with my missus. Not being rude but the weekend seemed too long.”

Mawson had to be patient and it was not until Bob Bradley replaced Fransceso Guidolin in October that he got his chance. He was named man of the match on his debut against Watford but soon discovered what an unforgiving place the Premier League can be during a damaging run that led to so many “stupid goals” being conceded and Bradley losing his job.

Swansea appeared doomed, but Clement’s arrival has breathed new life into the club. “We’ve come on in leaps and bounds with the new gaffer and everything’s looking up,” Mawson says. “Training has got so much more intense but in the right way. He’s reinstalled the basics, which we needed. He shows us clips of Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid and how they work so hard. If one player goes into press and gets beaten, there’s someone else to back him up and then another. If you see those clubs doing that, then there’s no excuse not to do it.”

An added bonus for Swansea has been Mawson’s aerial threat in the opposition area. The 23-year-old has scored 19 times in his career already and last month’s goals for Swansea were crucial. “I’ve got a big head, that’s what everyone says to me,” Mawson says, laughing. “But I do love scoring. If you haven’t got that confidence to go and get a goal, then what’s the point in going up for a corner or a free-kick?”

That Gylfi Sigurdsson delivers the set-pieces helps. “Every ball is spot on. Gylfi’s like an angel for us at the moment,” says Mawson, smiling at his choice of words. “He just does things that you don’t expect. Even when we weren’t playing as well as we are now, he’d still come up with an assist or a goal. He’ll always be involved in something – and that’s not luck.”

Mawson knows that Sunday’s home game against Leicester is huge and although his total focus is on winning, he could be forgiven for having a wry smile when he looks across at Claudio Ranieri in the visitors’ dugout. “I’ve got a ball signed by Ranieri and the Chelsea players,” Mawson says. “My dad bid for it at an auction. I’ve still got it at my mum’s house, but the ball’s got a bit of a hole in it now because my dog chewed it. I was gutted about that at the time.”

(The Guardian)

Swansea Must Stay Up or Face Struggle to Get Back, Says Alan Curtis

Swansea’s coach and current caretaker Alan Curtis keeps an eye on proceedings in training.

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.”

(The Guardian)

Ryan Giggs Cannot Afford to Wait for a Big Managing Job to Come Along

Ryan Giggs with José Mourinho, then Chelsea’s manager, in 2013. Three years later the Portuguese got the Manchester United job instead of the Welshman. Photograph: Matt West/Matt West/BPI/Rex/

It might feel slightly implausible now, at a time when Ryan Giggs seems to be drifting to the edges of the game, but if it had gone to a poll last season among Manchester United players about who they wanted to replace Louis van Gaal, a manager they found both bewildering and impenetrable, the majority of votes would not actually have been for José Mourinho.

No slight intended. The idea was always appealing and Mourinho had a certain mystique that players find intriguing. Mourinho once reminisced about life at Porto with its “beautiful blue chairs, the Uefa Champions League trophy, God and, after God, me”. He was always going to be a natural fit for a club with United’s haughty self-regard, where one banner, in happier times, proclaimed “not arrogant, just better”.

Yet there was still a consensus in favor of Giggs. Wayne Rooney was in the Giggs camp. Rooney, the captain, is the player all the younger ones look up to at Old Trafford but, even putting that aside, it is easy to see why Giggs had so much support within the dressing room. Giggs was football royalty at Old Trafford. He was the boy who played football like a man, then became a man and played football like a boy. And in his older years, once the hair whitened above his ears, he was afforded the kind of reverence that all the great one-club men – Maldini, Puyol, Totti and so on – were due. Giggs knew Old Trafford inside out. And, as far as the players were concerned, he was also much less likely than Mourinho to fall out with everyone after two years.

To be overlooked was a grievous setback – not least as there was no contact whatsoever from Mourinho during the following severance process – and it isn’t easy knowing what is next for Giggs when it has reached the point where Swansea City, a club desperately in need of some new impetus, have already turned their backs on him once and barely given him a second look now their job has become available again.

Perhaps that should not be a surprise when, on the first occasion, Giggs was summoned for an interview about taking over from Francesco Guidolin but apparently blew his chances because the club’s American owners were unimpressed by the way he projected himself (a revelation that, out of common courtesy, the relevant people really ought to have kept to themselves).

It ended up as public rejection from the club currently bottom of the Premier League and it does throw up a question about where, or when, another opportunity might materialize in the top division, or whether Giggs might have to realign his sights now it is becoming increasingly apparent that potential employers are not seduced by big-name players in the way that was once the case.

Not that it is a necessarily a bad thing to start a little further down the food chain. Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career began at East Stirling, where he inherited eight players and his first signing was a goalkeeper who, at a conservative estimate, was two stone overweight. Brian Clough started at Hartlepools United, with its leaky roof and superfluous “s”, and Bill Shankly had spells at Carlisle United, Grimsby Town, Workington and Huddersfield Town before all the glory at Liverpool. Antonio Conte, the manager of the current Premier League leaders, was relegated to Serie C1 with Arezzo in his first year of management and if Giggs wanted examples more relevant to his own career he might reflect that Steve Bruce, his former United colleague, had spells at three different clubs in England’s second tier, and Wigan Athletic another rung down, before working his way up.

The question is whether Giggs would be willing to do the same and, though it would be a climbdown for the man Van Gaal anointed as his natural successor, he is reaching the point where if he wants to come in from the edges it might have to be that way.

In total, 35 of the 92 clubs in England’s top four divisions have hired new managers – six more than once – since Mourinho’s appointment on 27 May. Swansea did at least interview Giggs, but Crystal Palace, Hull City, Everton and Sunderland did not. There was a brief link with Nottingham Forest, one of the Championship’s many basketcases, but so little otherwise it is tempting to wonder whether Giggs may have suffered indirectly as a result of Gary Neville’s failure at Valencia. Or, to put it another way, would potential employers be more emboldened if Neville, with the same kind of qualifications and background, had not found it so difficult transferring all that insight and opinion into the sharp end of the business?

All that can really be said is that 2017 holds a certain amount of uncertainty for Giggs if he left Old Trafford hoping his lofty status might help open a few doors, and if he really meant it in October when he claimed it was his decision to turn down Swansea because “their ambitions did not really match mine”.

Giggs is trying to buck the trend, in one sense, when there is a natural suspicion throughout the sport these days about whether formidable footballers can also excel in management. Pep Guardiola is the obvious exception and Zinédine Zidane, approaching his first anniversary at Real Madrid, has had precisely the uplifting effect at the Bernabéu that Giggs presumably saw himself having at Old Trafford.

Overall, though, it is not a common theme. Many more have failed and, without wishing to be too downbeat about Giggs’s chance, there is a risk here that he will go through the rest of his professional life with the same kind of regrets that always consumed Phil Neal about the passing of the baton at Liverpool. Neal had positioned himself as next in line to Joe Fagan but the inheritance he envisaged never materialized and, to his dismay, the job went to Kenny Dalglish. “The dreams and ambitions I had striven for, for a decade, had been shattered,” Neal later wrote.

In Giggs’s case, United’s most decorated player is far too savvy to have assumed it would be a seamless progression and, though anyone with his collection of medals is probably entitled to a reasonably high self-opinion, it would be a disappointment if he had pinned all his hopes on coaching at elite level.

Giggs, unlike Neville, is not a natural fit in the world of punditry and he did not take all those coaching badges, becoming the first individual to complete the mandatory qualification for Premier League and Champions League managers while still playing, for the odd appearance on ITV trying to make England’s latest friendly sound exciting.

First, though, Giggs has to be given a way in and, unfortunately for him, he is also associated with those difficult days as a coach in the David Moyes era, followed by the leaden appearances alongside Van Gaal in the dugout, trying to make sense of the Dutchman’s football philosophy and succeeding only in looking as blank as the rest of us.

At 43, Giggs is at an age when the next stage of his career could have years to run and he could be forgiven for thinking it might be Swansea’s loss bearing in mind how everything worked out with Bob Bradley.

Yet it has been seven months of drift and Giggs might also want to take note of the advice Ferguson used to pass on in his role with the League Managers Association. Don’t spend too long out of work, Ferguson would say, because it is amazing how quickly the people in the profession can be forgotten.

Can you imagine the outcry if Wayne Rooney had been caught drink-driving after a party in London, as recently happened with Yaya Touré?

Likewise, it is fair to say there might have been an awful lot more brouhaha if it had been Rooney, not Roberto Firmino of Liverpool, who had been arrested for the same alleged offence in the early hours of Christmas Eve but was allowed to play for his team a couple of days later and now faced a court appearance on the same day as a top-of-the-table encounter against Chelsea?

Rooney does not always help himself and, lest it be forgotten, the England and Manchester United captain issued a public apology after his last blow-out on international duty. Yet he does have a point when he says he seems to be judged differently to just about every other footballer in the country.

The transfer window is swinging open and already, I fear, we might have peaked too soon with the news that one of our gelled, tanned, ultra-successful superstars – and I’m not talking Cristiano Ronaldo – is being linked with a big-money move to China on the back of being honored with his industry’s equivalent of the Ballon d’Or.

Until now, with Mark Clattenburg modestly fending off speculation about a lucrative move to the Chinese Super League, I must confess I did not realize there was such a thing as referees taking advantage of the Bosman rule or being the subjects of transfer gossip.

Where it all ends is not clear. Will they have press conferences to announce their arrivals? Will they be “unveiled”? All that can really be said is that Clattenburg, sounding every bit like a man in demand, isn’t ruling it out, finds the speculation flattering and, just as Oscar, Carlos Tevez and all the rest have already made clear, would hate for anyone to think it might be about the money.

“If an opportunity came along I am contracted to the Premier League but I have to look at my long-term strategy of my career,” Clattenburg said. “There is no offer on the table but if they made an offer it would be under consideration.”

It sounded suspiciously like a come-and-get-me plea. And he should probably give Jorge Mendes a ring.

(The Guardian)

Bob Bradley Had to Go but Blame for Swansea’s Plight Lies in the Boardroom

Swansea picked up only eight points from Bob Bradley’s 11 matches in charge.

It was just gone 7pm on Boxing Day and a small group of reporters were walking away from the Liberty Stadium when a Swansea City supporter approached. “Has he gone yet, boys?” asked the fan, smiling in a way that made it clear it would be viewed as good news if there was confirmation that Bob Bradley was clearing his desk.

That moment arrived 24 hours later, when Swansea announced that the first American to manage in the Premier League had been sacked after less than three months in charge. Bradley won only two out of 11 games, picked up just eight points, conceded 29 goals, shipped three or more on eight occasions, made a total of 33 team changes after starting his reign with a 3-2 defeat at Arsenal and fielded six different back-four combinations.

Quite a set of numbers, all in all, and it is fair to say that by the end of the drubbing at the hands of West Ham United on Boxing Day, during which a significant number of Swansea supporters chanted “we want Bradley out”, the former U.S.A. coach was none the wiser as to what was the best starting XI to select from the woefully ill-equipped squad that he inherited.

Swansea’s American owners, Stephen Kaplan and Jason Levien, had been determined to stand by their man and give Bradley a chance to bring in a few players of his own in January. Yet the West Ham match shredded those plans. The performance was abject and the atmosphere inside the Liberty Stadium poisonous. Swansea had been well beaten for the third successive game and Bradley had reached the point of no return.

His position was untenable and there is no escaping the fact that results were awful under his watch, yet anybody conducting a wider inquest into where everything has gone wrong at Swansea, in particular the question as to how a model club have turned into such a mess in the space of a season and a half, would not spend too long going through Bradley’s 85 days as manager.

Instead the spotlight is likely to shine an unfavorable light on the people running the club, especially the chairman, Huw Jenkins, who was as influential as anybody in the rags-to-riches story behind Swansea’s rise from the depths of the Football League to the top flight. Once the man who could do no wrong, Jenkins has presided over a number of desperately poor decisions in recent times, both managerially and in the transfer market, and the result is that Swansea have lurched from one crisis to another.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the club’s decline is the speed with which everything has unraveled. In May last year Swansea finished eighth in the Premier League with a club-record points total. Their attractive and distinctive playing style – “The Swansea Way” – was deeply ingrained and integral to their success. Garry Monk, a bright, young, homegrown manager was in charge of the team, supporter representation on the board won admirers, and the club operated in the black. Swansea, in short, provided a blueprint for many to follow. Fast-forward 19 months and they have become just another Premier League club.

Monk lost his job last December after a bad run of results and it will not have escaped the attention of many Swansea supporters that while they were being thumped 4-1 by West Ham this Boxing Day, their former manager was overseeing a victory at Preston by the same scoreline for his promotion-chasing Leeds United side.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision to sack Monk, the bottom line is that so much of what Swansea have done since has made little sense, arguably no more so than when Jenkins announced in May that he was giving Francesco Guidolin a permanent contract to continue as manager. It was a decision that stunned people within the club, never mind outside, and meant that Swansea missed a crucial opportunity to rebuild.

Guidolin had been appointed in January on a short-term basis after a protracted search for Monk’s replacement initially ended with Alan Curtis, the highly respected and long-serving first-team coach, being given the job until the end of the season. Curtis, however, was asked to stand aside 11 days after being handed the reins to make way for the Italian. Swansea ended up finishing 12th, on the face of it vindicating the decision to bring in Guidolin, yet there was little appetite among staff and players for him – a likeable man but uninspiring coach – to stay on as manager.

Jenkins would have known that was the case – the chairman has his ear to the ground and canvasses opinion from time to time to gauge the mood – yet he still opted to give Guidolin the job. Five months later came the predictable news that Guidolin had become the first Premier League managerial casualty of the season.

By that point, though, it was clear that Swansea’s problems ran much deeper than their flawed choice of manager. Some poor dealings in the transfer market over the course of the past three windows left the squad looking painfully short of quality, with the ins and outs in the summer compounding the errors that had been made before and raising serious questions about the recruitment strategy headed up by David Leadbeater and ultimately overseen by Jenkins.

One of the more bizarre issues that has come to light in recent years and prompted a level of bemusement among some working at the club, including managers, is the frequency with which Swansea scouts turn up for Swansea matches. It is a curious practice to say the least.

Kaplan and Levien soon realized that the process of identifying players needed to drastically change and take on a much more analytical approach, yet in terms of what happened in the summer, the damage was done. Ashley Williams, the captain, and André Ayew, last season’s top scorer, were sold without being adequately replaced, so much so that players such as Jordi Amat, who would have been on the fringe under previous regimes, were thrust into the role of being regular starters.

A club-record £15.5m was spent on Borja Bastón, who has scored only once since joining from Atlético Madrid and looks set to follow in the footsteps of Éder and Alberto Paloschi, two strikers who were brought in from overseas in the last 18 months and failed to make any sort of impact.

Other decisions have been odd. Nathan Dyer was farmed out on loan to Leicester at the start of last season because he was deemed surplus to requirements, returned after failing to make one Premier League start for the champions and was rewarded with a new four-year contract.

If there was one key error of judgment, though, it was the failure to re-sign Joe Allen from Liverpool. Allen was available and everything seemed to be set up for the Welshman to return to the club, yet Swansea dragged their heels over the finances and Stoke jumped in to take a midfielder whose ability and character would have been invaluable at the Liberty Stadium this season.

During that period Swansea were undergoing a change of ownership that earned Jenkins and several other board members millions from selling shares and at the same time, prompted accusations from some supporters that those directors had taken their eye off the ball and put their own interests before those of the club.

Jenkins, who has supported Swansea for more than 50 years and continues to run the club on a day-to-day basis, would no doubt deny that was the case. He did, however, concede prior to the win over Crystal Palace last month that mistakes were made in the close season. “I will be the first to admit that there are a number of things I personally could have dealt with differently in the summer which may have helped us to start the season in a far more upbeat and positive way,” Jenkins wrote in his program column.

Either way, the focus for Swansea now has to be forward rather than back. All eyes are on the managerial search and the long list of candidates, including Ryan Giggs, Roy Hodgson, Chris Coleman, Gary Rowett, Paul Clement and Alan Pardew. Yet anybody who has watched Swansea on a regular basis this season will know that the players need to be changed as much as the manager if the club are to have any hope of avoiding relegation, and therein lies the huge challenge facing Jenkins and Swansea’s American owners.

(The Guardian)

Swansea’s Leroy Fer: Dancer, Singer and Football Enthusiast

Bristol Rovers v Swansea City - Pre Season Friendly

Leroy Fer is casting his mind back to his Swansea City initiation ceremony during the club’s pre-season tour in the United States and carefully considering what mark out of 10 he would give himself for his rendition of Drake’s Controlla at the team hotel. “A solid eight,” says Fer, smiling. The footage has yet to be released but the suspicion is that Fer’s impersonation of the Canadian rapper was rather good, much like his dancing at his wedding. Fer was married to Xenia two years ago, a few weeks after being part of the Holland squad that reached the World Cup semi-finals in Brazil, and their slick routine on the dancefloor has been watched by hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube and social media, including a few footballers.

“Very popular,” says Fer, laughing. “We were playing against some clubs and even in the game players came up to me and said: ‘Wow, what a wedding dance you did.’ Sammy Ameobi and Benik Afobe both said that to me during a match. And when I signed here, all the boys were like: ‘I’ve seen you on that wedding dance.’”

Looking at the clip, everything is so perfectly in time that it is tempting to wonder how many hours Mr and Mrs Fer spent fine-tuning their moves. “We didn’t even practice that much. I swear, it was two times for 20 minutes,” Fer says. “On the day, we had a slow dance first – a proper wedding dance – we were talking to each other and everybody was watching. So I said to Xenia: ‘Are we going to do this?’ And then we just looked at the DJ and he flicked the tune. No one else knew what was coming.”

For those familiar with the lyrics, Chris Brown’s Loyal may seem an unlikely song choice for a newly married couple. Fer chuckles at that suggestion. “It was because it was a big hit at that moment, and some people we knew before we got married weren’t that loyal to us,” he says.

The 26-year-old midfielder has always been a performer. When he was at Feyenoord, he took part in a filmed rap duel with Vurnon Anita, the Newcastle midfielder then at Ajax, and they even recorded a song together. “We both love music, he’s really into rapping, he’s got his own studio, so we made one track with Ryan Babel and another football player in Holland, Mitchell Burgzorg – he’s a good rapper. That song went big as well.”

Not as big, however, as the headlines Fer generated when he accidentally bought a horse for €30,000. For those unfamiliar with this brilliant tale, Fer and Xenia were living several floors up in an apartment at the time and, at the risk of stating the obvious, had nowhere to keep “Django”. “That’s a story,” Fer says, laughing at the mention of the stallion he briefly owned.

“I was playing for Twente at the time. A friend invited me along to an auction for really good horses – racehorses – and some of them went for €500,000. It was a totally new experience for me. There was this horse, they said it wasn’t the best, but that it was nice. I was playing around on my phone, I heard €30,000 and I said to the guy: ‘This one’s for me’, because I thought the price would go higher afterwards. I was still on my phone and I heard: ‘One, two …’ I said: ‘Is this me?’ And everyone said: ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s you.’ Suddenly they said: ‘Sold to the guy upstairs.’ Someone realized it was me and the guy said: ‘Leroy Fer bought the horse.’ They got me to stand up. I was sweating. I didn’t want the horse – I was living in an apartment.

“Xenia wasn’t with me, so I called her and said: ‘Babe, I bought you a horse.’ I had to repeat it. She’s into horses, I joked with her before that I was going to buy her one. But she couldn’t believe it when I phoned. Thankfully, about 10 minutes later, someone came up to me and said: ‘Do you really want that horse?’ I said: ‘Nah, I was just fooling around.’ He offered to buy it off me for €35,000, so I made a bit of money. But for 10 minutes I was thinking: ‘Shit, I’ve got a horse. Where shall I leave it?’”

Friendly and generous with his time, Fer comes across as a likeable guy. He was born in Zoetermeer, in the province of South Holland, to parents who were raised in Curaçao, a small Caribbean island off the Venezuelan coast. A practicing catholic, Fer had a strong religious upbringing and went to church every Sunday with his mother and younger brother, Leegreg. His father, Lesley, was a baseball player in Curaçao and recently returned there to work for the government.

Fer always wanted to be a footballer and joined Feyenoord when he was 10 years old. Physically strong for his age, he was nicknamed De Uitsmijter (The Bouncer) by his youth coach and made his first-team debut at 17, when he was still completing his studies and working in Feyenoord’s club shop. “I’d play in front of the supporters and then serve them,” he says, smiling at the memory.

He moved on to Twente, where he played under Steve McClaren – “I can’t say a bad word about him” – and was close to joining Everton in January 2013 only for the deal to collapse after the Premier League club wanted to revise the payment structure of the transfer fee on the back of a medical.

Six months later Fer signed for Norwich but his first season in the Premier League ended with relegation and so did his second, after he joined Queens Park Rangers in 2014, not long after scoring for Holland against Chile at the World Cup. With Swansea scrapping for survival when he arrived on loan in February, Fer could have been forgiven for worrying that he was walking into a third straight relegation.

“I didn’t think like that,” he says. “To be fair, when I went from Norwich to QPR, because QPR came from the Championship, I had that feeling a little bit: ‘Is this the right option?’ I joined and got relegated again, and that was hard for me, playing in the Championship for six months. Swansea were struggling last season. But I could see we had enough quality.”

Fer made a big impression on Francesco Guidolin, the Swansea manager, who knew nothing of the Dutchman when he signed and described him as a “good surprise” at the end of the season. When a permanent deal was put in place in July, Fer was more than happy to sign and move Xenia and Ace, his 11-month-old son, to a city where the players get more than their share of perks.

“With QPR, I was playing for one of the smallest clubs in London, and you can do whatever you want in the city and nobody knows you. But here it’s different, they treat you like a king,” Fer says. “You go out to eat, some people are waiting for a table, but we get one straight away. I don’t like that, so I say: ‘Leave it, give the table to them.’ I also get free popcorn when I go to the cinema – I’m happy to take that.”
A few more points would also be gratefully accepted. Fer has two goals to his name already this season, yet he is the only Swansea player to have scored in the league, and back-to-back defeats have done nothing to alter the view among many fans that this threatens to be a long season. “Some good names – Ashley [Williams], André [Ayew] and Bafé [Gomis] – went to other teams in the summer, that’s a big loss,” Fer says. “But we had some new players coming and I still think we’ve got a strong team.”

Time will tell whether that proves to be the case. Swansea host Chelsea on Sunday afternoon, visit Southampton the following week, then face Manchester City twice in the space of four days (the first game is in the EFL Cup) before taking on Liverpool and Arsenal.

It is a daunting run and Swansea are going to need some “solid eight” performances from Fer on the pitch. “I had to do that initiation ceremony twice,” he says, smiling. “I did it when I came on loan, but Sue [Eames, the football utilities coordinator] wasn’t there and she’s the boss when it comes to the singing. So when we were in Washington all the boys said I had to do it again. Even the gaffer got involved and said: ‘Leroy, sing.’”

(The Guardian)