THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

With a new ground, booming crowds and one of the game's cult heroes in phenomenal striking form, Swansea fans aredreaming of the Toshack era writes Huw Richards

SPRE – the letters visible on seats behind the North Stand goal at Liberty Stadium, indicative not of the efforts of a dyslexic Roman signwriter but what happens when the OSPREYS branding of Swansea City’s rugby-playing co-tenants is partially obscured.They are conspicuous not only for their location, but for being just about the only untenanted seats in the stadium. A crowd of 19,288 is Swansea’s largest since Liverpool visited the Vetch Field for a First Division match in September 1982.

The idea of such a crowd was unthinkable a year ago, as the compactly decaying Vetch struggled to accommodate attendances of even half that. That it should be pulled in to see Yeovil, anything but an ancient rival, reflects striking mutual upward mobility. Compelling evidence, if ever there was, of the “if you build it, they will come” theory of stadium construction. The Vetch was resoundingly atmospheric, wonderfully located between sea front and city centre and loved beyond reason by Swans fans, but hardly welcoming to the uncommitted, even if many of those at the Liberty are said to be older fans returning rather than the much sought-after family groupings.

“Does this make Ivor Allchurch the Statue of Liberty?” asked one website wag after the unveiling of a statue of the Swans’ greatest past hero was rapidly followed by the new edge-of-town stadium acquiring its fourth name – following Morfa, White Rock and New Stadium. Ivor’s widow Esme and younger brother Len – himself a high-class winger – are here.

Ivor’s life-size lookalike, paid for by fans, gazes back in the direction of the Vetch from concourse. Few others, though, look in that direction when the future looks so much more inviting. There is a sense of momentum – a virtuous circle of better results, the new stadium and vastly increased crowds – not felt since the John Toshack-led boom of the late 1970s.

Only the most heedless optimists were predicting such progress when the Swans scraped out of League Two on the final day in May, still less that the promoted quartet would take so readily to a higher league. There was no sense that the group had the quality to put Swansea and Southend first and third respectively, Scunthorpe on the play-off fringes and Yeovil around halfway after a slow start, as they are at kick-off.

It wasn’t just proximity in time that meant Swans fans heard louder echoes from John Hollins’s ill-fated Third Division champions of 2000, back down within a year, than the Toshack team who – like accompanying fast-risers Watford – clearly represented something different in lower-division football.

Expectations are conditioned by what chairman Huw Jenkins, with a grasp of club history far firmer than the limited understanding of promotion implied by a published statement that “there are no prizes for coming second in football”, has rightly called “a tough half-century”. As with Wales’s rugby grand slam earlier in the year, the fear is that you’ll wake up and be reintroduced to less palatable reality.

What the quartet do share is the ability to play decent football. Yeovil in particular have an ability to find angles with their precise, rapid passing game that is rarely seen in the lower reaches. Fiercely pragmatic last year – not the least of the echoes of the Hollins team was the frequency with which one left narrow victories vaguely wondering how much longer they could go on winning without playing terribly well – the Swans have lately played with flowing freedom.

Debate continues as to whether manager Kenny Jackett is a highly astute practitioner of the art of the possible, or is the fortunate, occasionally unappreciative inheritor of a group of creative players bequeathed by Brian Flynn. Certainly an element of this season’s flowering has been a resurgence for two Flynn signings – centre-half-become-full-back Alan Tate and midfielder Leon Britton – and the continued excellence of two others, Lee Trundle and Roberto Martinez.

Jackett periodically experiments with omitting Martinez, whose playing style reflects his Sky performances as a summariser on La Liga – neat, thoughtful, lucid, perceptive and with a vital gift in crowded and untidy midfields for picking up loose balls and turning them into something constructive. Last season his exclusions lobotomised the Swans. Now, replacing him with Kris O’Leary – local boy, converted defender and comfortably our best tackler, but somewhat less accomplished in possession – was followed by a commanding display and 2-1 victory at Southend. So Martinez stay on the bench. Not so Swansea’s other TV star, Lee Trundle, beloved of Soccer AM. And this is to be essentially Trundle’s night.

There is an edge to this fixture not fully explained either by the cold – winter has arrived at last – or the inherent rivalry between Wales and the West Country. Yeovil have won the past three meetings, becoming the last visitors to win at the Vetch. Beyond that is the collective memory of Yeovil’s Gavin Williams doing Cardiff City’s “Ayatollah” dance in front of the Vetch North Bank, an act roughly akin to serenading the Stretford End with You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Williams has left, but the Vetch’s North Bank – which has decamped pretty much en masse to the Liberty’s East Stand – gives the visitors a vigorous welcome. One Yeovil head stands out – Efe Sodje’s green-and-white bandana matching the colours of club and country, evidently seeking an edge in a sure-to-be-concussive clash with Nigerian (by way of Walthamstow) compatriot Bayo Akinfenwa, at 5ft 11in and 17 stone the nearest thing in football to a perfect cube.

No match with a near-capacity crowd and the hosts leading their league lacks atmosphere. The East Stand maintains a formidable volume throughout and are admirably unreceptive to the scoreboard’s occasional attempts at orchestration, electronic prompts of Who Are We, Jack Army stonily ignored. This, though, is not a thing of beauty. Yeovil have greater midfield clarity and cohesion through the efforts of Lee Johnson and Darren Way, but their precision and eye for the telling angle bring few responses nearer goal and their likeliest goalscorer for most of the evening is centre-back Terry Skiverton on his excursions forward.

One clue to Swansea’s success under Jackett is offered when winger Kevin McLeod, rarely regarded as a Stakhanovite at Queens Park Rangers, hits a 20-yard shot straight at keeper Chris Weale from the centre-right of the field, then reverts so rapidly to his normal position on the left that he is able to challenge for Weale’s rapidly thrown clearance.

But the essential difference between the teams is Trundle. In the 21st minute he controls a lobbed pass from McLeod on the right of the penalty area, swerves across to the left and straightens, then goes down under a challenge by Sodje. Trundle’s intricately deceptive (left-)footwork will always create legitimate penalties, but his opting for football over aquatic pursuits may have robbed Britain of its very own Greg Louganis. This, though, looks one of the more authentic tumbles. The referee agrees and Trundle duly converts for his 16th goal in 16 league games.

He hits the bar with a delicately contrived chip, causes double-takes all round by converting a chance with his right foot – only for the referee to rule, rightly, offside – then seals Swansea’s victory midway through the second half with a superbly judged first-time 35-yard lob, which carries over the retreating Weale’s head before bouncing into the roof of the net.

Yeovil’s chances end a few minutes earlier when Johnson is sent off – booked for a tackle on Tate, he compounds the felony by sarcastic gestures towards the referee (you have to wonder about David Beckham as a role model) to earn a second yellow. Way’s continuing influence even when heavily outnumbered as the later stages degenerated into incoherence suggested that while Swansea can win without Martinez, they are not necessarily a better team in his absence.

Anyone who has scored 17 goals in 16 league matches compels notice, but goals only partially explain Trundle’s appeal. He is an authentic original, a late arrival at League level with the untutored player’s joy in the arts of deception and ball manipulation – qualities expressed in a remarkable range of feints, flicks, dummies and chips (and less attractively in dives and wind-ups). Striking with both power and delicacy, he shapes a ball so that most Swans fans could recognise a Trundle shot from its trajectory alone. His second goal against Yeovil might be dismissed as an opportunistic fluke but for the overwhelming evidence supplied over the previous two-and-a-half seasons by any number of shots flighted with an aerodynamic precision worthy of Shane Warne.

Perhaps the oddest tribute to his current status in Swansea, city as well as club, is his image on the front of the new Swansea Monopoly set. The most compelling is his intellectual-property-rights deal with the Swans, a unique arrangement outside the Premiership. That 90 per cent of goods sold are Trundle-related suggests the need to diversify stock, but the deal is intended to tie him to the club. So long as bidders come from the Championship (Sheffield Wednesday had £750,000 turned down), the Swans can counter with hopes that they’ll be there themselves next year, the unlikelihood of his “King of the City” status being replicated elsewhere, and that extra income from shop sales.

Premiership bidders would be harder to resist. Swans fans will wish Everton’s misfiring strike force better fortunes over the coming weeks, fearing that otherwise sheer desperation might prompt David Moyes to offer Trundle a transfer-window opportunity to join the club he has always wanted to play for. But top-flight clubs will have their doubts about a 29-year-old who is slow (though leaner and sharper than he was), essentially one-footed and has never played outside the lower divisions.

If he were younger, quicker and had a right foot he would never have played for Swansea in the first place. This is Trundle’s paradox, that the immense affection with which he is regarded reflects not only remarkable skills but those limitations, bringing with them the real hope that – unlike most players of evidently superior gifts – he might end up staying.

From WSC 227 January 2006. What was happening this month

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