A dramatic season finale lives up to the pre-match hype. Swansea wobble but survive Reading’s comeback as the Welsh fans look forward to top division games and being patronised by Gary Lineker. Huw Richards recalls the events at Wembley
The essential character of this Championship play-off final was determined 13 days earlier when Reading won the second semi-final. With Cardiff’s elimination it became, as a Swans-supporting friend texted, “a football match, not a civil war”.
Swansea and Reading do share more than the recent experience of being managed by Brendan Rodgers. They are footballing peers, historically members of the league’s lower middle-class. The clubs have spent 31 seasons in the same division, while the 1927 FA Cup quarter-final at the Vetch Field represents a Reading high-point and arguably the most disappointing single result in Swansea’s history.
But there is no venom in spite of the profoundly embarrassing and – unless acting on Simon Inglis’s view that it was the dullest ground in the League – inexplicable attempt by Swans fans to demolish Elm Park in 1993. So there was no need to militarise the M4, and a sunlit Wembley was pervaded by a mood of good-humoured celebration singularly absent on South Wales derby days.
The atmosphere created by both sets of fans was a reminder that the great glory of this event is not the £90 million supposedly at stake – a figure whose remorseless citation recalls irresistibly Robert Kennedy’s comment about GNP, that it “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. It is the sight and sound of Wembley packed by a crowd all of whom are – unlike the corporate-social gatherings of the big finals – committed to the competing teams.
When Rodgers spoke afterwards of “a funny sort of day”, he was referring to the mixed emotion of achieving professional triumph at the expense of a club and players who still matter to him. He might equally have been talking about the progress of the match.
Neutral television watchers primed by talk of Swansea echoing Barcelona and passing the ball more often than Arsenal had every right to be baffled by the first half. If being 3-0 up at half-time was, to put it mildly, a pleasant surprise it was the matter in which it was achieved that was truly shocking.
It was Reading who looked like the controlled, cultured team in the opening stages as Jem Karacan and Mikele Leigertwood controlled the midfield and sent Jimmy Kébé on weaving runs down the right, where marker Alan Tate had clearly been briefed to give ground rather than commit himself.
But the most consistent criticism of this Swans team, that long periods of aesthetically pleasing possession and position do not always produce goals, was turned on its head by three goals, in the 20th, 22nd and 40th minutes, from not many more serious attacks. Pace and crisp execution were the key elements, with Nathan Dyer winning a penalty for the first and the other two coming from firmly struck, poorly cleared, low crosses after breaks down the right. They demonstrated the cool execution of Scott Sinclair – rolling home the penalty after sending Adam Federici the wrong way, then calmly passing the ball to the net for number two when Reading’s keeper slowed rather than stopped Stephen Dobbie’s cross – and the probing, twisting pace of Dyer, who provided the cross for the third.
That goal completed a miserable first half for Reading defender Zurab Khizanishvili. He was booked early on and then gave away the penalty, possibly saved from a red card because Phil Dowd didn’t fancy writing his name out a second time. Instead he was still around in the 40th minute to provide the near-post interception that sent Dyer’s cross straight to Dobbie, around 15 metres out.
Dobbie’s Swansea career has been as odd as might have been expected of a player who sounds like a Harry Potter character. Signed by Roberto Martínez just before he left for Wigan, Dobbie was sent on loan to Blackpool last season by Paulo Sousa, helping them to eject Swansea from the last play-off place and to win at Wembley.
Rogers has been more appreciative than Sousa, who was exasperated by a tendency to give away possession, of skills that make Dobbie something of a Scottish throwback and a ballplayer who finds space and angles where none appears to exist. Dobbie’s first-time far-corner dispatch of Khizanishvili’s clearance – simple, precise and impeccably struck – made it 3-0.
Amid the disbelieving ecstasy came a mind’s ear premonition of the whole of next season being played to a continuous soundtrack of “3-0 and you fucked it up”, if it went wrong from here. It was playing a lot louder 12 minutes after half-time when Reading pulled back to 3-2.
As problems go, being three up without being in control is among the more desirable. But when your playing style is based on control and your opponent a potent team mentally liberated rather than crushed by having the worst happen, it is potentially perilous.
And given that Swansea entered the Championship three years ago looking likely to concede at every set-piece, perhaps it was appropriate they left the same way. Reading’s first, four minutes after the break, replicated a deft near-post corner routine that Shane Long had only just failed to convert in the first-half. This time they got it exactly right, although the decisive deflection came from Swansea midfielder Joe Allen.
Eight minutes later Reading skipper Matthew Mills headed home from another corner and their own record for the best position blown in a level two play-off final – two up with 25 minutes to go against Bolton in 1993 – was under serious threat. Had Karacan’s shot gone in two minutes later rather than striking a post, or Swansea skipper Garry Monk not hurled himself to block a shot from the rebound, who knows. The force was clearly with them and Reading manager Brian McDermott was far from alone in believing that from 3-3 his team must have won.
Yet, as Rodgers pointed out: “Once it was 3-2 it allowed us to refocus. Tactically and physically we looked good again.” He had made the crucial move at 3-1, replacing Dobbie – whose last act was picking his way across the Reading box with a mesmeric series of drag-backs before firing a cross-shot that went for a throw-in – with Darren Pratley, box-to-box midfielder and scorer of the 60-metre semi-final clincher against Nottingham Forest. Once the team metronome, with performances varying according to how well he played, Pratley is now a less central presence, but his energy, tackling and discipline helped restore balance, shape and cohesion.
Stability was a little while coming, but as the scored stayed at 3-2 the Swans looked steadily more like the cool possession-monopolising team who had played themselves into the play-offs. The Reading threat was progressively anaesthetised.
The coup de grâce was fittingly initiated by Tate, like Leon Britton a survivor from the Swansea team that beat Hull on the last day of the season in 2003 to retain League status. He intercepted 30 metres out and played a ball into the box where striker Fabio Borini, on loan from Chelsea, was needlessly pulled down. Sinclair’s penalty, struck harder this time as Federici went the right way, completed an apt echo of the Hull match, a 4-2 win with an individual hat-trick (James Thomas in 2003) including two penalties.
Much less referenced post-match, but equally resonant, is Swansea’s only previous play-off final win, in 1988. It has slipped into a collective memory hole because it was in the pre-Wembley final days and took the form of an away second-leg at Torquay. With only 350 away fans allowed at Plainmoor, it is the collector’s item among those wishing to claim “I was there” for all eight Swansea promotions since 1978. There too two-thirds of a three-goal lead was blown, but the remainder resolutely conserved.
Both teams handled the aftermath with some class. Every Swansea player went up for the presentation wearing a shirt commemorating Besian Idrizaj, a team-mate who died suddenly last summer. Reading owner John Madejski embraced Rodgers. McDermott was calmly graceful in defeat, declining a press conference offer to complain about the penalty decisions. Rodgers was similarly generous, talking with some emotion about his own Reading connections.
The days since have seen the Swans being “the first Welsh team in the Premier League” – a typical “football began in 1992” factlet – recited almost as often and irksomely as the fabled £90m. Concealed behind it are more notable achievements. The Swans are the first team ever to rise from fourth to first twice – pretty cool, until you remember what had to happen in between to make it possible.
This bout of upward mobility has had a more deliberate rhythm – promotions in 2005, 2008, 2011 – than the express-lift experience of the late 1970s and early 1980s. And where that was associated entirely with John Toshack, building on the decent but still Fourth Division inheritance bequeathed by Harry Griffiths, the modern Swans have had five different managers in the eight years since Hull, a turnover more usually associated with failure. Continuity has been provided by chairman Huw Jenkins, building a club culture emphasising financial continence, good football and managers who fit into established practice, rather than the traditional model of managers defining clubs in their own image.
Much was rightly made of the noisily, occasionally tuneful and unquestionably passionate commitment of Swans fans to their club, but few reports noticed that they own nearly 20 per cent of it. The Swans Trust appoints a director and his predecessor is now vice-chairman. Together with the return of Wimbledon to the League, it was a good couple of weeks for the supporters’ trust movement.
Amid the excitement comes the sobering achievement of seeing something you know and care about fed into Sky’s cliche-generating machinery. Swans fans can look forward to watching Saturday night highlights 15 minutes earlier, as coverage at the start of The Football League Show gives way to contesting the final Match of the Day slot with Wigan, and to being roundly patronised and squeezed into identikit storylines like the emerging narrative portraying the Swans as Blackpool with a Celtic fringe.
The challenge when the going gets tough, as it doubtless will, will be for Jenkins – or more monied directors who might think they could do his job better – to remember what has got the club so far and resist inevitable calls for changes in style or management, and panicky January signings.
An old friend, a fellow journalist speaking from experience as a Reading fan, had said pre-match: “The trouble is that while everybody wants to get into the Premier League, being in the Championship is more fun.” He’s probably right but, hell, somebody has to go up.
From WSC 293 July 2011