14 November ~ Last time Middlesbrough visited the Liberty Stadium, in August 2009, they looked every inch the Premier League team on sabbatical, 3-0 winners over a Swansea team still destabilised by the departure of Roberto Martínez. Nobody would have been surprised if Boro had ended the season with promotion while the Swans sank into League One. Neither, of course, happened. Instead, Boro return 15 months on with the positions reversed. Swansea's recent surge may have been checked with a midweek defeat by Bristol City while Boro have dragged themselves out of the bottom three, but there is little doubt which of the two is looking optimistically upwards and which peering down with fear.
Nobody will be more aware of that transformation than Middlesbrough's Marvin Emnes. The stunning goal he scored in their 3-0 win proved as misleading as everything else about that day at the Liberty – he did not score again until he went on loan to Swansea a few weeks ago. While he's now back with Boro, he left happy memories at the west end of South Wales, above all the winner in last week's victory at Cardiff City. This was a derby that for once mattered as much as we were told, with the win not only keeping Cardiff and QPR within range, rather than disappearing into the distance, but also happening in a manner underlining the growing belief that this team has a real shot at emulating its John Toshack-led predecessor of 1981 by winning promotion to the top league.
To be in with a serious chance of being the first team to rise from fourth to first division twice is not an unmixed blessing – you have to have had the much less enjoyable return journey in between – and it inevitably raises comparison with the first time. That feat was wholly associated with Toshack, building on the decent but still Fourth Division-foundation left him by Harry Griffiths. Brendan Rodgers is, by contrast, Swansea's fourth manager in three and a half years, a statistic more usually associated with decline. That both Martínez and Paulo Sousa were tempted away by apparently better offers illustrated just one possible check on upward mobility, the loss of talent.
That progress has been maintained suggests somebody else is getting things right. The Swans board have shown an impressive ability to find the right man at the right time. Rodgers is the fifth manager since Brian Flynn arrived on a night that saw the Swans defeated at Boston to slide to the bottom of the league, and every one of them has taken the club forward. You need a touch of luck – Rodgers would probably not be manager now if Sheffield United had been prepared to entertain an approach for Gary Speed, then coach and now a somewhat troubled rookie manager, but there has been an underlying sureness of judgment reflecting the good sense shown elsewhere.
If there was also good fortune in Swansea's overall environment, in particular a supportive local council whose construction of the Liberty revolutionised their commercial potential, they have built intelligently on their luck. Supporters' trust involvement, a 20 per cent holding and a place on the board, and rooted determination to live within their means mean that even if the current upward surge may not match Toshack's high tide of sixth in Division One nor is any subsequent decline likely to be quite as catastrophic.
Sensible finance, good appointments and decent football is not, of course, a formula unique to Swansea. We can look at West Brom, Burnley and, in particular, Doncaster, who have come an even greater distance, and recognise something of ourselves. Rodgers can certainly look at other Championship managers – not least Sousa and Speed – and think himself fortunate in his inheritance, a group of players who had grafted Sousa's defensive disciplines on to the pure footballing instincts ingrained under Martínez. Early indications are that he's a gifted synthesiser of the two, with his own added value. Scott Sinclair is the most exciting player we've had in years, while the conversion of Mark Gower into a defensive midfielder has been a tactical stroke to match Martínez's parallel conversion of Leon Britton three years ago.
Of course there are always worries. Why do we struggle to win at the Liberty with one win in four recalling similarly barren runs in otherwise very good seasons? What's up with midfielder Darren Pratley, the key variable in team performance in reason seasons? There may be substance to the suggestion, in a notably generous and perceptive match report on a Cardiff website, that the playing style is just a little too deliberate to worry the very best teams. But that home run has been accompanied by four consecutive away wins, the team has proved – notably at Cardiff – that it can if necessary play without Pratley and how to cope with Premier League-level opposition remains a hypothetical.
Of course it could all go horribly wrong. You can get most things right and still lose. But for the moment the only real reason Swansea fans have to complain is that there is almost nothing to complain about. Given the importance of moaning to most fans' mental equilibrium, that's surely not healthy in the long run. Huw Richards