Former player has been a key figure at the Swans since thee 1970s
8 January ~ It is of course the oldest play in the book. When in adversity, or simply out of alternatives, turn to Old Faithful, the loyal family retainer. And certainly Swansea City’s decision to stick with Alan Curtis as acting manager has something of that. But to see him in those terms is to rather underestimate his importance to the club and its sense of itself.
If any individual can be said to incarnate an institution as complex and diverse as a football club, Alan Curtis is Swansea City. He is the third in a line of key individuals who represent a chain of continuity stretching back more than 90 years to the Swans’ earliest days as a Football League club. None wanted to be manager, but all three ended up doing the job.
Joe Sykes, signed from Sheffield Wednesday in 1924 and captain of the 1925-26 team whose fifth place in Division Two and FA Cup semi-final represented a pre-John Toshack high point, was still around at the age of 69 – having done just about every job at the club in the interim – to take charge when Glyn Davies was fired with the Swans on the way to the Fourth Division for the first time in 1967.
Sykes’s footballing philosophy was a key influence on the Swans’ remarkable – Ivor Allchurch, Cliff Jones, Mel Charles et al – post-war explosion of talent. Among the lesser lights, although a decent player by any other standards, was Harry Griffiths whose reluctant accession came early in 1975 with the Swans on the way to applying for re-election. His achievements, before giving way with considerable relief to John Toshack in 1978 – then dying suddenly in the club treatment room only a few months later – included nurturing the Swans’ best crop of talent since the 1950s, including the young Alan Curtis.
Curtis was to that generation what Allchurch was to his, the brightest of a very bright group. It could be argued that he slightly under-achieved as a player. But his performances in the Swans best-ever league season, 1981-82, and in particular his opening day goal against Leeds, show a player who in that year was second only to Kenny Dalglish as a lethally creative attacker. That alone would guarantee his place in club history. But it is his contribution since as the successor to Sykes and Griffiths in roles as varied as community officer, pre-match entertainment host and assistant manager which have enshrined him as one of its key figures.
He has filled in as manager before, always briefly and apparently reluctantly. That strange verdict "too nice" – is this really a job only suited to sociopaths? – has been widely applied. Too sensible and rational appears nearer the mark, although his warmth and decency are not in question. It says much about him that on the day in 2001 when he was sacked along with manager John Hollins, he still took time out to donate a signed shirt for a supporters’ trust auction.
It is unlikely he is any keener this time. He is 61, and has been close enough to a succession of Swans managers to see what the Premier League spotlight can do to them. Social media has supplied the predictable "you’re going down" flood of kneejerk derision – exactly as it did two seasons ago when chairman Huw Jenkins turned to Garry Monk.
And this appointment makes just as much sense as that one. It is a holding operation. Had Jenkins been able to find the right permanent appointment, it would not have been necessary. But in want of the right man, there was no point in a panicky appointment of the wrong one. Bad permanent managerial appointments are rivalled only by panicky January buys as a way of turning disappointing Premier League seasons into a full-on trashing of a club.
Whatever comes out of this season, Jenkins will be determined that it should not undermine the club culture and practices which have underlain the transformation of the last 12 years. There will always be a need to adapt, review and fine-tune, but the fundamentals remain sound. If Jenkins, who has worked with Curtis for more than a decade, did not think him up to it he would not have been appointed. He may be understated and decent but, as Brian Flynn, Kenny Jackett, Paulo Sousa, Michael Laudrup and Monk could all confirm, is ruthless in such assessments. And after 12 years and seven managers, we’re still waiting for him to make a mistake.
There is of course a troubling asterisk to all of this. Sykes could not prevent relegation in 1967 nor Griffiths re-election in 1975, although he subsequently built the foundations for Toshack’s remarkable success at the club. But their environment was rather different. The club they inherited was almost comically ill-run and their predecessors were among the worst managers in its history. Neither remotely applies this time.
And the early signs were not bad. How one views the two defeats in Manchester is a choice of emphasis between a clear upturn in performance and the concession, so often a sign of a team in trouble, of late deciders. But the three clean sheets in between were a reminder of one element in Curtis’s heritage – his time as assistant to Hollins. It was a period when Swans fans learnt, against all previous conditioning, to relish the ground-out 1-0 and saw the lowest ever goals-for total, 51 in League Three in 1999-2000, by a title-winning team. If that is what it takes…
Come summer he’ll presumably give way to somebody who really does want the job, having given Jenkins the time to make that possible. And whatever the outcome, his standing as a cherished club legend is secure. Huw Richards