Pass masters Swansea quietly confident back in the big time

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Swansea are back in the top flight for the first time in a generation. Owain Jones remembers the last time clearly... 

To put into context how long Swansea City have been out of English football’s top flight you have to delve into the annals of history.

When the Swans dismantled Leeds United 5-1 on the opening day of the 1981/82 season, Britain was still basking in warm glow of a Royal Wedding which the nation had taken as welcome relief from the economic and social strife, with violent disturbances on the streets of London and a deep recession that had brought the UK to its knees. OK, so much like 2011, then.

And if history has a way of repeating itself, the portents are positive for the Swans, who finished their inaugural season in the First Division in a highly creditable sixth position.

Back to that opener in 1981. It was viewed through the eyes of a football-mad youngster, a week shy of his eighth birthday. Yep, yours truly.

Recollections are sketchy, but I recall struggling to keep up with fans chattering excitedly on the approach to the Vetch Field and for much of the match sitting on my father’s shoulders. I’m told Swansea-born Jeremy Charles ghosted in to score the opener, ‘Big’ Bob Latchford netted a hat-trick and Alan Curtis finished a glorious day in the sun with a goal of individual brilliance. Most vivid of all, however, was ‘Come on you Swans’ being belted out and reverberating around the Vetch. It was as heady a start to First Division life as any supporters could have dreamt.

Swans fans (including Owain?) see Leeds leathered

For fans from the footballing heartlands of Liverpool, Manchester, the Midlands and London, who understandably took First Division football for granted, they have to remember how little top-quality football fans from South Wales had been exposed to. The closest ground to my Cardiff home was Villa Park, 125 miles away: quite a trek for anyone, let alone a young kid.

So to have the likes of Kevin Keegan, Bryan Robson and Kenny Dalglish travelling to Wales in the flesh and not just adorning Panini stickers in playgrounds all over South Wales was a big deal. And not just for Wales’ second city.

Thirty years on and the Swans are back in the big time. While so much has changed in the intervening three decades – the modern Liberty Stadium has replaced the decaying Vetch, while the copper-trading docks have been replaced with gleaming yachts in the marina – there are striking similarities between Tosh’ Class of ’81 and Rodgers’ Class of 2011.

Toshack’s team rose from Fourth to First Division in four years, while the current crop made it in six. Both sides are heavily unfancied and being merrily written off by sections of the football press.

Despite Swansea's cosmetic makeover, the city will always be viewed as (in Dylan Thomas’ words) an "ugly, lovely town", perennially unfashionable to the Premier Leaguen’s billionaires club. Yet you sense that for Rodgers, a down-to-earth, affable Northern Irishman, that tag suits him just fine.

The mood around the city is still disbelieving for fans, still on the crest of the Wembley wave, a fact borne out by more Swansea shirts being sold at 2011/12’s kit launch than during the entire Championship season last year. Speaking to locals, they talk of a ‘buzz’ about the place, and most conversations invariably turn to the Swans before long.

Correspondingly, the word closer to the training ground is that for the manager and players, it’s very much business as usual. While the fans are strapping themselves in for an emotional rollercoaster, the squad are concentrating on the job at hand. After all, focus and determination are the characteristics that catapulted them into the Premier League in the first place.

Their unrivalled passing game is no longer a secret and has been picked up east of the Severn Bridge, where covetous glances have been cast at Swansea’s raison d’etre. Last season’s statistics almost demand a double-take. Passing and possession alone will not guarantee safety, but at 526 passes a game the Swans were nearly 100 ahead of Arsenal’s feted passing game with 428, and light years ahead of Stoke City’s 163.

Their comfort on the ball also saw them average 61% possession, a figure that was matched only by Arsenal in the entire league. On their own turf, you’d be hard pressed to see them changing their style for anybody.

One comparison that needs to be quashed is that Swansea are an identikit of Blackpool last season. They’re not. Swansea are a lot cuter: they finished 10 points higher than the Tangerines in the Championship and play an altogether more sophisticated brand of football.

Certainly the Swans have accepted that squad reinforcements are required, but the reaction has been measured, not hysterical. Brendan Rogers – who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro days after getting promoted – reinforced his ‘always on’ mentality by setting the wheels in motion for Danny Graham's £3.5m signing from Watford just hours after sealing promotion. His attitude has been to get on with it rather than bask in (over?)achievement.

Rodgers' summer transfer dealings have been mixed. It was always going to be a big ask for Euro 2008 winner Marcos Senna to swap Villareal for the Gower, and so it proved because the Swans were unwilling to smash their wage structure for an ageing 35-year-old, even if he was a proven thoroughbred.

There is an economic realism in this part of the country. They know they can’t compete with the Premier League elite, and they’re not going to try. Under chairman Huw Jenkins, they accept they have to crank up wages, but it has to be within pragmatic economic parameters. They already have players who know their jobs intimately and will slot into systems seamlessly; they won't buy players just for the sake of it.

Last August Blackpool panicked and bought five players in three days. However, when last-minute buys failed to live up to expectations, they reverted to the players who’d got them up in the first place, like Charlie Adam and Gary Taylor-Fletcher. Those lessons appear to have been heeded down West.

Swansea have generally bought in the £1m to £3m bracket, picking up the likes of Leroy Lita, stopper Michael Vorm and £2m signing Wayne Routledge. They may yet dip into the market for another winger, as width is integral to how they operate, but it is restrained window-shopping.

Lita gets a pat on the back from the boss

With their opening Premier League fixture against Manchester City just days away, there will be many David and Goliath comparisons. Man City's owners could afford to buy Wales, several times over. On the field, a more pertinent indicator of the wealth gap is that Sergio Aguero’s rumoured £8m annual salary is said to be more than Swansea paid their entire squad last season.

The Swans will have the lowest Premier League wage-bill by a considerable margin. In 2009/10 financial minnows Wolves were bankrolled to the tune of £29m by Steve Morgan, almost double the probable Swans' yearly wage-bill.

Travels to Manchester United and Arsenal will follow City in quick succession, but Rodgers knows visits to Old Trafford and the Emirates are unlikely to yield the points needed to avoid the drop. Early home games against Wigan, Sunderland and West Brom will set the tone for the season as Rodgers attempts to turn the Liberty into a fortress and succeed where teams like Blackpool and Burnley (one season) and Hull (two seasons) have fallen.

Even the most one-eyed of Swansea supporters will be expecting a few painful lessons along the way, but there’s a quiet confidence. Being written off is nothing new. Brendan Rodgers used to joke about the footballing press never making it past Cardiff and his team are happy being underdogs. Dismissing them off-hand would be foolhardy. Blackpool were a breath of fresh air for many reasons, but Swansea will bring a more sophisticated brand of football that should translate better to the top level.

As for playing personnel, expect Ashley Williams to prove himself as a centre-back of Premier League quality, Scott Sinclair to have a point to prove and Dutchman Ferrie Bodde, once fit, to start winning plaudits for his vision and class. Also keep an eye out for homegrown talent Joe Allen, another with the ability and temperament to thrive in the dizzying heights of the Premier League.

One man who knows the Swansea set-up better than most is Media Wales' football correspondent Chris Wathan, who has seen first-hand what Premier League status means to a club which eight years ago couldn't even guarantee survival.

“I was on the open-top bus tour and got a real sense of what promotion means to the city," says Wathan. "I saw an old boy, in his shirt and tie, watching the scenes with tears running down his face. That’s when you realise the magnitude of what they’ve achieved. It won’t hit home until the Swans are on Match of the Day and that novelty will not disappear for a long, long time.”