Seeing a game at Swansea City would seem, without context, to be a pretty standard English football experience.
Not that it lacks interest or passion or drama — certainly it was the exact opposite when I visited in March 2017, when they were in the Premier League — but if all you know is the gleaming 20,000-seat stadium, packed with supporters, and a team that’s been in the top tier for most of the time you’ve been paying attention, you’re missing a rather amazing story.
A brief history, then: Swansea Town was founded in 1912 and changed its name to City in 1969. They made the top tier for the first time in 1981 and finished sixth, still their highest finish. Then the bottom dropped out. They were relegated in two consecutive seasons, and by 2001 they were in the lowest level of the Football League. Their finances were disastrous, managers were coming and going, an Australian group of owners bought the club and got rid of all the players … dark times. They avoided relegation out of the league and to the Conference only by winning on the last day of the season.
The short version of what happened then is that the supporters — ordinary citizens of Swansea, the ones who live and die with the club — rallied to the cause and purchased a share of the team. Incredibly, 10 years later, they found themselves in the Championship playoff final at Wembley — which they won. From the brink of extinction to the Premier League in 10 years!
A wonderful film was made about this, called Jack to a King. (Jack is a local nickname that comes from the Welsh word for seamen as well as a legendary dog named Swansea Jack who saved 27 people from drowning in the 1930s. There’s a monument to him in town.)
Here is the official trailer for that film:
The Swans, as they are also known, were a mid-table Premier League team from 2013 through 2016, and they won the League Cup in 2013, but when I arrived in March, 2017, they were in trouble towards the bottom of the table. The opponents on the day were Burnley, sitting 11th and having just been promoted the year before — impressive, considering they hadn’t won a game away from home all year. It was game Swansea simply had to win to stay up.
A Loop Through the Past
After spending the morning walking around Swansea and out by the coast, I had to visit the site of the old ground — the one you see in the trailer. Swansea played at Vetch Field — vetch grew on the site before there was a stadium — from 1912 until 2005. Usually these things turn into housing or an Ikea or something. As of right now, the Vetch is a field once again, with a community garden in the middle of a greenspace. It’s a neat place, somewhat haunting, and I started my day with a visit.
A sweet moment: A young woman was walking her daughter and dog, and I overheard her tell the girl, while pointing towards the west end of the space, “I used to sit in that stand right there.” I asked how it was, and she said she was very young then, maybe 10 the last time she came, and then she looked over that way, kind of sighed, and went on her way.
I did, as well — to the posh new Liberty Stadium, which I reached on a city bus packed with people wearing the black and white. I rather envied them the whole rags-to-riches experience.
Get my book from Amazon.com or Powells.com
The Liberty Stadium
It’s a beautiful place, the Liberty — a standard rectangle with 20,000 seats, but somehow it feels cozier than similar places I’ve seen at, say, Reading and Sunderland. Maybe that comes from the feeling amongst the fans, a combination of gratitude to even be here plus, on this day, a sense of urgency to stay there.
Considering the length of the trip (five hours by train, at least four by car), the Burnley fans turned up well. That’s them in a couple of sections just past the white tarp:
At long last, it was time to actually have a game of football! Here are the teams coming out:
Things started out well enough, with Swansea pinging the ball around pretty well and Burnley playing just the way you would expect: sitting back, looking for a break, and basically trying to get a point.
And since Swansea needed all three, they had to go for it — which they promptly did. They came at Burnley from every direction, and fairly early they had a looping header that … the crowd holds its breath … hit the crossbar, then came out into a scramble, fell to another Swansea player, who shot … the crowd starts to yell “Yeah! … and it hits the post. Unreal.
They finally got one, took a deserved lead, hit the crossbar again, and seemed in complete control. And then this happened:
It’s hard to see from that angle, but a Burnley player reached out his arm, hit the ball, and the referee gave it the other way, awarding Burnley a penalty. I have never seen players freak out like the Swansea team did there. And they were right!
Still, Burnley put the penalty away, right in front of their fans — and, as you can hear, to the disgust of the locals. 1-1 and tensions rising.
Tensions got even worse in the second half, when Burnley — on really, just their second chance of the game — got another one and led, 2-1. Now it was crazy time, with less than a half hour to go.
Swansea came at them again and got an excellent goal right in front of me. It went into injury time, Swansea came down the left again, and in came a cross that … well, you have to see it to believe it. I saw it, and I couldn’t believe it. It took so long to reach the head of the striker that we all had time to sort of contemplate it, wonder at it, see the whole thing develop … and then realize Llorente was going up again, and he was going to get it!
A remarkable moment, one of the most amazing I’ve seen in my travels. Here, by the way, is what that last celebration looked like from my seats. I am gutted (great British expression!) that I missed the goal, but I do have Llorente (now with Tottenham) blowing kisses among the pandemonium:
Speaking of celebrations, Swansea’s Youtube channel has a great feature superimposing game moments with fan reactions:
Yep, it was a happy day at the Liberty Stadium — eventually. The Swans did stay up that year, and their amazing story would continue, which means this Jack left happy:
And if you’re into omens, here is what I saw upon walking out of the ground:
Sadly for the Swans, it didn’t last, and adding insult to injury, their arch rivals Cardiff City are in the Premier League — for now. With Swansea staying up and the Bluebirds apparently coming down, Swansea will still be a great place to visit for a game. And with the South Wales Derby back on offer, you really want to get there for that one!