The play-offs have become the highlight of the season for many fans of teams in the English lower divisions and the Championship final represents their pinnacle, as it provides a late opportunity for a club to reach the Premier League. This year’s match took on extra significance as it gave Swansea City the chance to become the first Welsh team to play in the Premier League since it was formed in 1992. Brendan Rodgers’ side grasped it with both hands, beating Reading 4-2 in front of a capacity crowd at Wembley after racing into a 3-0 first-half lead, to spark celebrations back home.
It is the first time the Swans have been in England’s top flight since 1983, when they were relegated after a two-season stint. Two decades largely in the wilderness followed for the Swans until a change in fortunes at the beginning of the millennium, with their play-off victory concluding an inspiring run of three promotions. The club moved to a new home – the Liberty Stadium – in 2005 and have not looked back since, enjoying both success and attractive football under now Wigan Athletic manager Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Rodgers.
Former England striker Bob Latchford played for Swansea between 1981 and 1984, including both seasons in the top division, after joining from Everton, who had bought him for a then British record transfer fee in 1974. Although perhaps best known for his time with the Toffees, Latchford was a popular player for City, scoring 35 goals in 87 appearances, and still feels an affinity for the Welsh club.
“I'm absolutely delighted that Swansea have been promoted to the Premier League,” Latchford told FIFA.com. “It's great to see them in the top flight again, it's great for the area and it's great for Welsh football. It's going to be very hard for them, but they've got a good manager and they've got nothing to lose. I'm confident that they'll acquit themselves well and I wouldn't be surprised to see them stay up.
“Throughout the club's history, Swansea have had some pretty dramatic ups and downs and the emotions during that remarkable play-off game certainly epitomised that! When you consider that the club was really struggling financially about ten years ago, they have done remarkably well to reach the top flight once again.
“I just hope that now the club can consolidate itself in the Premier League and avoid a repeat of what happened in the early 80s when they dropped from the first tier to the fourth tier as quickly as they had risen up through the divisions. If they can stay in the top flight for a few years it will give the club some real financial security.”
A history lesson
Latchford is right to preach caution given the troubles Swansea suffered last time they played in the top division. In 1978, the club was in the fourth division and without a manager, following the resignation of Harry Griffiths. His replacement was Liverpool and Wales legend John Toshack, who subsequently presided over an unprecedented run of promotions. Within two years of his arrival, the club were in the second division, and another two years later they reached the top flight. The speed of the Swans’ rise remains a record in English football and their adventure continued, with the league title a genuine possibility in 1982.
“It was a real rollercoaster ride,” Latchford recalled. “In our first game we played Leeds United at home and I scored a hat-trick! The atmosphere at the old Vetch Field on the day was absolutely incredible - and we carried on from there. We were top of the league with just a handful of games to go and we blew it. Eventually we finished sixth, which might have given us a European place these days. Although we did have injuries, I think the truth is that we bottled it. We couldn't cope with the pressure of being league leaders and we became over-anxious. We were relegated the following season.”
Where Swansea had previously been enjoying successive promotions, they were now suffering consecutive relegations. Toshack was sacked and the club was in serious financial trouble, only being saved from complete meltdown by Doug Sharpe, a local businessman. However, it was not enough to prevent City from sinking back to the fourth tier in 1986. They had experienced three promotions and three relegations in eight years - and found themselves right back where they started.
It has taken the Swans 28 years to climb back to the top again and Rodgers is determined to make sure a fall does not happen again. The manager is already planning for next season: "We will need to strengthen, absolutely. It can be a big mistake if you get promoted and you try to do it with the same players. I want to give the players here a chance but we also need to strengthen. I dropped big players this season when I felt it was needed and maybe they expected to play, so it is not sentiment.”
Latchford is in agreement that the club will need fresh players and has urged prospective new arrivals to make the switch to West Wales. “I think what will determine the club’s survival are the buys which the manager makes in the close season,” he added. “He needs to get hold of the right players - at the right price. I think they need to bring in one or two players who either have Premier League experience or experience in other top leagues.
“If any player out there is considering a move to Swansea and isn't sure, I'd say ‘go for it’. On the playing side, the manager seems charismatic and meticulous and they've also got a fantastic new stadium which will be hosting Premier League football. It's a super part of the world and I really enjoyed living there. The fans are wonderful and it’s great to see that every available season ticket at the club has been sold.
“Obviously everyone's circumstances are different, but for a striker in the Championship or for a player who perhaps wasn't playing as much as he would like to at an established Premier League club, I would certainly recommend it. The place seems to have a real buzz about it again and hopefully they can ride that crest of a wave to get off to a very good start when the new season begins.”