Many a loyal servant has committed his career to a club and seen success befall them in return, but few can match the sheer magnitude of growth, rather than trophies, that Leon Britton has witnessed since joining Swansea City in 2002.
A fortnight ago the Welsh club dealt ten-man Valencia a humbling blow in the UEFA Europa League with a 3-0 away win, a result, Britton told FIFA.com, that feels “a million miles away from when I first joined the club”. In fairness, you could not blame the 31-year-old for pinching himself just to be sure the last decade has not been an elaborate dream.
Britton was on loan from West Ham United in 2002/03, when only a win over now-fellow Premier League side Hull City would avoid them falling into the fifth tier. A 2-2 half-time scoreline transformed into a 4-2 victory which has sent the Swans on a stunning upward trajectory. The season prior, Valencia were playing in the UEFA Champions League final.
“It's has been unbelievable to think that ten years ago we were struggling to stay in the football league, now fast-forward and we're in the Europa League, in the group stages beating Valencia,” Britton said. “The most optimistic Swansea fan would never have dreamed we'd be where we are.”
Not only the result at the Mestalla, but the manner of the victory thrilled Britton. “The way we controlled the game, even before they went down to ten men, meant it was just an incredible night for the football club,” he said. “When you talk about special moments in the club's history, that night in Valencia will be one we look back on for years to come.”
The result is just another joyous chapter in a recent history that has seen a top ten Premier League finish, a League Cup trophy and promotion via the Championship play-off final. Life in the top division, let alone Europe, was something the passing midfielder thought he would have to leave south Wales for all those years ago, but the club have rarely taken a step back in a decade of consistent growth.
“I've always aimed to get to the top," he explained. "When I started at Swansea I left West Ham to go to play regular football and it has just been incredible to see the club improve year-on-year. Different managers have come in and taken us to a new level, we've moved to a new stadium, and now here I am in the Premier League.”
The fact is they have got there, and made it to their third season in the top flight, while still playing the same slick, possession football that has won them many new fans. Britton believes the succession of men on the touchline – and in the club's boardroom – can take much of the plaudits for that.
“I think the board deserve a lot of credit with the managers they have brought in," he said. "When Roberto joined we changed to a 4-3-3 and it brought the best out of me. Paulo Sousa came in, albeit for a season, then Brendan joined – a manager who it hadn't worked for at Reading six months before, but the board saw how he wanted to do things and took him on. He took us into the Premier League. When he went to Liverpool people thought Swansea couldn't get better and keep on improving, but the board appoint Michael Laudrup and we win our first major trophy.”
Those who have seen Laudrup's side play since he joined a year ago will agree that their style of play does not look set to change either. “Michael was great when he came in," continued Britton. "He said he wanted to carry on the good work Brendan Rodgers and previous managers had done. Of course he wanted to put his own stamp on the side, but the idea was always the same – to play out from the back and through midfield. Hearing this was music to everyone's ears.”
Learning from the best
To many a football fan, the two names that jump out on the list of former managers are those of Laudrup and Sousa – both UEFA Champions League winners and standard-bearers for the quality of European midfielders in the 1980s and '90s. It is no surprise that it was seen as coup when the Portuguese first strode through the doors of the Liberty Stadium.
“When the club appointed Paulo it was a massive thing, as he had won the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund and Juventus, and was a huge name in European football, and here we were at Swansea City getting him in,” Britton recalled. “Now we have Michael Laudrup, who is one of the greatest players of all time, and definitely of his generation.
“We could never have dreamed about having these sorts of names in charge of our football club, but it shows that people on the outside are looking at what we are doing and realise there's something really good going on at Swansea.”
Britton has even earned some comparisons with a midfield great himself, when he ranked above Barcelona maestro Xavi in the pass completion statistics – at more than a 93 per cent success rate - across Europe's top divisions in January 2012. It is a point that sits a little awkwardly with the modest Londoner.
“You can take stats and do what you want with them,” he said with an embarrassed laugh. “A lot was made of it at the time, it was a bit of fun, and I got a lot of stick on training ground for it. It was nice, but you're talking about one of the greatest players at the moment playing for arguably the greatest team of all time. It's not like I let it go to my head.”
Swiss side St Gallen are next up for the Swans in the Europa League, with Kuban Krasnodar of Russia to follow, and complacency is an obvious fear following their Spanish triumph. “If we go on to lose the next four or five games that Valencia win will mean nothing really,” Britton warned.
“It has set the tone for us and shown we can compete in Europe, but we have to use the result as a springboard and not rest on our laurels. We want to go on and win at home against St Gallen next and qualify from the group.”
From the hectic schedule of Premier League and European football, it can be hard to appreciate the magnitude of what has been achieved by Britton and his team-mates, but once he retires he admits he will be able to look back on the legacy he has helped build. “Hopefully there's a few more stories to come though,” he concluded.