Tuesday 26 March 2019

Potter trying to piece broken Swans back together in chaotic environment

It is sobering to think that the best part of £45m was wasted on Sam Clucas, Wilfried Bony (p) and André Ayew. Photo: Scott Heavey/PA Wire
It is sobering to think that the best part of £45m was wasted on Sam Clucas, Wilfried Bony (p) and André Ayew. Photo: Scott Heavey/PA Wire

Stuart James

As the clock ticked down on deadline day last month, and chaos reigned behind the scenes at Swansea City, Connor Roberts tweeted a gif showing Milhouse, a character from The Simpsons, throwing a frisbee to himself in the park. The Wales international removed the post not long afterwards but the inference was clear: Swansea's players were feeling every bit as disillusioned as the supporters.

Swansea were doing what Swansea now have a reputation for doing on deadline day - shifting everything they possibly can. The same happened last August, when four players departed in the final 24 hours of business. On that occasion it was the turn of the top scorer, Oli McBurnie, to post a soon-to-be-deleted message on Twitter expressing his bemusement.

Plenty of others felt the same. Privately, players are dismayed at the way the club is being run and feel disappointed for the manager, Graham Potter, as much as themselves. Leroy Fer, the captain, was so frustrated with the prospect of Daniel James leaving in January that - and this was before the deadline-day fiasco when the plug was pulled on the winger's move to Leeds at the last minute - he telephoned Swansea's owners, Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien, to ask what was going on.

Perhaps at this stage it is worth pointing out to anyone who has taken a break from football for the last three years that Swansea, who host Brentford in the FA Cup fifth round today, are no longer the model club they once were. Huw Jenkins, who was a hero when he presided over the club's rise through the leagues, was cast as a villain by the time he resigned as chairman a fortnight ago, after a breakdown in his relationship with the owners.

As for Kaplan and Levien, it has been a disastrous two and a half seasons under their watch and the harsh reality is that the wording on the cover of the latest edition of the Swansea Oh Swansea fanzine probably sums up how the vast majority of supporters feel about them: "Get out of our club".

Physically, they are rarely in it. Decisions are made from the other side of the Atlantic and apart from appointing Potter, who has given the team their identity back and galvanised the fanbase, it is hard to think of much else Kaplan and Levien have got right. The strategy since relegation has been cuts, cuts and more cuts. Or, to borrow the Americans' phrase, "hard medicine". Sixteen senior players have left and only five have arrived. When the summer transfer window closed, Potter was left with only one senior central defender after two were sold on deadline day.

Backed into a corner, Potter has relied on youngsters to such an extent that Swansea, who spent seven seasons in the top flight and were relegated from the Premier League last season, are fielding a team in the Championship that, in terms of the age of their players, resembles that of a club operating on a shoestring in League Two.

Before this weekend's matches - and this is an extraordinary statistic - players aged 23 and under had racked up 17,357 minutes for Swansea in the Championship this season, the third-highest total across the 72 Football League clubs behind only Yeovil and Swindon. The other two clubs relegated from the Premier League last season, West Brom and Stoke, are 65th (5,101 minutes) and 71st (2,717 minutes) respectively.

The primary factor in all of this is that Swansea are in a dire position financially, paying the price for a wage bill that was allowed to spiral out of control over the course of several years and a series of calamitous signings during their last season in the Premier League in particular. Each party will cite mitigating circumstances but the reality is that Jenkins and the owners - not one or the other - have their fingerprints on that mess.

It is sobering to think that the best part of £45m was wasted on Sam Clucas, Wilfried Bony and André Ayew, and £25m on wages, loan fees and transfer fees for Renato Sanches, Tammy Abraham and Roque Mesa. Swansea wrote off millions when they sold Clucas to Stoke in that deadline-day fire sale in August. Bony was earning £4.5m a year in the Championship until a heavily subsidised loan move was agreed in January - the Ivorian had no relegation clause in his contract - while no permanent buyer could be found for Ayew last summer.

Bony and Ayew, incidentally, were August and January deadline-day signings last season. For an image of Swansea's approach to transfers during that turbulent campaign, picture a bloke dashing down Oxford Street as the shops prepare to close on Christmas Eve, buying the wrong present for his wife and overpaying at the same time. Then later finding out nobody else wants it.

Worryingly for Swansea, Ayew, who is on loan at Fenerbahce, will still have two years to run on a lucrative contract when this season is over. Borja Bastón, who was the £15.5m club-record signing until Ayew rejoined from West Ham, is also out on loan - the Spaniard has started only four league games for Swansea in three years - and under contract until 2020. Jordan Ayew, Jefferson Montero and Tom Carroll, on loan at Crystal Palace, West Brom and Aston Villa respectively, also have deals that run for another 16 months. The same applies to Nathan Dyer and Kyle Naughton.

All of which means that as much as Swansea want to press the reset button, they cannot leave the pain of their financial profligacy in the Premier League behind, and that has damaging ramifications for Potter. It is understood there is another £30m hole to fill in the summer, even allowing for a second parachute payment, and it is hard to see how selling the players listed above - if buyers can be found - would make much of a dent in that figure.

With Swansea's owners unwilling or unable to put any money in themselves to cover that shortfall ("We will be relentless in our determination to continually improve this club, and we have the financial resources to do so," was the dubious claim made by Kaplan and Levien after they became majority shareholders) the concern is that Potter will have to sell one or more of the youngsters who have thrived under him and played with the sort of hunger and passion that restores the faith of supporters.

It is remarkable then that despite all this doom and gloom, the off-field distractions and the clear sense that things could get worse at Swansea before they get better, Potter continues to diligently go about his work, refusing to sound downbeat and remaining totally committed to the job that he took on last summer. He is the glue holding a broken club together.

Observer

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