“It’s best to have failure happen early in life. It wakes up the Phoenix bird in you so you rise from the ashes”
The Phoenix is an ancient and mythical Greek firebird that has endured throughout time as the defining symbol of rebirth, renewal and resurrection. The myth goes that when the bird dies, it spontaneously erupts into engulfing flames before being reborn from its own ashes and this completing its miraculous and sensational comeback. For Phoenix, read Swansea City Football Club, for ashes read 2003.
In one of the affectionate quirks that makes sport such a passionate hobby of the masses, all teams and supporters go through ups and downs and highs and lows. Some of course have deeper lows than others and the rare few are lucky enough to experience a constant stream of highs over an extended period of time. United fans, I’m looking at you. However it seems to be that even the smaller clubs will eventually experience their days in the sun even though that may be hard to imagine when all around you is grey, dark and bleak. The only differing component between each club is the length of time they have to suffer before they experience the glory that comes with success. Manchester City fans went 35 years without a trophy and were roundly ridiculed by their neighbours across the city for their drought whilst Rochdale remained in the same dreary division for 36 consecutive years.
Swansea City FC are a club that over the last two generations have experienced great highs and extreme lows, their fans enduring periods of unadulterated joy tempered with prolonged periods of pain. Many clubs can lay claim to being Phoenix-like in their resurgence from the bottom of a seemingly never-ending pit yet perhaps only a rare few have comeback with such aplomb as Swansea City. Whilst you have your AFC Wimbledon’s and Chester FC’s courageously beginning at the bottom of the pile and working their way back up, the chances of them reaching the very top seem long.
Swansea City’s are currently in the second sensational rise of their history and many may consider their current resurgence as one that characterises just what it means to be a fan. Whilst the first surge up the Football League back in the late 1970’s culminated in a season in the top division under John Toshack and has entered local folklore, if Swansea were to complete the so-called fairytale on May 30th at Wembley there will be a new bed-time story for legions of South West Wales schoolchildren for the next few generations. Promotion to the so-called “promised land” that is the uber-capitalist Premier League would be the end product of a long struggle from the seemingly inevitability of closure to unimagined wealth within a decade.
For the uninitiated, the club appeared all but doomed at the turn of the new millennium, their on-the-pitch actions rendered almost irrelevant by off-the-pitch mismanagement. The late 1990’s had been a period of uncertainty as the club cluttered around the lower reaches of the Football League, a position they had maintained since their disastrous fall from the top division some 15years earlier. A rare bright spark during this period was the Division 3 Championship winning campaign in 1999, although even that was badly immortalised in memories as the campaign where fan Terry Coles was killed by a police horse at the title-winning game in Rotherham. The fabled and loved Vetch Field was in disrepair, coaches and players came and went and attendances were dropping.
With spiralling debts in the boardroom, the club was eventually sold in July 2001 by owners Ninth Floor plc to fellow director Mike Lewis for the solitary figure of £1, albeit with the daunting acquisition of the £801,098 loan to the outgoing shareholders. Later in the year an Australian by the name of Tony Petty was at the helm of the club and his reign was so unpopular he was eventually ousted from the club with the kind of venom and vitriol last seen during the Miners’ Strike. Incredibly hated, the club under his stewardship came extremely close to being wound up and declared insolvent. Players wages were not paid, some were sacked, morale dipped and the very real spectre of closure loomed large across the city. Vicious pitch invasions, signs comparing the Australian to Osama Bin Laden and repeated chants against his ownership were common place as the club tumbled down the division. By January 2002 the club was described by Petty to be “very close now to the end of the road” and in one of the most heartbreaking events for the loyal fans, at one point the gates to the Vetch Field were locked and chained in a symbolic gesture of imminent closure.
The controversial Aussie was eventually removed from power that same month when a deal was finally agreed with ex-Swansea stalwart and community man Mel Nurse, members of his consortium and the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust. Although pleased the club was back in local hands, the very real threat of relegation and thus potential extinction still loomed over the club. The 2002-03 started warily, the club hoping to turn a corner but also lumbered with a squad low on talent and experience and it was obvious after the first few games that the hangover from the previous regime would directly impact on how the season would unfold. The club was still in such a financial mess that after the hiring of Brian Flynn as Director of Football and then Manager, the supporters trust had to pay the wages of young Manchester United loanee Alan Tate. Together with another young Premier League loanee in Leon Britton, the squad were adding inexperience if well-intentioned players to their relegation-threatened team and soon found themselves in a battle for their very survival.
All Phoenix’s require destruction via flames before they can be resurrected. In Swansea’s case, the period 2000-2003 was one long and heated blaze. Re-birth would come on the day that could have potentially been the worst of them all. Saturday 3rd May will be the day that will remain in the hearts and souls of all Swansea fans as local-lad James Thomas erupted infront of his home crowd to score the most important hat-trick in club history. Would it be a mere exaggeration to call the 3 goals the treble that saved a club? Witness the scenes of jubilation and relief of that day and the question answers itself.
Surviving by the skin of their necks for at least another year, the re-birth was under way. A bright white Swan masquerading as a Phoenix and beginning its flight up the Football League ladder to battle with giants. From that season, Alan Tate and Leon Britton remain and can complete one of the most incredible sporting rebirth’s in British history should they complete the job on May 30th. Whatever should happen at Wembley, a fantastic footballing team with international players, a profitable bank account and shiny 20,500 seater stadium suggest Wembley would merely be the icing on the cake. When one remembers those padlocks being closed on the Vetch gates merely 8 years ago, it’s great to be a Swansea Jack and if we do go up, it will definitely be great to be back.