Play again. It’s the command Michael Laudrup heard twice in the last two weeks. It’s a surreal phrase, one that makes fans grind their teeth, exhale a relief sigh, or something in-between. We may not know exactly which of the three reactions Laudrup wants to portray deep in his heart after his last two matches, but one deduction is clear: the Swans are willing to hear the order repeatedly in the EPL; it means they’re still soaring.
Swansea City AFC has garnered quite an amount of affectionate attention nowadays. Aside from being a feel-good storyline as the first Welsh club to debut in the Barclays Premier League, the Swans have made their mark in the league. Led by a potential Spanish superstar, Michu, the Swans have already stunned Arsenal FC and Chelsea FC in the last week alone. Swansea City dominated the Gunners at Liberty Stadium in the first half of their Third Round FA Cup match last week. They overran Arsenal’s frugal-but-better-paid-than-Swansea’s-stars players, making Arsene Wenger’s side feel wobbly and forcing them to push in the second half. While the Swans fell behind 2-1 late in the match, Laudrup’s team scored an 87th minute goal to force a replay at the Emirates on Wednesday. Newcomer’s 1–Ancients 0.
And what do bulls do when they knock down the matador? Well, apparently they go after a fitter one. Just three days after drawing with Arsenal, Swansea headed into the belly of the beast – Stamford Bridge – and took down the surging Chelsea in their League Cup Semi-final, blanking the Blues while scoring two. The reigning European champions, who won five of their last six matches, came home after a 5-1 FA Cup drubbing of Southampton, looking to take a strong lead in the first leg of the Semi-final to move closer to their first trophy of the season. Such odds stood in the way of the Swans, facing a deeper wallet and 11 notable names that took the pitch compared to the two or three stars for Welsh club. Purpose, momentum, and talent; yet, it’s the Welsh club that takes the two-goal advantage into their second-leg match. Newcomer’s 2–Ancients 0.
Swansea City is not without their upsets to major Premiership teams since their promotion to the bigs: Beating Arsenal, 3-2, last January in the EPL; defeating the eventual EPL champs, Man City, 1-0, last March; taking down the Gunners again, 2-0, at the Emirates a month ago; and handing Liverpool two losses the last two seasons – including a triumph at Anfield. Seemingly, every time a major fixture comes around and the Swans are predicted to lose, the former Swansea Town produces an upset. They’re fickle without superstars, even less known a team than Stoke City or Queens Park Rangers.
Of course, the Swans aren’t without their flaws. Their repertoire lacks the firepower that many other superpower Premier League clubs posses. Their only legitimate scoring threat is Michu, who has scored 16 goals on the season. One player to carry the offense of an entire club, and he isn’t a Robin Van Persie. And as many Arsenal supporters know, one crack in the ankle, one overextended leg, one harsh hit, and scoring from that single star, along with the entire team’s goals, are gone. Without a defense that allows a goal every ten matches, the anemic offense makes Swansea City a liable Premier League club. There’s no dearth of clubs that broke into the EPL after decades of sweat and effort only to collapse back into the lower divisions due to their low and negative goal differences. Swansea has only posted a goal difference of five up to now, more than 20 points lower than the league-leading Red Devils.
Regardless of the concerning statistics, though, Swansea City is in a prime position to at least stay in the Premiership. A little past the halfway mark in the 2012-2013 season, the Swans are in a stunning ninth place in the league table with 29 points. The biggest teams – Manchester City, Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, and more – are still ahead of the Swans, but just barely. The Welsh side is just seven points behind fifth-place Everton and the boon of European competition.
Even though Swansea City is unlikely to make European competition anytime soon, they have already feasted on their first year-and-a-half among England’s superlative. In their introductory Premier League campaign, the Swans created a windfall of economic profit for Wales: nearly £60 million. Jobs, club-related profit, tourism for visiting fans, all this was the byproduct of the spotlight of the biggest football stage on Earth. And if an EPL team turns the old clubs on their heads on a consistent basis, then crick, all noggins will turn and the money will roll in as the team garners more fans to purchase their products. That’s the love Wales has for Swansea. They’re the football focus of the entire country. England may be divided among the red, blue, gold and other colors of the home-grown top-flight English teams, but a huge chunk of the Welsh watch Swansea City play, their only personal talent on the world stage. As much of a foreign game the Barclays Premier League has become with players hailing all across the world on the clubs, England still craves and loses its marbles for their representing teams. Wales is no different. The smaller an area is, the more devoted it can be for its sports teams.
The path is still young. The Swans are traversing a winding trail in the grittiest, most physical football league in the world, scuffling tooth-and-nail with clubs with resources that overwhelm Swansea’s. They maintained in their first season, earning the right to stay among England’s best – and not just barely surviving. Whether or not they succumb to the enormous amount of competition in the EPL remains to be seen. Swansea isn’t Liverpool, nor Arsenal, nor Manchester United, teams whose historic worst aren’t enough to leave their cemented league. Yet, these Swans aren’t reeling back; they’re connecting jarring blows to the big monsters of England, making them pause. It’s a lengthy process to become a staple in the EPL, one that will take at least another decade for Swansea to truly enter the elusive club. But who cares? At the moment, Swansea City is satisfied. They’re content hearing that order again and again, a call that says the football pride of Wales is soaring: Play again.