Michael Laudrup was hardly short of admirers when he took the decision to relocate to Wales last summer. This particular move always had the feel of a stunning coup, and somehow brought to mind the sense of impressed surprise to see the plain kid turn up at a party with somebody eye-catching on their arm and supposedly out of their league. Swansea City had done wonders in steadily improving themselves over the past few years, but for them to land a man of Laudrup’s reputation certainly raised some eyebrows.
Having said that – and it seems absurd now to admit it – scanning through Laudrup’s managerial experiences before he arrived at Swansea, and noticing a pattern of short term appointments which generally ended abruptly, it was reasonable to be skeptical about what his alliance with the Swans would bring. His stature as one of the most gifted players of his generation was no guarantee of coaching happiness. Laudrup’s management started brightly with Brondby in his native Denmark. He then spent a promising year at Getafe in Madrid only to resign after a season, had a turbulent few months with Spartak Moscow before being sacked, and spent a year at Mallorca before quitting because of poor relations behind the scenes.
So much for the raised eyebrows and the skepticism… A few months into his spell at the Liberty Stadium, seeing Swansea raise the first trophy in their history, and their players hoisting Laudrup up into the air following a 5-0 win against Bradford at Wembley, the sense of contentment was powerful. This was not just a case of Swansea being overwhelmed with gratitude to Laudrup. The feeling was mutual. This calm and stylish manager wanted to make it clear that he was just as grateful for the experience Swansea have brought to him. He has thrown himself into this story, it has got under his skin. So much so, a man who won the European Cup, who conquered Serie A with Juventus, La Liga with Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Eredivisie with Ajax, felt compelled to say that the little ol’ League Cup with Swansea is no less meaningful.
In typical Laudrup style, he was drawn only to talk in a way that made sense to him. He didn’t think a comparision was useful. "But to win with a smaller team, like Swansea…the first major trophy ever is up there with the best things because it’s completely different," he said. That difference, that feeling of being part of what he defined as a fairytale, has been invigorating. Right now, the morning after the celebratory night before, Laudrup and Swansea look like a perfect fit.
There is a logic to the way Laudrup works that has struck a big chord with Swansea. He has been smart enough to take all the good things which provided the platform for an excellent debut season in the Premier League last year, and add some clever embellishments and adjustments to a gameplan that already had a strong identity. There was a touching interview with one of Swansea’s most influential players, Leon Britton, out on the pitch after the final whistle. "We did what we’ve always done: Pass the football," he said. The expression on his face as he said it suggested that was the most natural thing in the world.
Swansea are well liked beyond their own town because they play a beautiful brand of football. That is not the easiest ambition for a club working on limited resources. And they have scalped some far grander and wealthier clubs in their own, stylish way. They have left Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all well beaten on their own grounds this season.
Off the pitch they are extremely well run, and partly owned by their own supporters, which is another reason why they are making waves. Swansea do things their way – and it is a very impressive and very likeable way.
But how far can they go? Can they continue the upward trend? Is there a case to wonder if they might profit in Europe next season, or push further up the Premier League towards the Champions League positions? For a club that was on the verge of extinction a decade ago, they have earned the right to keep looking up.
But one difficulty that has marked Swansea’s climb up the football ladder is the problem of keeping hold of aspiring managers. Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez, now of Liverpool and Wigan, were both tempted away after leading Swansea to a promotion party. They were both in situ in south Wales for roughly two years only.
Laudrup’s serene success must make the Swansea hierarchy worry that their man will be picked off again sooner or later. The manner in which he has subtly upgraded the team, and turned them into trophy winners, will not go unnoticed when the elite clubs are in position to draw up short lists for new managers.
Although Swansea have proved themselves experts at picking new managers, it would be nice to have some kind of stability, and a long term plan, to see how much further they can all journey together, with Laudrup steering the smooth white limo.