RAPID rises are nothing new in the history of Swansea City, but the last was followed by an equally dramatic and sudden fall from grace.
For eight astonishing seasons in the 1970s and 80s, the Swans swapped divisions every summer, rising from the Football League’s bottom tier to its top and back in the shortest possible time.
The latest chapter in the history of the Welsh club has been boring by comparison, taking seven whole years to drag their way up from League Two to the Premier League. But there has been no repeat of the slide which took in a High Court winding-up order on the way. Not only have Swansea stabilised (not that Martin O’Neill believes they are anywhere near being able to take top-flight status for granted), they have progressed, reaching a first League Cup final last week.
They arrive at the Stadium of Light this evening an emerging force in the British game. Sunderland defender John O’Shea has little doubt where the credit lies.
“I think when they lost Brendan Rodgers (who left to become Liverpool’s manager in the summer), people maybe expected them to struggle or have a dip in form but credit to Mr Laudrup,” he said. “He’s playing fantastic football again and they’re getting a little bit more physical as well.”
Tapping the Spanish market for bargains such as Michu, Michael Laudrup has added steel without losing the artistry ingrained under Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Rodgers. Defeating Chelsea in a two-legged League Cup semi-final only underlined the progress.
Many is the team – particularly in the comfort zone of mid-table – to qualify for a final and take their eye off the ball in the league, a competition Michu has not scored in since Christmas.
Laudrup and O’Neill have both reached their fair share of finals as managers and players, and neither has detected any signs it is about to happen to Swansea.
“They got beaten in the FA Cup game (against Arsenal) so they had a little time to prepare and reflect on what they have achieved,” O’Neill recalled.
“It’s terrific, it really is a great achievement them getting to the final. At this moment it probably hasn’t even entered the manager’s head but he must be pretty pleased with how things have gone. I just think it is probably in Swansea’s nature to just carry on in the manner they have.
“They maybe had the League Cup semi-finals on their mind when they went to Everton – not an easy place to go – and drew up there. They will be hard to crack.”
One of the greatest Danes concurs.
“I think when we come closer to the final we will notice some cup fever,” said former Real Madrid and Barcelona player Laudrup.
“But we may play Liverpool the week before the final, which means we will have four league games before the final. Three will be away, against Sunderland, West Ham and Liverpool.
“They are important games for us, and I don’t expect to see a reaction from the team as they have shown me after great performances they can keep it up for the next game.
“It does not mean we will get a result, as they need the three points, but if we keep that level everything is possible for us. We have always said survival is the priority and we still need some points to be sure of that.”
O’Shea, though, takes heart from the recent history between the two, Sunderland unbeaten since the Swans joined the Premier League.
“Fingers crossed we can catch them at home, because when we played them down there earlier on in the season we felt we probably should have won the game (instead they drew 2-2),” he said. “If we can get the same result as we did last season (a 2-0 win), it would improve our position even more.
“They have had a cup game to think about while we had a free week to rest and prepare. That will help us a lot going into the game, but we’ll be full of confidence after back-to-back wins.” Even more so because the last – at Wigan – was their first after conceding the opening goal under O’Neill.
“The manager has always spoken about the team and the belief in the squad we have, and the characters in the dressing room,” said O’Shea. “We can respond to a bit of pressure and hold out. Wigan are under a bit of pressure themselves but they played a lot of good football and kept us under the cosh for quite a bit.
“If we had been a little bit more clinical it would have been a bit more comfortable for us. We had some great counter-attacks but we couldn’t kill them off and we had a few hairy moments towards the end.”