Last time out we had a look at Wolverhampton Wanderers and the club’s fall and rise and everything in between over a two-decade spell starting in the mid-1970s. Today it’s the turn of Swansea City to come under the spotlight and in particular the club’s meteoric rise and crashing fall in a ten-year spell from the late 1970s onwards.
Formed in 1912 as Swansea Town in the midst of what has always been a rugby hot spot, the Swans joined the Football League in 1920 after spending its formative years in the Southern League and picking up the first of ten Welsh Cup victories.
A prolonged spell in the Second Division of 38 years in 40 seasons ensued, with further Welsh Cup successes and a couple of subsequent short-lived European sojourns before relegation in 1965 saw the onset of a decade or so spent bouncing between the bottom two divisions.
In 1976-77 Swansea, by now renamed ‘Ã‡ity’ following Swansea’s elevation to city status, finished in fifth place in the Fourth Division under the stewardship of Harry Griffiths. It was a disappointment to miss out on promotion, but hopes were high of better days ahead.
The 1977-78 season started accordingly with Swansea up around the promotion hopefuls by the turn of the year, but it was then that Griffiths made the slightly surprising decision to step down. He stated that he simply wasn’t particularly enjoying being manager and he felt the club’s best interests would be better served by bringing in a younger, more energetic face.
Griffiths resigned but with no immediate replacement found, he was persuaded to re-take the reins on a caretaker basis until eventually John Toshack was appointed as player-manager with Griffiths staying on as Toshack’s assistant. Toshack was able to keep the momentum going and with the finishing line in sight, promotion was looking a nailed-on certainty. It was then, however, that tragedy struck Swansea as the 47-year-old Griffiths suffered a fatal heart attack just before a vital promotion clash with Scunthorpe. When promotion was clinched the following week, the club’s success was dedicated to the memory of Harry Griffiths.
John Toshack had enjoyed a trophy-laden playing career with Liverpool before joining the Swans just short of his 29th birthday and although he had fallen down the pecking order at Anfield, he still had more than enough in his locker to contribute regularly on the pitch as well as off it for Swansea City. Calling on some of his old Liverpool contacts, Toshack set about preparing Swansea for life in the Third Division. Old Anfield teammates such as Tommy Smith, Ian Callaghan and Alan Waddle were signed and the Third Division was attacked with gusto.
A tough battle for promotion ensued with Swansea slugging it out the season’s length alongside the likes of Shrewsbury, Gillingham and Swindon Town. Also going for a second successive promotion, however, were Graham Taylor’s Watford side. At the conclusion of hostilities, it was Shrewsbury who were crowned champions with Taylor and Toshack leading their sides to second and third spots in the table respectively.
Still, Toshack continued with rebuilding and he integrated a side with experience and youth. Leighton Phillips, an experienced defender was signed from Aston Villa, and Leighton James arrived from Burnley to add some experience up front and a more than respectable 12th-placed finish was achieved in 1979-80.
The following season, with Toshack now very much managing rather than playing, Swansea made another unlikely push for promotion. In a season dominated by the brilliance of West Ham United who soon broke away from the chasing pack, the two other promotion spots were up for grabs and the race went right to the wire. Notts County were the first team to fall over the line, and so to the last day of the season and it was a straight battle for third between Swansea and Howard Kendall’s Blackburn Rovers – themselves seeking a second successive promotion.
A final-day 3-1 victory over Preston North End at their Deepdale ground meant that Swansea City had made history and finally reached the top flight for the first time in a 70-year history. It was a truly remarkable achievement to gain three promotions in just four seasons – a feat later repeated by Wimbledon – and no less a luminary than the great Bill Shankly declared Toshack ‘manager of the century’ as a result.
For the inaugural season in the top flight, Toshack further strengthened the Swans with the acquisition of former Everton stars Dai Davies and Bob Latchford. Notwithstanding these signings, Swansea were tipped by just about everyone to struggle and were favourites for an immediate return to the Second Division.
When Leeds United took the lead early in the opening game of the season at Swansea’s Vetch Field stadium, it looked as if the doomsayers might well be right and it could be an indication of things to come. By the end of the 90 minutes, however, they were singing a different tune as a Latchford hat-trick was instrumental in a 5-1 victory.
Far from being overawed at their new-found status, Swansea embraced it and victories over sides such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham soon followed. As the season progressed it became clear that far from struggling, Swansea were actually in the title hunt. Having led the First Division on several occasions during the campaign, on March 20, 1982, Swansea sat atop the league table a point clear with games in hand on second-placed Southampton and only a dozen matches to go. It seemed that there just was no end to the crazy rollercoaster ride that Toshack had engineered.
Unfortunately for Swansea, an awful run-in saw the team only take a further 13 points from the remaining dozen games and the side fall away to finally finish sixth. Toshack subsequently blamed to side’s drop in form on the fact that he had been offered the position of Liverpool manager in March and that had destabilised both he and the club in general. When Bob Paisley’s Liverpool team subsequently went on one of their traditional late-season charges and ended up taking the title, Paisley changed his mind about retiring and the offer to Toshack was rescinded.
Toshack believed the hangover from this affair was to have a detrimental effect on him and the whole club and was at least partly responsible for Swansea’s sudden downturn in form the following season.
1982-83 was a struggle from start to finish and far from challenging again at the top end of the table, Swansea were embroiled in a relegation dogfight it soon became apparent they were not going to prevail. At the season’s conclusion, Swansea were second from bottom and seven points from safety.
It was a massive anti-climax following the glory years of three promotions in four seasons, but still, nobody had any inkling of the horrors that were on the horizon. The energy of previous campaigns now seemed non-existent and unable to get any footing or consistency going in the Second Division, an even worse season followed and a truly pitiful 29 points from 42 games was the best the Swans could muster.
Toshack left the club at the end of October 1983 with the side already in desperate trouble only to be given his job back less than two months later. This time he lasted another eleven games and even pulled his boots back on for a few matches such dire straits the club was in. When Toshack again left the club with relegation all but a certainty in March 1984, his temporary successor, coach Les Chappell, was installed as the club’s fourth manager of the season.
Back down into the Third Division then, and Colin Appleton was handed the managerial reins and tasked with at least halting the slide through the divisions. After just 22 games and four wins, though, Appleton too was shown the door and in walked John Bond, fresh from an underwhelming season in charge of third-flight Burnley. Releasing some of the younger players in favour of experienced signings, Bond was just about able to push Swansea over the line and avoid the ignominy of being relegated three seasons in succession.
Not popular amongst the by now dwindling Vetch Field faithful, Bond started the 1985-86 season in similarly poor fashion and by Christmas 1985 he too had gone. Worse than that, though, was the fact that the club itself very nearly ceased to exist at all around the same time. Battling against winding-up orders issued at the behest of unpaid creditors, Swansea were in very real danger of being liquidated and going out of existence altogether as the winter nights drew in. It was only the last-minute intervention of local businessman Doug Sharpe that saved the club from going under.
Saved off the field, the side went from bad to worse to awful to oh-come-on-this-is-not-even-funny-anymore and in May 1986 under the stewardship of Tommy Hutchinson the club was relegated once again and so found itself back where it had all began just eight years previously.
Swansea City the club was in a total mess. The ground had fallen into a state of disrepair, the fans were voting with their feet and gates were a fraction of what they had been just a few short years earlier, and all-in-all it was a very long way from the heady First Division table-topping days.
The next two decades went by in a blur of mediocrity on and off the pitch. Players, managers and owners came and went as the club once more bounced around between the bottom two divisions interspersed with some cup success in the Football League Trophy. The nadir football-wise was reached in 2002-03 when only a last-day victory at home to Hull City prevented Swansea from being relegated out of the league altogether.
This was to be as bad as things got, however, and two years later the Swans were promoted and thus began another rapid rise through the ranks. Three promotions in seven seasons were not quite Toshack-Esq but were not far short and the League Cup, Swansea City’s first-ever major English trophy was secured in 2013 under Brian Laudrup’s management.
Although relegation back to the Championship was suffered in 2018, Swansea have come close to regaining top-flight status in each of the last two seasons, losing each time to Brentford in the play-offs.