In May 2011 Swansea City became a Premier League club. An unfashionable team from South Wales but a side that played modern, attractive football under their young manager Brendan Rodgers. This achievement prompted wider interest as, curiously, the club was owned by a consortium of local fans with supporter representation on the board guaranteed through the fans’ trust.

Having spent the previous 30 years or so in the lower divisions, Swansea’s Premier League promotion felt like the gate-crashing of a party. But by interlopers who improbably had all the right wristbands and lanyards, despite the extreme suspicion of the bouncers.

Play-off final

Beating Reading at Wembley in the Championship play-off final was the unanticipated culmination of a project with very humble origins. Initially centred around the modest but critical ambition of simply keeping the club in existence. Promotion to English football’s top table came just eight years after the Swans found themselves 90 minutes from losing their Football League status. An ascent that at times caused heads to shake in disbelief.

Played at Swansea’s beloved old ground The Vetch Field, and in circumstances so different to the rarefied air of the modern-day Championship, the desperate final game of the 2002-03 season now seems to belong to a completely different era. A sepia photograph that’s found itself on Instagram. It’s proof, however, that football clubs can only bounce from one debacle to another for so long before finding themselves on the edge of a precipice.

Tony Petty

Swansea had in fact won the Third Division in 1999-2000, but that seemed like a distant memory by 2003. In 2001 the club was sold for £1 to Tony Petty, a businessman based in Australia, who then announced that almost the entire first team squad were to be sacked or forced to take enormous pay cuts. This led to supporter protests. And eventually the club was wrestled from his control by a consortium of fans headed by the former player Mel Nurse, with the club being put into a Company Voluntary Agreement.

Petty was eventually given £20,000 in cash from a carrier bag for his trouble. And a group of supporters with no previous experience of running a football club found themselves in charge of the Swans. Having limped to a 20th place finish in 2001-02, Swansea began the following season terribly. Propping up the Football League for the first time in their history, and the player-manager Nick Cusack was eventually sacked in September 2002.

Brian Flynn

During the Petty crisis, Cusack had shown exceptional leadership as the PFA representative but things were looking desperate on the pitch. Enter Brian Flynn. A fine Wales international in the 1970s and 80s, Flynn was later to play a crucial role in the development of the golden generation that took Wales to a Euros semi-final in 2016. But in 2002 Flynn’s job was straightforward. Overhaul a poor team and keep the club’s Football League status.

Blessed with guile and an almost immeasurable knowledge of the lower leagues, Flynn made signings who were to change the course of the club’s history. Including Roberto Martínez and Leon Britton, with the 20-year-old Britton’s wages being paid for by a bucket collection from the fans. As the club had no bank account and was operating in a financial position so parlous it made anyone brave enough to look at the balance sheets lightheaded.


Results gradually improved. But a squad wounded by the bitter takeover battle and lacking in quality found itself hobbling towards the end of the season, unable to escape the threat of relegation. In the penultimate home game the Swans lost to bottom-of-the-table Exeter. In a match memorable for the deep sense of gloom that pervaded the Vetch at the final whistle. During the half-time penalty shoot-out an oldlooking mascot confidently blasted a spot kick past the outstretched wing of the club mascot Cyril the Swan. Before running to the North Bank and lifting his top to reveal an Exeter kit.

As the dastardly youngster kissed his Exeter badge and stewards shepherded him from the pitch, the North Bank boiled with anger and Swansea’s fate seemed almost comically hopeless. The lifeline of a win against Rochdale the following Saturday ensured everything rested on the final day of the season. Exeter could still stay up, but a Swansea win against Hull at home would guarantee survival.

Football Converence

On the morning of the game I travelled to Swansea with my friend Andrew, and we spent the hour-long journey in total silence. Newspapers went unread as we sat and pondered away trips to Leigh RMI and Margate. During the week some fans had attempted to look on the bright side, pointing out the Football Conference contained many of the old Division Three sides Swansea used to play anyway, and it would be nice to tick off a new ground with a visit to Gravesend and Northfleet.

People argued the Petty era was more threatening to the existence of the club, and being wound up in the High Court in December 1985 meant we’d been in more precarious positions. After all, to go from the Fourth to the First Divisions and back again all within eight years in the late 70s and early 80s meant Swansea fans were used to upheaval. But those words felt very hollow.

The Mel Nurse consortium

The Mel Nurse consortium had created real optimism off the pitch. And it felt positive that local people with the club’s best interests at heart were in charge. Especially as another surreal chapter in the Swansea City story had been avoided with a reported takeover by Britt Ekland’s brother falling through. The new ownership was a total reset for the Swans, but non-league football threatened to be a black hole that could swallow the club.

The swirling Welsh rain that Saturday lunchtime gave the walk to The Vetch a foreboding quality. How I wished we were mid-table like Hull, with nothing to play for. I’d had enough of incident and drama. Drama was horrible.

That Final Day

Boyhood fan and local lad James Thomas put Swansea ahead by drilling home a penalty after eight minutes. And an old ground that had seen better days exploded with relief. Peculiarly, Dutch television had decided to follow the plight of both Swansea and Exeter for a documentary. With cameras tracking fans of both clubs in the run up to the final game of the season. Nigel Gigg and his Swansea-supporting family were filmed high up in the East Stand. And as the penalty was awarded Nigel’s 15-year-old daughter Sophie burst into tears at the prospect of Thomas missing.

17 minutes later the entire family were ashen-faced as Hull equalised following a terrible mistake from Swansea’s Lee Jenkins. The documentary subtitles offering some levity as they show the word ‘blunder’ is the same in Dutch and English.

Leon Britton revealed later that Jenkins played the rest of the game in tears, terrified he had relegated his club. The team’s other full-back, Michael Howard, was the next person to commit a costly error as he allowed Hull’s Martin Reeves to put the Swans 2-1 down. Delighted Exeter fans being texted updates on primitive mobile phones and listening to pocket radios caused syncopated waves of  celebration to surge around St James Park.


At this point, Swansea needed a miracle. James Thomas had his nerve tested again as the Swans were awarded an absurdly soft penalty on the stroke of half-time, benefitting from the kind of handball decision that makes VAR seem like a moral imperative. Thomas scored once more, and the Swans were level going into the break. I assume at this point Jeff Stelling used the phrase ‘topsy-turvy’ on Sky’s Soccer Saturday.

It was difficult to argue that football is a branch of the entertainment industry during half-time on the North Bank. News had filtered through that Southend had missed a penalty at Exeter. But the fact it was still goalless in Devon meant that if results stayed as they were, Swansea were safe. Faces were drawn with worry. The idea this was entertaining seemed ludicrous. It was masochism. The defender Lenny Johnrose scored for Swansea early in the second half, beginning a breathtaking 10 minutes that saw Thomas put Swansea 4-2 up, completing his fairy-tale hat-trick with a laughably audacious chip from 25 yards.

North Bank

Celebrations on the old terraced North Bank felt like being put in a washing machine and I found myself 20 yards away from Andrew and stranded, being hugged by strangers as the threat of relegation began to float into the ether. The acoustic qualities of corrugated iron and decaying concrete generated a timbre that is impossible to recreate in a modern ground. Sheer relief and adrenaline gave the roar a quality all of its own.

In my earliest experiences of watching football, I was more interested in what was happening in the crowd than what happened on the pitch. I would have been a fascinated observer of the North Bank as Thomas scored his third. It was chaos, a field study in joy. The celebrations were raucous, as clouds began to lift and memories of singing “You’re Not Fit To Wear The Shirt” after losing 4-0 at home to Kidderminster Harriers began to evaporate.

Final whistle

As the final whistle blew, the pitch was invaded and the players were stripped of their shirts, and the Vetch felt like the most important place on earth. It was exhilaration, but with caveats. We had edged away from the trapdoor. We couldn’t allow ourselves to get that close again.

Brian Flynn stayed until the following March, continuing his knack for era- defining transfer dealings with the purchase of Lee Trundle from Wrexham. A gifted player whose showboating would see the club featured regularly on Soccer AM as we forced our way up the leagues. Persistent knee problems sadly forced the hat-trick hero Thomas to retire the following season. Now he works for the South Wales Ambulance service.

The Hull game was one of the last fixtures of its type in the pre-smartphone age. And the Vetch’s packed terracing made it the kind of occasion that cannot be replicated. The memory still tempers expectation amongst more circumspect members of our support. It was the match that kickstarted an unprecedented period of success for the club. The relief at the final whistle was dizzying and unforgettable. I hope never to experience anything like it ever agin.

Dit artikel verscheen eerder in The Blizzard.