Games against Swansea City have invariably produced classic editions of ‘Who are You?’ and this, I feel, is another. Max Hicks*, Swansea-supporting ESPN writer (yes, that’s where I found him; we’re sort of colleagues there), has two great anecdotes from his day as a Swansea mascot, wishes he’d been around to see Ivor Allchurch, quite likes Sunderland because he’s a fan of Barry Glendenning, wants an all-UK national team and thinks Welsh football is so much the better when Cardiff and Swansea are both in the Premier …
Salut! Sunderland: Ki was a great hit at our place last season until a dip in form and injury towards the end, and seems to have made a fine start to this season. Happy to have him back?
Max Hicks: Yes, though I think I’m in the minority of fans who aren’t completely convinced yet. He’s a good, solid squad player, but too often lackadaisical for my liking (although he’s been trying harder lately), and whilst his passing stats are always impressive, he rarely plays adventurous balls — it’s all simple, short, safe stuff. That’s great for possession purists, but I like expansive risk takers who can break games open. This season, with Leon Britton injured, Ki has been playing alongside Jonjo Shelvey in a sort of double-pivot system, where both players take turns to go forward or sit back, with Ki doing more of the sitting back. For my money, Swansea would be a lot better off with a dedicated destroyer playing alongside either Jonjo or Ki, but that’s a bigger squad issue rather than something which is Ki’s fault.
Early results were excellent for you, making me feel a little less ashamed of how easily you popped our survival party bubble back in May. What’s your prognosis for the months ahead?
I would say the outlook is good. Swansea’s attacking play this season has been much improved — so much so it has managed to compensate or even disguise some defensive issues. I’d be happier if Garry Monk finds a defensive mid and a full back or two in January, but the summer overhaul was generally a big success. I think a top 10 finish is not unrealistic.
Eyebrows were raised at what seemed the absurd sacking of Laudrup last season, though our old friend Jim White, from the Swans Trust, fully understood the decision and I suppose Huw Jenkins feels vindicated by events since. Your thoughts on Garry Monk?
I was worried he would be too inexperienced, that Jenkins’s loyalty and “keep it in the family” attitude would prove costly. I’m pleased to say I was wrong. Monk has been impressive — his squad clearly wants to play for him, and he’s evidentially – (not see that word on here before – Ed) – a quick learner, having shown an aptitude for correcting last week’s mistakes in next week’s match. His summer transfer business was probably the most unexpected part of all — after Laudrup had impressed everyone with his exploitation of the Spanish market, Monk came in and did an even better job of recruitment.
Were you disappointed or inclined to tribal gloating when Cardiff went down? Or did they deserve to purely on the basis of a crazy leadership of the club that attaches little weight to supporters’ sensibilities?
The rivalry thing hasn’t really been an issue since Tan took over at Cardiff. I’ve got friends who are Bluebirds (yes, really), and nearly all of them felt so alienated and angry at Tan’s antics they just stopped caring about the team the way they used to. It’s hard to gloat when half your rivals’ fanbase wants their club to fail too, if only for Tan to leave so they can get their club back. That whole Tan thing aside though, I want the South Wales derby to be a Premier League fixture. It gives Swansea two games a season they know they can’t lose, and I think that’s a good way to keep a club honest. Plus, being involved in such a heated game is the best way for new players to feel part of the Swansea family — it’s a great induction. Scoring a goal against Cardiff pretty much gets you the keys to the city.
Do you now have the feeling of being an established Premier side or do you feel it will always be a case of looking your shoulders?
I don’t think any of what I call the “small 14” teams are ever completely safe, but I do feel that Swansea are at a place now where there will always be three worse sides in the division — on paper at least. That should mean that so long as the Swans continue to do business the right way, recruit sensibly, reinvest transfer fees on appropriate players and so on, they should be able to keep their heads above water.
What has been your happiest moment supporting Swansea?
I know I’m supposed to say Swansea 4 Hull 2, but plenty enough has been made of that already. I’m going to be a little more personal — as a kid, I was lucky enough to be a Swans mascot. I still remember David Hough leathering the ball against the wall of the boot room at the old Vetch field an hour or so before the game. He was terrifying. Just hammering the ball again and again against the wall. I had really wanted to nose around in the boot room, because I had a small fascination with boots back then (still have a thing about them now. Trainers, too.) so I was also a bit disappointed that room was “busy” on the day. It was a fantastic experience overall though.
And the lowest low?
Alright, let’s have some fun with this. That same day I was a mascot, I got to run out on the field with the team and have a small kickabout with them during the warm up, and my first chance ended with an air kick. I just missed the ball completely, and had to endure the crowd (probably only a few thousand tops) “awwing” in sympathy (the women) and laughing (the men) simultaneously. Not exactly a power moment for me.
Who has given you greatest pleasure in Swansea colours, who do you wish you’d been around to see from grand old days – and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
It’s hard to get away from your childhood heroes. I loved Colin Pascoe, Robbie James and Paul Raynor. Of course, this was all division 3 and 4 stuff (in old money), so these are hardly household names. Of the present team, I adore Wilfried Bony. There’s so much to his game, and it’s very amusing watching him invite physical pressure from opponents because he’s impossibly strong. Of the greats — Ivor Allchurch, the Swans all-time leading goal scorer. It’d be great to see him at the height of his powers, especially because he was also part of the only Wales squad ever to make it to the World Cup. I’d also have liked to see the early eighties side — Alan Curtis, Bob Latchford, Leighton James et al, though there’s a bit of televised stuff from that era knocking about which I have seen. As for poor players — call me soft-hearted, but I hate to be critical of Swansea players. There have been plenty that failed to impress for one reason or another, but it’s uncomfortable enough watching somebody struggle without piling abuse on top. I’m a great believer that there’s a club for every player, and if a situation isn’t right, then it’s best to just draw a line under it and move on rather than run someone’s name into the ground.
Cracking Allchurch goal – and amusing goalie strop – from Wales v Hungary, 1958 …
Your thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city and region, Poyet?
I’ll be honest, I don’t know a great deal about the city or the area. However, I’m a big Barry Glendenning fan (of Guardian/Football Weekly podcast fame), and Glendenning is a Sunderland fan, so I have a kind of inherited affection as a result of listening to Glendenning talk about the club. I’m a fan of rivalries, and I think the Tyne-Wear derby is a fantastic date on the Premier League calender. One of my mates is a Newcastle fan, so it’s fun to have something to rib him about now and then. As for Poyet — I liked him as a player, and as a manager he’s been linked with Swansea on at least two occasions before. I think he’s a decent manager, one who has a little bit of style about him.
Do any past encounters between us stick in the memory (a certain 4-0 drubbing still feels fresh in mine)?
It’s funny, but despite Swansea winning both games last season, my overall feeling toward games against Sunderland is one of frustration. The recent matches between the sides — since Swansea have been in the Prem — have mostly been frustrating, difficult encounters. In the two seasons before last, Swansea had lost once and drawn three times — hardly the stuff of legend so far as expansive football goes. Of course, most of those games were when Sunderland had more pragmatic managers in place, so maybe now matches between the sides will continue to be more open affairs like last season (although I’m sure you’d rather they weren’t given the outcomes of those games…).
Has diving, along with all the other forms of cheating, become so prevalent, even routine, that we may as well stop whingeing and write it into the coaching manuals?
I think diving has pretty much been a part of the coaching manuals for decades anyway although few would admit it, but it’s just become farcical now. I think the next decade will see more use of video technology, with changes to the way certain offences are treated as a result. I think retrospective punishment is likely to be implemented, and it’ll all be for the better. Football has long been a game beyond the ability of one man and a couple of assistants at opposite ends of the field to reliably judge. The way things stand, players know they can get away with it because the ref has to make an instant decision without much help. Video technology is a logical and easy way to address that issue.
What does the Welsh national team mean to you? Does inevitable Welsh non-qualification make such events as Brazil 2014 more or less enjoyable?
I enjoy a World Cup as much as anybody, regardless of which sides are involved. I’d love to see Wales become regular qualifier material at international level, but realistically, the nation is tiny and the talent pool is probably too small for that to happen more than once every fifty years. In terms of population, I’m pretty sure Wales is already punching above its weight. I know this is very controversial and an unpopular idea, but I’d support the move to a United Kingdom national team in place of the existing separate nations. I think there are enough quality players in the smaller nations to supplement what would inevitably be a predominantly English side to take the team over the edge, and actually become one of the World elite. Imagine if “England” could field Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ash Williams right now? Or been able to use Ryan Giggs for the past 20 years? And that’s not even considering Scottish and Northern Irish players, of which there must be a few that would add some quality. For me, that’s the only way the home nations will win the World Cup with the way things are. If Gareth Bale scored the goal that won the World Cup, I don’t think any Welsh man or woman would care if an Englishman had provided the assist.
What will be this season’s top four in order and who is going down?
Top four: Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Man United
Relegated: Burnley, West Brom, Crystal Palace
Where will our clubs finish if not mentioned in the last reply?
Comfortably mid-table. That’s a bit of a cop-out, I know. I think if Swansea play their cards right, 8th is realistic.
What single step would improve the matchday experience of ordinary supporters?
Cheaper tickets! It’s the one axe almost everyone has to grind. Cheaper tickets mean fuller stadiums, more total revenue, more accessibility for the fans, and more fans seeing their teams play live in person. That in turn would help remind people that football is a live sport and not just an exclusively televised sport, which it sometimes feels like. Also, the cheaper the ticket, the less you mind when the one game you’ve been able to get to for weeks turns out to be a dud.
Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
I spend a lot of time away, so I’ll have to wait and see, but either way, I think 2-1 Swansea (sorry!).
* Max Hicks on himself:
I write about Swansea City for ESPN, and have been a Swansea supporter pretty much since I was born, on account of my father. My blog is here : http://www.espnfc.com/club/swansea-city/318/blog
Interview: Colin Randall
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