“Oh, lovely Spain! renown’d, romantic land!” Lord Byron, from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Swanselona. Estadio Liberty. Viva La Swansea. Swansea have embraced the continent with particular emphasis on all things España; Byron’s ‘renown’d, romantic land’ is a rather fitting statement when placed in the modern footballing context with the Iberians being the ultimate embodiment of the beautiful game’. As Swansea’s squad and staff have become more Spanish-orientated over the past 5 years or so, you could make a very good case for the Swans playing like a ‘Spain-lite’; although many Swans fans might argue that the first 45 minutes of football played against WBA in the 3-1 victory over them in November was as good and as breathtaking as anything the World Champions could produce. Mention Swansea at the moment and undoubtedly you’ll be led sooner or later onto talk of Michu (of course, with compulsory ‘bargain of the season’ rhetoric); but the Spain/Swansea link started long before Swansea’s current main man arrived in South West Wales along with his compatriots Pablo Hernandez and Chico Flores. It all began in January 2003 with Brian Flynn’s signing of a lower league journeyman, who happened to come from Balaguer, Spain: Roberto Martinez.
3 years later, former player and club captain Roberto Martinez would be the catalyst for the club’s philosophical and tactical switch with him moving the club towards a more pure and supposedly more continental approach to the game. It’s safe to say, that Martinez did make the beautiful game at Swansea beautiful once again. Martinez himself is a strange concoction of the Spanish and English game in one football mind, having spent the large part of his playing career playing in the lower leagues of English football – a harsh world that is supposedly inhospitable for a cool-headed, slow paced, pivot-like midfielder of the Martinez mould. Martinez the player proved that playing good, passing, intelligent football, traits forged into him in Spain, need not be incongruous with the British game and perhaps his playing career demonstrated to him that good football can be played in the lower leagues; Martinez clearly wanted to make this point emphatically with League One Swansea – a club he was adored by as a player and who he would soon be lauded for the sterling job he undertook as manager. In a recent interview with Phillipe Auclair in Issue Seven of The Blizzard, Martinez alluded to how he took the best of both worlds, England and Spain, to become a success in the lower leagues and eventually become a Premier League manager. “Finding the way to survive in the lower leagues as a player gave me a manager’s mind” he would tell Auclair.
It would be the small rugby town of Wigan and the ambitious chairman of the Wigan Athletic FC, Dave Whelan, that would bring Roberto to these shores from his hometown of Balaguer, along with fellow countrymen Isidro Díaz and Jesús Seba – the three Spaniards were christened the ‘Three Amigos’. Wigan’s Spaniards were seen as a bit of a gimmick to generate interest in a football club being overshadowed by the town’s more popular rugby league team, but the ‘Three Amigos’ arrival would coincide with Wigan beginning their steady ascent up the Football League. Seba would depart within a year of joining Wigan, but the remaining two Amigos would help Wigan achieve promotion to the Second Division and Martinez would spend 6 successful years with the Latics becoming a big fan favourite in the process. Martinez would not be with the club when they finally achieved promotion to the First Division and eventually the Premier League, but his contribution to kick-starting Wigan’s uprising should be counted as an important one.
On joining Swansea as manager, Martinez would bring in his own ‘Three Amigos’ to help begin Swansea’s own football upsurge. Michu, Pablo Hernandez, Chico, Fede Bessone, Albert Serran, Jordi Lopez Jordi Gomez, and Gorka Pintado – all Spaniards and all have graced the white shirt of Swansea during the last 5 years. Arguably, none of these would have joined the club or settled in so comfortably if it wasn’t for Swansea’s original ‘Three Amigos’: Guillem Bauza, Andrea Orlandi and Angel Rangel – the forerunners to the club’s evolution from plain, old, unfashionable, lower league Swansea City FC to the media’s much adored and everyone’s (excluding Cardiff folk) second favourite Premier League side: sexy ‘Swanselona’.
The over-zealous comparison to one of the greatest clubs in world football history is a bit tongue-in-cheek at times, but there are certainly some evident similarities between Swansea City and FC Barcelona, aspects that extend beyond the ‘tiki-taka’ philosophy that Barcelona and Swansea both adhere. No player would perhaps be better positioned to recognise these similarities than Andrea Orlandi.
Orlandi is Catalan born and bred, but actually began his club career with Alaves, where, apart from two first team appearances, he mainly featured for the ‘B’ team. However, Orlandi was soon returning home in 2005 when he signed on loan for Barcelona B, where he remained for two seasons. Perhaps one of the highlights of Orlandi’s career is his one league appearance for the Barcelona first team at Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames stadium. Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona had already clinched the La Liga title that season by the time they travelled to Bilbao, leaving the 3-1 away loss meaningless. However, I’m sure that game will live long in the memory for Andrea Orlandi; the photos of him celebrating a Samuel Eto’o goal during that game with the Cameroonian striker were widely used in the local Swansea press to fully emphasise that Swansea were indeed signing an ex-Barca player.
Orlandi had visited Swansea during the summer months before the start of the 2007/08 season, but the Spaniard opted to have a browse at other options and went on trial to Greek side Aris Thessaloniki. When the trial was unsuccessful, Martinez finally landed his man, securing Orlandi on a free transfer in September 2007. Orlandi arrived to much fanfare with the tag of ‘he once played for Barcelona’ – although many didn’t realise he had literally’ ‘once’ played for them. The Orlandi-hype was further accentuated by him being given the fabled number 10 shirt – worn the season before by club legend Lee Trundle, who had departed Swansea for Bristol City in the summer.
As Martinez’s revolution was getting into full swing, Orlandi found himself very much on the peripheries of the squad with the lethal combination of lacklustre performances accompanying a series of niggly injuries hindering his Swansea career. He would finish his debut season at Swansea with only 12 appearances in league and cup.
In his second season in South West Wales, Orlandi once again featured sporadically, but he did manage a goal in Swansea’s 2-0 victory over Reading; Orlandi had come off the bench to score and he demonstrated an emotional celebration that he later claimed was an outpouring of his frustrations since he arrived at the club and what he hoped would be a breakthrough moment for him.
There is no doubt that Swansea fans saw the best of Andrea Orlandi following the departure of Roberto Martinez and the arrival of Paulo Sousa as manager. The ultra-defensive style of play Sousa brought to Swansea was not the most popular amongst Swans fans to say the least, but he did manage to get improved performances out of Orlandi. Sousa switched Orlandi from a one-dimensional winger to an adept and consistent central midfielder. Swansea fans had recognised that Orlandi was technically gifted, but the issue with Orlandi arose from his inability to beat defenders, arguably one the main criterion for a good winger; with the positional switch to the middle, Orlandi had more chances to display his excellent passing and with Joe Allen picking up injuries throughout the season and Leon Britton (wrongly) out of favour with Sousa, Orlandi was becoming the fulcrum to Swansea’s solid midfield. This isn’t to suggest that Orlandi’s performances were mind-blowing but he was certainly very competent throughout the season and he managed to notch up 30 plus appearances for the Swans, as they came agonisingly close to reaching the Championship play-off places.
Every summer would follow a similar plotline for Orlandi; with his contract up, Orlandi and his agent would begin flirting with other clubs before signing a new short-term contract with Swansea. As Brendan Rodgers arrived at the club, Orlandi looked set to join Paulo Sousa at Leicester City, only to do a U-turn and re-sign for the Swans. Once again, Orlandi would struggle to find a starting place at Swansea, although he did have an excellent game in Swansea’s 1-0 triumph over Cardiff in the Welsh derby at the Cardiff City Stadium. Orlandi would feature 20 times, mainly from the bench, as Swansea achieved promotion to the Premier League. Chances would be even fewer for Orlandi to show his stuff in the top flight, as Swansea’s midfield became stronger than ever as well as injuries thwarting Orlandi’s every chance. However, despite a surprise starting berth for Orlandi in Swansea’s first game of 2012 at Villa Park, Orlandi excelled and was arguably Man of the Match as Swansea achieved their first away win of their Premier League adventure. Orlandi’s final contribution to the Swans would be his goal against Wolves at the Liberty Stadium – the opening goal of an incredible 4-4 encounter and the fastest Premier League goal in five seasons with the Spaniard’s header hitting the back of the net after a mere 24 seconds.
Following Swansea’s successful first season in the Premier League and Rodgers departing for Liverpool, Orlandi would be seen as surplus to requirements as new manager Michael Laudrup began streamlining the Swansea squad. Orlandi was soon at a club with a similar story of Football League ascension and similar footballing principles to Swansea: Brighton. Ex-Chelsea and Tottenham midfield maestro Gus Poyet has transformed Brighton from League One relegation fodder to Championship playoff contenders with an excellent passing game in a similar mould to Swansea – hence maybe why they currently have three ex-Swansea players in their squad. Orlandi has fitted in well on the south coast, even making the comparison to Swansea himself when he stated on departing Swansea, “I see the story at Brighton very similar to that at Swansea”. Orlandi has cemented himself a first team spot and even scored the opening goal in Brighton’s 2-0 FA Cup triumphant over Newcastle a couple of weeks ago. I had the pleasure of watching Orlandi play against Brimingham for Brighton just last week and I have to say he was excellent and certainly my Man of the Match.
Like almost anyone that has lived in the city, Orlandi clearly fell in love with Swansea and the club will always remain dear to him:
“It’s exactly five years since I first joined Swansea in League One. I was a 23-year-old with long hair then. Now I’m leaving with short hair, a baby and the club in the Premier League. I could never have imagined that, but the reality has overcome the expectations. I have loved this club from the first day I arrived, and I will always love it. I may not be a Swansea player, but I will always be a Swansea supporter – ‘Always a Jack’ as they say.”
Whilst Orlandi arrived at Swansea with the ‘he played for Barcelona’ tag, Spanish striker Guillem Bauza came with a similarly novel tag of his own; Bauza was first choice striker for Spain’s U16 European Championship winners, as he partnered another upcoming young Spanish striker: Fernando Torres. Bauza and Torres played alongside each other in all 6 of Spain’s game in that U16 tournament and they would go on to play alongside each other at U17 and U19 level. However, Torres would go on to be idolised at Atletico Madrid and Liverpool before becoming the most expensive signing in Premier League history for Chelsea, whilst Bauza languished in the Mallorca and Espanyol B teams before arriving at Swansea. Despite the Spaniard having a tough start to life in Wales, Bauza would play a vital role in the ascent of Swansea City FC.
Bauza would struggle for game time in his first season at Swansea as the club’s other new striker, Jason Scotland, entered explosive goalscoring form. Fortunately for Bauza, he would go onto score twice against non-league Billericay in an early round FA Cup fixture and then through a series of industrious substitute appearances, Bauza would become a big fan favourite amongst the Jack Army; his high energy and all action style was the perfect compliment and foil to the more languid, yet more clinical, stance of Scotland. By the second half of Swansea’s season chasing the League One title, Bauza was being deployed as an effective tactical tool by Martinez, as the hardworking Spaniard was utilised in away games to push Swansea higher upfield by constantly harassing and pressuring the opposition defences.
Alongside his footballing career, Bauza was also partaking a strange side project for a professional footballer: studying for a degree in medical genetics at Swansea University with the long term goal of becoming a doctor.
“I have always been interested in medicine and being a doctor but it’s difficult to get in so I’ve started with medical genetics. The world of medicine and genetics is what I like, so I’m starting with this and, if I’m going to be a doctor, I can follow on in the second or third year. The lads at the club are surprised that I’m doing this, but really it’s not like I’m doing anything special.I have a lot of free time and I want to spend it well by getting ready for when I’m not a footballer.”
It would eventually come down to Bauza to put the full stop on Swansea clinching promotion back to the second tier. Towards the end of the 2007/08 season, Bauza had slowly begun to find his shooting boots and was eventually scoring some very important goals for Swansea in the final run in of games in 2007/08; however, arguably his most important contribution was in April 2008 away to Gillingham. Swansea had to win to finally secure what appeared to be an inevitable promotion; the day looked like being a disappointment when Denis Oli put the Gills 1-0 up, but Bauza was to be the hero of the day by scoring twice just before half time to win the game for Swansea and to achieve automatic promotion to the second tier for the first time in 25 years. Two weeks later Bauza was scoring again, this time going one better and netting a first half hatrick against Leyton Orient at the Liberty Stadium to cap a very successful second half of the season for Bauza.
In the absence of an injured Jason Scotland, Bauza started up front for Swansea’s first game back in the second tier against Charlton at The Valley, but Bauza would be consigned to the bench for much of the season, although he did begin to feature more in an attacking midfield role and memorably finished off a sublime team goal against Preston in a 4-1 win at the Liberty in January 2009. The following season, under new manager Paulo Sousa, Bauza was not playing consistently and when Brendan Rodgers arrived in Swansea for the following season, the new manager decided to release the Spaniard.
Post-Swansea, Bauza accepted trials at various Football League clubs before eventually signing for League Two Hereford for the 2010/11 season, which was followed by a short spell at Northampton Town and then Exeter City, where he still plays to this day.
Despite featuring mainly from the bench at Swansea, I don’t think fans should forget the impact Guillem Bauza had on a resurgent Swansea, especially in helping them secure promotion and the League One title in 2008.
As 2012 has become 2013, Swansea’s Angel Rangel has been held up as a shining light for professional footballers, after he and his wife Nikki, drove around the streets of Swansea searching for homeless people to feed with sandwiches they had rescued from being thrown away by a local sandwich shop, before they eventually ended up at a shelter where they supplied the inhabitants with food and their company for a short while. Angel Rangel is a generous man. He most certainly is also a generous footballer, after providing Swansea City with the most solid of services over the past 5 years.
The story goes that when Swansea’s scouts uncovered Angel Rangel playing for Terrassa in the Segunda Division B (third tier), the scouts had actually gone over to Spain to evaluate another player. However, the unknown right back had impressed League One Swansea enough that they offered him a one-year, performance-related contract in 2007. Rangel was a complete unknown quantity to the Jack Army, but within weeks of the season opener, he had become a fan favourite. Despite the brilliant, yet enigmatic, Ferrie Bodde and goalscorer Jason Scotland stealing all the headlines, Rangel was the one being talked up by the fans as their real bargain buy. After spells with lower league Spanish sides Tortosa, Reus, Girona and Sant Andreu, before joining Terrasa, Rangel made the supposed step up to this country’s football seamlessly. Rangel began to make a name for himself as a marauding full back in the Football League, forming a lethal right wing combination with on-loan Liverpool winger, Paul Anderson. Both played a crucial role in getting Swansea to the Championship and it was no surprise when Rangel made the 2008 League One Team of the Year, after making 48 appearances for the Swans in his debut season.
As Swansea made the step up to the Championship, Martinez felt there was no need to purchase an upgrade on Rangel and he remained Swansea’s first choice right back uncontested in their first season back in the second tier and for their other two seasons in the Championship under managers Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers. Rangel was once again key to a Swansea promotion bid, as the Spaniard featured on 43 occasions for Swansea as they secured promotion to Premier League with Rangel starting in the decisive 4-2 playoff final victory over Reading at Wembley.
It’s doubtful that a lot of the global audience who watch Premier League these days had even heard of little old Swansea City, let alone their Spanish right back, as they reached the heights of the supposed greatest league in the world; but once again, Rangel looked unfazed by the challenge ahead of him as he stepped up to top flight football. There had been talks of top flight teams, including Blackpool and Fulham, trying to sign Rangel whilst Swansea sat in the league below and even suggestions that Rangel tried to push these transfers through; Swansea knew that Rangel was an important player for them and would not let him leave on the cheap – it is now hard to imagine Rangel at any other club and on promotion to the Premier League he signed a new 3-year contract. Despite a new, tougher environment, Rangel did not quash his attacking stance from full back and he became a fine embodiment of Swansea’s now trademark passing philosophy. Rangel would finish the 2011/2012 as the player with the 5th most completed passes in the Premier League with 2273 passes; Rangel finished behind more mercurial talents such as Mikel Arteta (2304 passes), Yaya Toure (2419), Luka Modric (2534) and the Premier League’s top passer, and Swansea team mate, Ashley Williams (2594).
In May of this year, I wrote about the unlikely prospect of Angel Rangel featuring for Wales in the future, after it was suggested he could be eligible for the Welsh national team from his five years of residence in the ‘Land of My Fathers’. Jurisdiction now suggests that this is impossible for Rangel, but maybe he can now start to dream higher? Rangel has got better and better since Swansea have been a Premier League team and there were suggestions that when Spain coach, Vicente Del Bosque, recently came to these shores to run the rule over Michu as Swansea visited Goodison Park, that he was also wanting to take a look at Rangel, as well as Chico Flores. Del Bosque would certainly not be the first top class manager to become an admirer of Rangel, as Fabio Capello recently claimed that Rangel and compatriot Chico Flores are two of the best defenders in the Premier League; both featured in Capello’s Dream Premier League XI, whilst Rangel also made it into his La Liga/Premier League XI alongside the likes of Busquests, Xavi and Messi. Praise indeed. Rangel for Spain? We’ll wait and see.
Rangel has arguably been one of the most important foreign exports to arrive in Abertawe and he now holds the record for most appearances by any non-British player to ever play for the club (213 appearances, but that is surely to go up even further over the next few seasons). Rangel has been there since the start of Swansea’s Spanish Armada and he has almost begun to act as the club’s unofficial welcome party for the Spaniards that have arrived at the club since, with many of the new conquistadors praising Rangel for helping them settle in the area.
Viva Angel Rangel! And long may Swansea continue to take advantage of Byron’s ‘romantic land’. Lovely Spain.
Pictures courtesy of Football365.com, premierleague.com and BBC Sport.