Swansea carries the white flag for the sporting upstarts of this world

Swansea City's Martin Olsson, one of the club's foreign legion.

Swansea City's Martin Olsson, one of the club's foreign legion.

OPINION: Imagine if Buller graduated to Super Rugby, or even to the NPC top flight.

That's what Swansea City achieved when they burst into the English Premier League (EPL) in 2011, having been more at home in the fourth division.

It intrigued me, even though I'm of heavy rugby persuasion at the antipodean end of the globe.

This season, Swansea had been teetering on the relegation precipice after going through as many managers as Lydia Ko has had caddies.

But sevens years in the EPL is phenomenal for such a small club.

In 1997, I was in Swansea on rugby duty. The All Blacks were based there while they played at towns in Wales such as Llanelli and Pontypridd, when tours were tours.

One day I took a stroll and stumbled on what was then Swansea Town's ground at Vetch Field. This team was the apple of Keith Quinn's eye, but the stands looked ancient and rusty and I didn't dally long.

It has always been fascinating to follow the minnows made good in what we said was Pommie soccer.

Swansea rose from the fourth division to be in the old first division for 1981-82, only to plunge back to the fourth.

Now owned by an American consortium, they don't have a solitary Welshman in the top team.

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Back in the days of radio, the BBC would broadcast every English and Scottish result. It did wonders for our geography, as did playing Monopoly, deferring to the atlas to hunt out the locations of Berwick, Forfar, Scunthorpe and Grimsby.

And for us to omit the soccer tables from our newspapers was to invite a cascade of irate calls to the sports editor the next day.

My favourite, for benign rural reasons alone, was Hereford United at the home of the Special Air Service. The Bulls now recline in England's seventh tier, but in 1976, when Dixie McNeil was the top goalscorer in England, they got nose bleeds when they reached the old second division.

Almost every sports lover here has a favourite British club. Palmerston North's Lindsay Brougham is joined at the hip with Wolverhampton Wanderers, a long exercise in frustration.

As for tiddlers made good, surely nothing beats the rise of Bournemouth to the EPL in 2015 after clambering through four divisions.

A seaside blip on the English Channel from one of the smallest towns to grace the top division, they have the smallest stadium (11,464), even smaller than Manawatu's Arena. And yet as I write, Bournemouth sit 10th in the EPL.

The club virtually went bung in 1997, 2008 and 2009, until a Russian businessman bought them in 2011.

Leicester City performed a miracle for a lesser club in winning the EPL last season. Their old Filbert Street stadium backed on to the rugby ground I graced in 1997, and talk about cold.

In decades past, we watched many of these teams on Match of the Day when Brian Moore was in his ascendancy. It was too easy to adopt one of the giant Manchester, Liverpool and London mobs when there were upstarts in the top league such as Ipswich Town, Derby County and Coventry City.

Coventry, so blitzed by the Luftwaffe in World War II, produced a soccer team that had 31 years in the top division, until 2001. And yet now the Sky Blues – owned by hedge fund managers – have been disastrously relegated to League Two for next season. That is the old fourth division.

Leeds United prevailed in Europe back then, even if they had the worst hooligan fans in the universe. We once chased the All Blacks' bus past Leeds' once famous Elland Road ground, en route to play at another Yorkshire soccer ground, Huddersfield Town's.

At another, Bristol City's Ashton Gate, I tore my strides on a nail on a wooden seat. It was there that the home supporters couldn't figure why the All Black fans were booing their own team. It was the "Bullllll" chant aimed at the Manawatu man who never played for Varsity or Manawatu, Bull Allen.

Refs' rhinos hide

It pays to have a thick skin like experienced Manawatu rugby referee Mike Harnett's.

He just laughs off the broadsides that come his way.

In a recent match, one player came up with a variation on asking him how long there was to play.

"How much longer do we have to put up with you?"

When a player dislocated a finger, Harnett, as a physiotherapist, manipulated it back in place.

Afterwards the player said: "I didn't like you as a ref; now I think you're OK."

In another game while refereeing, a football thudded into Harnett's face and broke his glasses.

A player piped up: "You were useless with glasses on – what are you going to be like with your glasses off?"

 - Stuff


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