Early Doors

Masterful Laudrup oversees model victory

Early Doors

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Sunday’s League Cup final at Wembley didn’t even remotely resemble a contest, but this was an occasion that represented more than just 90 minutes of football. Coming in Swansea City’s centenary season it was also the culmination of 100 years of history, and particularly the past 11 which have witnessed a compelling story unfolding. A football fairytale, yes, but also an important morality tale in a sport characterised all too frequently by greed and cynicism.

Swansea’s total domination of Bradford City – restricting the League Two side to a solitary shot on goal as they scored five, cut them to ribbons with their superior passing, indulged in extravagant nutmegs and dummies and caressed the ball across the Wembley turf - was a triumph for a part-supporter-owned club and the vindication of a clearly-defined strategy and playing ethos that pervades this most admirable of teams.

It was Michael Laudrup who was rightly hoisted into the air and given the bumps by a group of players rich in talent, but this was also a cup win that reached back through recent time, tracing a lineage through Brendan Rodgers and Paulo Sousa to find Roberto Martinez, who in 2007 designed the blueprint for the possession-based football for which Swansea are now rightly lauded.

Some of the DNA traces of this team run deeper still: Garry Monk, club captain and second-half substitute who lifted the cup with Ashley Williams, was signed by Kenny Jackett, the manager who took the club out of League Two and from the Vetch Field to the Liberty Stadium in 2005. Modern Swansea’s Year Zero was even longer ago: 2002, when they were taken over by a group of local businessmen/supporters for £1 and after instigating a new sensible approach to bookkeeping a year later avoided demotion to the Conference on the final day of the season with a 4-2 win over Hull City.

Leon Britton played in that game. Ten years later at Wembley, from the first moment to the last, he looked utterly at ease. Team-mates and managers have come and gone, promotions won, heartbreak suffered and joy shared but – barring six months at Sheffield United - Britton has always been there, sitting deep, patiently passing the ball around and searching for space. As he stood proudly with his medal around his neck, the very personification of a philosophy, he said of Swansea’s win: "We did what we've always done: pass the football."

Few do it better, and after enjoying his finest hour as a manager, Laudrup said it was precisely this philosophy that was one of the “key reasons” for his decision to join Swansea last summer. If Martinez laid the foundations and Sousa and Rodgers built upon them, it is Laudrup who has furnished the place, with silverware no less - a first major trophy in Swansea’s history and the first for Wales since 1927. He deserves huge credit for this feat - few would have imagined it at the start of the season.

While Laudrup gave due recognition to the club’s past in his post-match press conference - “they could have gone out of League Two – you are talking about your football life, perhaps that is more important (than a cup win)” – the Dane nonetheless embodied their sparkling, cosmopolitan, stylish present. Swansea have come some distance since that scrape with relegation in 2003: perhaps nothing says so quite as effectively as the fact their urbane manager is now being touted as a possible target for Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Those stages would not overawe him. But as he reeled off a list of the giant clubs he represented during a playing career that marked him out as one of the most elegant players of the modern era, Laudrup admitted: "It's one thing to win a trophy with Barca, Madrid or Juventus, but to win with a smaller club like Swansea is fantastic. It is Swansea's first major trophy ever and to win it in this, the centenary season, is up there with the best things I have done because it is completely different."

As a player, Laudrup brought joy to millions - in Denmark, Spain, Netherlands, Italy and across the globe. He won Serie A, Eredivisie and Liga titles and one European Cup, at Wembley in 1992, as the key creative influence of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team. Now a managerial career has its highlight, a trophy that makes him a legendary figure in another pocket of Europe: Wales, and more specifically Swansea.

The only blemish across 90 impressive minutes here was a rather unseemly scene when Nathan Dyer threw a diva strop of Mariah Carey-esque proportions as Jonathan De Guzman prevented him from scoring a Wembley hat-trick from the penalty spot. Laudrup even defused that situation in assured fashion, sharing a smile with Dyer when later substituting him and saying in the press conference, presumably with tongue slightly in cheek, that "we have not had a penalty all season and I forget to designate the penalty-taker before the match. That was my fault, I just forgot."

Laudrup is a man who radiates calm - a legacy of his sumptuous playing career which commands respect of its own accord, and a fact that will make him a desirable commodity in the Premier League and beyond. Speaking in the Wembley mixed zone, Ki Sung-yueng says, “he doesn’t yell – I have never seen him angry”, while Jonathan De Guzman adds, “he’s very laid back. He lets you make your own choices. He lets the players be free.”

He has a nice line in grace too, saying of Sunday’s opponents: “this final this year will remain in history, a small part because of us and a large part because of Bradford". In truth, though, the team from Yorkshire never had a chance of beating Laudrup’s Swansea and becoming only the second fourth-tier side to win a cup competition. The Sri Lanka Navy are the only team to have done so previously, in 2010, but only after withdrawing from the top flight due to “fighting commitments”.

Here the gulf in class was cavernous. Laudrup even felt empowered to use Ki as a centre-back for only the second time in his Swansea career to increase further his side's portion of possession. A fluid three of Wayne Routledge, Pablo Hernandez and Dyer had the run of Wembley while Michu looked as comfortable as he has all season, and that particular bar has been set rather high. A 5-0 scoreline might have been even bigger.

So a gloriously unpredictable League Cup campaign concluded with the predictable result, but Swansea’s story is no less captivating as a result. It is easy to be trite or cynical about these things, but this was a triumph for a vision of how football should be played, and how clubs should operate in the modern game.

As Laudrup said: "There is a philosophy that has been there for the last six, seven years and that makes it easier. The second thing is that a club that has black figures at the end of the season – it's not very often you see that in modern football today."

He was right on both counts, and Swansea’s heartening Wembley triumph did feel like a rather unique occasion.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "It was nice to save it but I'd given it away so I had to save it. I work a lot with Lamps and he is a great penalty-taker. He's a big hero of mine, if I'm honest. We spoke about it [before the spot-kick was taken] but I'm sure it's not mind games with Frank. He's not going to be put off by an idiot like me. So it was a case of trying to go to the right and getting a strong hand on it." - Joe Hart explains how he denied his hero, Frank Lampard, from the penalty spot in Sunday's big game between Manchester City and Chelsea.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I have always known that as a new player coming in after Christmas and at my age, I don't expect to have a starting position in the XI but it is what you always want as a player. I am proud to be part of this team and was proud to be out there but I will take it step by step and as long as I can come on and make a difference, I would love to that." - David Beckham clearly enjoyed his debut for Paris Saint-Germain last night, coming on and having a hand in Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal in a 2-0 win over Joey Barton's Marseille.

COMING UP: We bring you our European and Premier League teams of the week while Jan Molby blogs on his good mate Michael Laudrup. Tonight we have some Premier League action with West Ham hosting Tottenham at Upton Park. Kick off comes at 8pm.

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