Commentary

Bob Bradley steps into a tough new world

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

So just what is Bob Bradley getting himself into by signing on to manage Swansea City in the Premier League?

A maelstrom of money and pressure and fierce tests every week awaits. The transfer window is closed. A segment of the fan base is incensed at bad results as well as his hiring. The Swans have lost five of their last six games and are in 17th place. His first game after the FIFA international break is against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.

Early-season volatility is well-known in the English game. On Monday, the same day Bradley’s hiring was announced, Roberto di Matteo got the sack from Aston Villa -- which was relegated from the Premier League to the League Championship past spring -- 12 matches into his tenure. (That’s the same di Matteo who won the 2012 Champions League title with Chelsea and got the sack six months later.) Another Welsh team, Cardiff City, cut loose manager Paul Trollope on Tuesday.

Aston Villa and Cardiff City are in a tier below the Premier League, in which 11 managers – of 20 teams! – were fired last season. The first one fired was Brendan Rodgers, who couldn’t sustain his Swansea success from 2010 to 2012 at Liverpool. Names as notable as Jose Mourinho (Chelsea) and Louis Van Gaal (Manchester United) also got booted. Bradley’s predecessor, Francesco Guidolin, was hired last January to save Swansea from relegation, and accomplished that task comfortably.

The Swans won eight of 18 matches to finish the 2015-16 season in 12th place. During the summer, the club spent 32 million pounds ($41.6 million) on new players, including a club record $20 million on Borja Baston.

No Swansea City manager has lasted more than three years since Englishman John Hollins departed in September, 2001. His tenure ended after managing for three years and 73 days. Since then, not counting interim appointees, the club has hired and fired 10 managers native to England, Wales, Spain, Northern Ireland, Denmark and Italy. Yet in that time it has risen from a financially shipwrecked club in the dregs of the English League to a Premier League property for which American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien paid $130 million last July.

Swansea City is a club literally saved by its fans, which formed a consortium in 2002 to raise enough money -- approximately 1 million pounds -- to pay off debts and keep it solvent. A Supporters’ Trust was formed that owns 21.1 percent of the team and that arrangement will continue. Kaplan and Levien acquired a 60 percent share of the club. You can’t blame fans of Swansea City if they are feeling whipsawed. A club with more than a century of history -- formed in 1912 -- in the last few months has joined the list of those purchased by American investors, who have hired an American manager instead of several other -- to many observers, at least -- more qualified candidates.

This will be an acid test for not just Bradley but the entire U.S. coaching system: a Princeton man who coached his alma mater, won titles as an assistant coach with D.C. United and as head coach of Chicago, worked as an assistant coach with the U.S. Olympic and senior teams, coached the MetroStars and Chivas USA, led the USA to second place in the 2009 Confederations Cup and to the 2010 World Cup round of 16, managed the Egyptian national team through its 2014 World Cup qualification stage, and worked for clubs in Norway and France.

That’s an impressive resume for an American yet unusual compared to the typical Premier League manager, who is either a vastly experienced former domestic player, or a very ambitious man from a foreign country who takes on the massive jobs at Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, etc.

Swansea took a bit of a risk when it hired Rodgers, who had saved Watford from relegation and left Reading after just six months. He guided Swansea City to Premier League promotion via the playoffs in his first season and then to 11th place in the team’s first Premier League campaign. He left for Liverpool in June 2012.

Since Rodgers departed the Swans have finished 9th, 12th, 8th and 12th under former Danish international Michael Laudrup, former Swansea player Gary Monk and Guidolin, who had managed mostly smaller Italian clubs for more than two decades. On the one hand, Bradley is certainly a different hire, but it’s also evident that the club has taken several sharp turns in its managerial decisions recently. There has not been a lot of stability but under new ownership that can certainly change.

The key player in this drama is chairman Huw Jenkins, a Swansea fan since his youth and successful businessman who has been at his club post since 2002. All those managerial hirings and firings have occurred under Jenkins’ watch and apparently Bradley’s impressive performance during a formal interview won him the job.

Bradley has long been a student of the international game and he can draw on his experience in Concacaf and FIFA competitions. As a newbie head coach, he recruited foreign stars like Lubos Kubik and Peter Nowak, blended them with dependable Americans like Chris Armas, C.J. Brown and Ante Razov, and won the 1998 MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double. No doubt his time in Norway and France greatly refreshed his knowledge of the game across Europe.

Many fans do not share Jenkins’ enthusiasm for Bradley, who does arrive at an opportune time. One criticism of the current squad is the players’ general state of fitness, which Bradley has a week and a half to address prior to the Arsenal game. The FIFA break also gives him some time -- not a lot, but some -- to start implementing his ideas and philosophies, which have been significantly broadened by his time with Egypt, Stabaek and Le Havre.

He’s managed many teams but nothing like this one in this league. It’s utterly new ground for him, for Swansea City, for the Premier League, for American soccer. A man who’s made a career out of the unknown is further from the familiar than he’s ever been.
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