Very few people expected the Swans to win their first league match under the new man. His first two weeks in charge, during the FIFA international break, yielded a 3-2 loss to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday. Twice Swansea battled back from two-goal deficits and with a sharper finish in the final minutes would have squeezed out a point. Not necessarily a fully deserved point, but a point nonetheless.
The expected defeat dropped the Swans to 19th place in the Premier League standings and thus they are in the relegation zone. This week, they host Watford, which is in 10th place and last year finished 13th place, two points behind Swansea City.
By any means of comparison, this is a critical test for Bradley and his squad. Anything less than a victory -- which would also end a seven-game winless skid -- against a fellow mid-table team will be interpreted as ominous. Such a reaction wouldn’t reflect reality -- any manager three weeks into a daunting Premier League assignment is worthy of more time for assessment -- yet there’s no limit to the scrutiny and expectation applied to every manager, every player, and every match when so much prestige and so much money abound.
A Bradley team has been in this situation before; his first club job outside the U.S., with Norwegian club Stabaek, was supposed to be relegation scrap. Instead, it finished ninth in Bradley's first season and then third and qualified for the Europa League. Bradley acknowledges the glaring differences between play in Tippeligaen and the Premier League, yet also points out that his perspective and that of his players are all that matters.
“We started well in our first eight or nine matches, but then we had a little dip,” says Bradley, who did not take over at Stabaek after the season started. He took the team through a preseason that included a trip to Portland for the Simple Invitational. “I don't think we went into the relegation zone, but nonetheless the press said, ‘Here we go, we knew it was coming.’ I remember telling the team not to read anything or listen to anyone because none of those people watch us train every day or see what we're all about.
“The situations are similar, but I understand the spotlight in the Premier League is bigger, and you have the history of a club like Swansea City and being in the Premier League and what it means for the community and the supporters. I understand how important it is to make us better.”
Last year, a 1-0 loss to Watford set in motion a run of bad results that triggered the dismissal of former Swansea City manager Gary Monk. This year, the visit of Watford follows a tough run of games against the top clubs: Manchester City, Liverpool, and defending champion Leicester City have all beaten the Swans, and Chelsea departed the Liberty Stadium with a 2-2 tie.
Aside from games against Manchester United and Tottenham, the Swans play mostly against teams of their ilk through the heavy Christmas schedule before the big guns come calling again in mid-January. By then, Bradley will have been on the job long enough to indicate whether the Swans have responded, and also may have used the January transfer window to tweak his squad.
“I know how important it is to be in the Premier League when a team has a tough start, there's been a managerial change and we see where we are in the table,” said Bradley to PA Sport. “Whether we're in a relegation fight for two more weeks, four more weeks, six more weeks, it depends. If we can get on a good run and start to get confidence I doubt whether that's going to be a question I face every week. But in the meantime it's our job to get on a run and re-establish ourselves.”
Since earning promotion five seasons ago, the Swans haven’t finished lower than their 12th-place slot of last May. The summer takeover of the club by American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien, plus the abrupt dismissal of predecessor Francesco Guidolin to hire an American manager have roiled the fans, who are officially represented in the club’s ownership by a Supporters’ Trust that holds a 21 percent share. (Kaplan and Levien, who is also managing general owner of D.C. United, own 60 percent of the club.)
Leaders of the Supporters’ Trust claim they’ve been frozen out of the dealings by which Kaplan and Levien negotiated their purchase of the club, as well as the hiring of Bradley. Part of his due diligence in preparing for the job interview was studying up on the club’s history along with analyzing the players and how he will deploy them.
The manager moved to close that rift between the majority owners and fans by meeting with members of the Supporters’ Trust this week. He came away impressed.
“For me, it was great,” said Bradley. “They offered strong opinions and I accept that. But they also went out of their way to say, ‘You have a big job but we welcome you and we're here to support you.’ They shoot straight and made it clear their expectations on and off the field.
“But they totally dismissed some of the hype that I'm not wanted or there are things held against me at the start. They squashed that immediately.”