As Ronald Koeman’s Southampton leapfrogs Manchester United into third place on the table, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea retake the outright lead in the Premier League title race, and Sam Allardyce lauds his side’s magnificent improvement on last season’s equivalent points total, the stage for commendable managers is getting increasingly crowded. These men and their efforts are, of course, all worthy of the highest forms of praise, be it tossed bouquets, contract extensions, or the privilege of retaining a star striker or two. There is one other manager who ought really to be mentioned as well, a manager who perhaps hasn’t been mentioned enough since he took over his club’s top job at the beginning of last year. This is also a manager who, it has just been announced, has been denied the exquisite pleasure of keeping his best player. Garry Monk, approaching his 1 year anniversary as Swansea City manager, has quietly and patiently been excelling in the Premier League since being appointed to his first head coaching role.
It’s difficult to remember just how turbulent the Welsh club was at the end of Michael Laudrup’s time there. Wholly ensconced in a relegation scrap, and with reports of player unrest, Laudrup was apparently sacked by email just a few hours after meeting with the club hierarchy, a meeting that Laudrup later emphasised had ended on an optimistic note. The divorce was a messy one, with Laudrup pursuing legal action against his former employers. It was so out of character for a club so consistently praised for its excellent and responsible operation.
And so, inheriting a side in disarray, Garry Monk, the interim-manager, was expected by few to remain in the position for long. But he survived that season, finishing a comfortable 9 points above the relegation zone. He was rewarded accordingly, handed a 3 year contract in May last year. Still, doubts about Monk’s ability persisted; when a manager (in Laudrup’s case a trophy-winning one) is sacked and an interim appointed (usually with the often doomed task of avoiding relegation), even when the new man succeeds, talk of subsequent long-term progress is hardly ever heard. The bump in fortune that a team can get when a change in management occurs (see: Gus Poyet’s impact after replacing Paolo Di Canio at Sunderland) is an upturn that can rarely be sustained. Monk, a managerial greenhorn, was even less fancied than a lot of other contenders in identical situations had been.
In July 2014, one of Swansea’s best players over the last two seasons, the Spaniard Michu, was loaned out to Napoli. To fill the resulting dearth of creativity, favourite foreign son and former loanee, Gylfi Sigurðsson was signed from Tottenham that same month. But really, a signing made a year earlier in July 2013, that of Wilfried Bony, quickly became the pillar upon which Monk’s success rested. Bony was 2014’s most productive Premier League striker, scoring more goals last year than any other Premier League player. His goals had secured survival in 13/14 and have raised Swansea back up into the upper-mid table this season. But Monk’s recruitment for the 2014/15 campaign, Sigurðsson included, has also been excellent. Jefferson Montero and Łukasz Fabiański have both been largely first rate, and latter was brought in on a free transfer. Additionally, Tom Carroll, loaned in from Spurs, looked very tidy in midfield against West Ham on Saturday.
But most sensibly, almost prophetically, Monk also brought another player in at the start of this season, again on a free transfer, the Lyon striker Bafétimbi Gomis. As if he knew that a January bid of around £30 million would come in for Bony, of course from Manchester City, Monk secured an almost like-for-like replacement early, and for very minimal cost. Gomis (though he wasn’t officially credited for the goal) was responsible for the equaliser against West Ham in Swansea’s 1-1 draw on the weekend, and looks a remarkably powerful, skilful forward, well suited to the Premier League. He will relish his ascension to the number one striker’s position. Monk’s manoeuvre to mitigate Bony’s departure is exactly the kind of tact not expected from a manager in only his first full season, and yet, his contingency plan had turned what might have been a crisis into what looks like being a rather smooth transition. Monk has spoken on the matter:
“He [Gomis] is important. He is my No 1 striker now and I am looking to him for the rest of the season. Wilfried was always leaving so I had to prepare for it. Bafé was always going to be the No 1 striker with Nélson Oliveira [signed on loan from Benfica] supplementing the squad. This is Bafé’s chance to stake a claim for that shirt and if he does well enough he will keep it. We want him to stay. We want him to be a part of the future of the club.”
How many former players, who hung up the boots only a short time ago, can boast such an impressive start to their managerial careers? Roy Keane, Clarence Seedorf, and Edgar Davids have all recently entered and exited various forms of management, all to varying degrees of failure. Monk is the fifth youngest manager in all of English football, and yet his team sits comfortably in the top half of what many call Europe’s toughest league. Swansea have beaten Arsenal and Manchester United this season, and have justified ambitions for a Europa League place (they’re currently 6 points off fifth position). They will be confident for progressing past the fourth round of the FA Cup too, having been drawn against Blackburn Rovers.
Really, for Monk and Swansea, no news has been good news. A completely untested, highly inexperienced managerial appointment has proven a smart in-house decision. Where there might have been a loud period of tumult and decline after the end of the cup-winning reign of Laudrup, instead what has Monk has overseen is stable, encouraging betterment. There should be few reservations about Monk’s ability now, and if he can nurture the bruising Gomis into a goalscorer who’s even half as effective as Bony was for Swansea, then his already lustrous reputation as a capable manager will be even further enhanced.