One of the most striking images from a wonderfully chaotic climax to the regular Championship season came not on the pitch but in the west stand concourse at the Madejski Stadium, which doubled up as a changing room on Wednesday. Beneath the fluorescent lighting, cable trays and electrical tracking, Swansea players and staff, surrounded by supporters’ flags that had been taped to the walls, formed a giant team huddle, with coach Steve Cooper leading the debrief after his youthful side squeezed into the play-offs on goal difference at Nottingham Forest’s expense on an extraordinary evening.
On recent away trips Swansea have, owing to social distancing regulations, held pre-match team talks everywhere from media suites (Middlesbrough) to 4G pitches (Millwall) and even a lounge bar (Birmingham), but now they are playing for the prize of changing at Wembley next month.
On Sunday they have home comforts, with Brentford, who missed out on automatic promotion on the final day, the visitors to the Liberty Stadium in the first leg of the semi-finals before Cardiff welcome Fulham on Monday. Cooper believes Swansea are outliers owing to expectations and resources, but insists they are in the mix on merit.
“You can’t scrape into the play-offs after 46 games,” says Cooper, who was appointed last June. “I know it was dramatic, I know it was a one-off, but you get what you deserve. We have never changed our way of playing, we have never not believed in our players, especially the young ones, and through the ups and downs we have stayed committed to the plan. I promised myself I would do that in senior management. It’s hard sometimes when things are not going as you would like or luck is not on your side, but succeed or fail, I think you can sleep better at night.”
Cooper, the 40-year-old former head of youth development at Liverpool, has done a remarkable job to galvanise and reinvigorate a modest squad, one that was ravaged for its prized assets last summer, with Daniel James and Oli McBurnie departing for the Premier League. Only four of the players who finished the final game of last season started at Reading in midweek and their January recruitment has proved particularly fruitful, with Marc Guehi, Conor Gallagher and Rhian Brewster, all of whom worked with Cooper en route to winning the Under-17 World Cup with England in 2017, developing into key pillars. Coupled with the experience of Wayne Routledge and André Ayew, they have stirred a promising cocktail.
Cooper has leaned on the academy, too, with the 20-year-old defender Ben Cabango, who is on the radar of Wales manager Ryan Giggs, impressing in the absence of the injured Joe Rodon, with the average age of the 10 outfield players who finished the game on Wednesday just 23. The Chelsea centre-back Guehi has grown in stature – his heroic tackle on Reading’s Lucas Boyé just as the forward went to pull the trigger approaching stoppage-time in midweek, when Swansea still required another goal, may yet prove season-defining – Gallagher has added guile in midfield and, since Brewster’s debut in January, only Brentford’s Saïd Benrahma has bettered the Liverpool loanee’s return of 10 goals in 20 games.
But it is not just Cooper who has impressed in the dugout. His opposite number this weekend, Thomas Frank, also earned his stripes by managing his country at youth level, coaching Denmark’s under-19s before taking charge of Brondby. It is likely to be an intriguing battle between two of the division’s tactical thinkers, a meeting of minds.
For Brentford, the impact of missing out on a top-two spot remains to be seen but Fulham, manager Scott Parker says, are primed for the occasion, with a little help from the club psychologist. This season has had its bumps but has been a breeze compared with the last, when relegation left mental scars. They are unbeaten in seven matches and in Aleksandar Mitrović they boast the division’s top goalscorer.
“At times this season, the biggest learning curves for us and for me to have developed were the times when we have suffered,” says Parker. “Losing games brings psychological doubt. Brentford away [when they lost 1-0], I remember the fans were very unhappy and the team was really low. When we lost three on the bounce [in December], with the expectation from the outside and all the pressures that brought, they were the moments where it flipped for us.
“They have been the key moments because all of sudden your words become real because, before that, you’re giving examples, constantly talking, and trying to sell the picture [to players]. But ultimately there comes a time when you need actions and when it physically happens, that’s when the lightbulb sometimes goes off in players’ heads. ‘OK, I understand, they were not just words, instances or scenarios, this has happened and it got us the result.’ Along the way, like any great team, Liverpool or whoever, you still have those moments and they are the ones you try to use to your advantage when you’re trying to develop players and human beings.”
Then there is Neil Harris, who guided Cardiff to fifth having taken charge in November when the club were languishing in 14th and going nowhere fast, prompting Neil Warnock’s departure. The former Millwall manager deserves huge credit for reviving a flailing season. Not so long ago, he was viewed as an underwhelming appointment and he acknowledged supporters’ clamour for “a big name who has won the Premier League or the World Cup”, but the play-offs will surely suffice. “To change people’s perception is not always easy,” Harris says.