Leon Britton: Swansea need same qualities now as we did in 2003 when we avoided dropping out of league

Jim White
Leon Britton was part of the Swans set up that nearly dropped out of the league back in 2002 - Rex Features

As the sign outside Pontybrenin Primary in Gorseinon, nine miles west of Swansea, points out, there has been a change of name. To mark the diminutive midfielder’s visit, the place has become Leon Britton School for the afternoon. Though in truth, if he manages to inspire Swansea City to escape from relegation, don’t rule out the alteration becoming permanent.

“It’s not often you get a school named after you,” Britton says, as he poses for pictures with a group of pupils under the sign. “Well, never, actually.” He is visiting to promote the Premier League’s Primary Stars campaign, helping the children engage in football-based mathematical challenges, before enjoying a playground kickaround and staying on to sign an autograph for every single pupil (plus many of their parents).

“Let’s have a look at your graph,” he says to one boy as he tours a classroom. “Right, so if Swansea get three points, how is that going to change things?”

It is the question of the moment hereabouts: with Swansea two adrift of safety with four Premier League games remaining, three points could change everything. City won their first game in six attempts last weekend when they beat Stoke. And for many fans the fact the win was recorded on the day Britton made his first appearance since 31 December was no coincidence. Because this is a player who understands Swansea, who shares a love of the club with the locals, who has been on the books – with a brief break for a season at Sheffield United – since 2002.

“Fifteen years,” he smiles, when he takes a moment from his new role as maths tutor. “What a journey.” Britton is uniquely placed to know quite how significant that journey has been. He is the only player still on the books who was involved the day Swansea faced a crisis even more substantial than their current predicament. Back in May 2003 he played in the last game of the season: City needed to win in order to preserve their league status.

Leon Britton is chased by school children at Pontybrenin Primary School Credit: Getty Images

“If the worst-case scenario came about and we were to drop out of the Premier League it wouldn’t have the same consequence as falling out of the league altogether, which was the threat we faced,” he suggests. “We drop down now, yes the money would be far less, but the club would carry on. If we’d dropped out of the league back then there was a real threat we’d have disappeared altogether.”

To reinforce the message of how far the club has travelled, ahead of his return against Stoke, Britton handed teammates DVDs of a documentary called Jack to a King, which charts Swansea’s rise up through the divisions since facing down that traumatic possibility.

“It was just to remind them of the hard work that has gone to getting us to where we are, how much it means to the fans, the city,” he explains. “When players come from abroad they don’t know too much of a club’s past, which is understandable. I just wanted them to be aware of our history.” Because history, he says, can be a most potent weapon.

“You can’t always go on about the past, but you’re not talking 40, 50 years ago. It’s not that long ago that we were trying to find somewhere to train, washing our own kit, no food, that sort of thing. Whereas people come to the club now, see the facilities we’ve got – that have come from six seasons in the Premier League – and they may not realise what went into it.”

Britton with children at the 'Leon Britton School' Credit: Getty Images

And there was one important message he wanted his colleagues to draw from his impromptu history lesson: “I think you need the same qualities to escape the situation we are in now that we needed back then.”

What has cheered him up – after he admits spending much of the season in an emotional trough, injured then ignored – was that he saw those qualities returning in the Stoke match.

“Togetherness, confidence, belief,” he says. That in turn led to an upsurge in the Liberty Stadium stands.

“If you’re being honest, expectations have changed,” he says. “I’m not saying the fans get on your back, but they expect a certain performance. Maybe as you grow used to being in the Premier League, it’s not that never-say-die attitude of before. But I’ve really felt that come back.” By an odd coincidence, the game that Swansea needed to win in 2003 was against Hull. Now, it is Hull who are in the club’s sights again.

“Of course we need to focus on doing our job, but you’d be a liar if you said the first question you ask when coming off the pitch was anything other than: how did Hull get on? Look at the remaining fixtures and they’re very similar.” For Swansea, the first of those fixtures is today at Old Trafford. Again, Britton says, there is a lesson from history. This is a place where they have had a good record: he played in a league victory there in August 2014.

“We also won there in the FA Cup. If you’re turning up at Old Trafford thinking we haven’t got a chance, then you might as well stay at home, have a nice Sunday off. You have to believe you can win there. And it helps that you have.”

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The return of the man who in 2014 completed more passes than Xavi or Iniesta in a season, has undoubtedly restored some of that belief to the Swansea team. Which is presumably why the manager Paul Clement decided to pick him again after such a long absence.

“Actually, we haven’t spoken about my position,” he says. “I’ve just tried to do my bit from the sidelines. Maybe he looked at me as someone who had experience of playing in a pressure game. He thought maybe I could help the team.”

Help he did. There was one moment that summed up his contribution against Stoke: he outjumped Peter Crouch, a man who stands all of 14 inches taller than him.

“I think he was bending over doing his shoelace,” Britton smiles. “Actually I can’t even remember going up for the header. But checking my phone when I came off the pitch I did get a lot of messages bantering about me doing him in the air. It shows when you want the ball, you’ll get it.” Perhaps it has given Clement an idea for a tactic against Manchester United: fire high balls to Britton.

“Yeah, maybe,” he smiles. “It just shows you sometimes the impossible is possible.” 

Leon Britton was visiting Pontybrenin Primary School as part of Premier League Primary Stars, a new national education programme that uses the appeal of the Premier League and football clubs to inspire children to learn, be active and develop important life skills. Find out how your school can get involved at www.PLPrimaryStars.com.

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