A trip to Old Trafford on Sunday will evoke some happy memories for Paul Clement. The Swansea City manager won at Manchester United with Chelsea during his time as Carlo Ancelotti’s No2, and ruined Sir Alex Ferguson’s 70th birthday when he tasted victory with Blackburn Rovers as assistant to Steve Kean, yet it is an evening spent in the away end with West Brom supporters that strikes a chord right now.
It was 2005, the penultimate weekend of the season, and Clement made the journey to Old Trafford to cheer on Neil, his brother who was playing for a relegation-threatened West Brom side who were on their way to pulling off what would become known as their great escape. “I was a coach at Fulham in the academy at the time, I went up from London on the train and I was sitting up in the corner with the West Brom fans,” Clement said. “It was 1-1 and proved to be a massive point.”
With West Brom going on to survive on the final day, Clement would be more than happy for history to repeat itself. Swansea, third from bottom, are two points behind Hull City with four matches remaining and Clement anticipates this relegation battle going right to the final day.
After a damaging run that brought only one point from six games, including a potentially critical 2-1 defeat at Hull, last Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Stoke City gave Swansea a shot of confidence when they needed it most. “What a difference a performance and a victory makes for the mood – it’s incredible,” Clement said. “Training – everything – is completely different.”
Clement is consumed by the challenge. He gives the impression he is not leaving a stone unturned – “You think through everything, it is there 24/7” – yet he has also come to realise he needs to be decisive with his actions, which was the case with the Stoke match. He made several big calls before and during the game, including naming the evergreen Leon Britton in the team for the first time since his appointment as manager. The midfielder was outstanding.
Clement also changed the playing system to a midfield diamond that afforded Gylfi Sigurdsson more freedom and meant Swansea could play with two strikers, giving them an aerial threat via Fernando Llorente, who headed in his 12th goal of the season, but also an outlet in behind through the willing running of Jordan Ayew. “I think the dynamic of Llorente and Ayew was good,” Clement said. “Ayew’s physical statistics were almost off the chart.”
Yet the decision that really raised eyebrows was made in the 58th minute, when Swansea were leading 1-0 and Clement decided to withdraw Llorente, the leading scorer, and replace him with Mike van der Hoorn, a central defender. Many Swansea supporters looked bemused at the time, even angry in some cases, but Clement, clearly scarred by that chastening 3-1 home defeat against Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the month, explained he felt compelled to act and would not be afraid to do so again.
“I remember making the change and about two minutes before I was thinking: ‘I have got to do this now because I will regret it if I don’t,’” Clement said. “I look back at the Tottenham game when we were 1-0 up and I have regrets about what I did not do then. I don’t want to have any regrets. I just want to go with it. I want to be confident in making the decision. If it proves to be wrong, it is wrong. But I think it is worse not making the big call and then looking back later thinking: ‘I wish I had made that decision.’ I would rather do it that way and lose, as opposed to sitting on the fence, not being bold and brave.”
With a touch of good fortune – Marko Arnautovic missed a penalty and 60 seconds later Swansea scored a second through Tom Carroll’s deflected shot – Swansea got over the line to pick up one of the three victories between now and the end of the season that Clement believes are vital to their survival chances.
After United, Swansea host Everton, followed by a trip to Sunderland – who will almost certainly be relegated by that stage – before finishing up with a home game against West Brom. All the while, Swansea will have an eye on Hull, who travel to Southampton on Saturday and could widen the gap at the bottom before Clement’s players take to the field at Old Trafford.
“Whatever happens in that game, we’re going to approach United in the same way,” Clement said. “I think we just have to focus on our performance and that’s really what we did very well when we went to Liverpool [and won 3-2]. Forget it’s Liverpool, forget it’s Anfield, focus on a good performance and we’ll see what happens. That’s what we’re here to do.”