Swansea’s midfield pass-master Leon Britton shares his thoughts with Jack Magazine on why he believes the current Swans side is the best he’s played in, while reflecting on just how much has changed at the club since his debut at Exeter City in December 2002.
“Not a lot has changed,” Leon Britton jests as he reflects upon his debut at Exeter City on a cold Winter’s afternoon in 2002 and compares it with the situation he and Swansea City find themselves in 2015.
The Swans head into the New Year sitting proudly in the top half of the Barclays Premier League, having enjoyed their best first half of a season since the club’s promotion to English football’s top flight in 2011.
Victories over the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal have been accompanied by some stunning football displayed by Garry Monk’s side so far this campaign as they combine the stylish attacking play, which has become synonymous with the club, with a steely resilience that has made the Liberty Stadium a fortress to be reckoned with once again.
“This is the best team I’ve played in,” declares Britton as he sits down to speak to Jack Magazine at Swansea’s Fairwood Training Ground.
“I think I’ve said that every season since we were promoted to the Premier League, but we seem to improve year on year.
“Again, this season we’ve brought in some really good players and improved the squad. We have a lot of quality, but I think the difference this year from the past season or two is that we’ve tightened up defensively.
“When the manager came in, straight away he worked a lot on the team’s shape and to make sure that everyone knew their job when we were without the ball. I think we’ve seen the benefits of that.”
Certainly the hard-fought win at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season and other such victories represent a far cry from that December afternoon at St. James’ Park when Britton lined up for the Swans for the very first time as a teenager on loan from today’s opponents West Ham.
“At the time we were bottom of League Two,” says Britton, who has now made well over 400 league appearances for the Swans. “You would never have dreamed that we would be sitting ninth in the Premier League just over 12 years on. And even if you did, you probably wouldn’t dream that you’d still be a part of it all now.
“But I was just happy to play that day. Being in the reserves at West Ham, I just wanted to go out and get some games.
“I remember going up against two experienced midfielders in Kwame Ampadu and Martin Thomas – both ex Swans. We lost the game 1-0 but I really enjoyed it.
“It’s a game that I will remember and look back upon fondly when I finish my career.”
They wouldn’t have known it at the time but, in hindsight, the defeat to the Grecians proved a momentous day for both club and player as it marked the beginning of the love affair between Britton and the Swans.
The fairtytale story of their intertwining journey from the doldrums of the Football League’s basement division to the glitz and glamour of the Barclays Premier League has been well documented.
Over the course of 12 years, Britton has witnessed plenty of change from that significant day in December – in just about every aspect.
“From the facilities to the stadium to the teams we played against to the players we have now, you wouldn’t have ever dreamed that things could change so much.
“With all due respect to the players I played with back then – all good and honest lads – we are talking about international players at Swansea now, top quality players in the Premier League.
“It’s a world apart from my first game for the Swans. But I enjoyed it just as much then as I do now. It was a great group of lads back then, and we have a great group of lads now.”
As Britton touched on, Swansea’s impressive form this season, especially at home in SA1, has been greatly helped by a sturdy defence.
The Swans have kept eight clean sheets in the league so far this season, which Britton believes is down to the hard work that has taken place at the training ground.
“We aren’t conceding as many goals, while at the other end we’re scoring a lot,” adds Britton. “We’ve worked hard on the defence and we’re keeping clean sheets because of that.
“Obviously the manager was a defender, so he prides himself on clean sheets, which is what he wants from the team.
“He pays a lot of attention to detail. He and the coaching staff do a lot of work looking at the opposition, giving us ideas of what we need to do to prepare us for the game on the weekend.
“They’re very detailed in what they do, not just before the games but after games too. We’ll go over videos, look at what we’ve done well and what we can do better. It’s always about trying to improve.”
And the Swans will have to make sure they are once again defensively sound if they want to kick-off 2015 at the Liberty Stadium in winning fashion.
Like Swansea, this afternoon’s opponents West Ham have enjoyed a positive first half of the campaign as they sit in seventh-place in the Premier League.
Back in December, Monk’s men were on the receiving end of a 3-1 defeat to Sam Allardyce’s side after a brace from Andy Carroll plus a goal from Diafra Sakho overturned Bony’s opener at the Boleyn Ground.
For Britton, today’s game represents another opportunity to face his former side, whom he joined as a youth player from Arsenal in 1998.
And despite leaving the Hammers for Swansea having not made a single senior appearance for the club, Britton has fond memories from his time in East London.
“I enjoyed my time at West Ham,” says Britton. “I spent four years there and left school and decided to sign for them.
“Obviously it didn’t work out for me, which was disappointing, but I remember my time there fondly.
“It’s a good club – a family club – and they have a great tradition of bringing young players through, especially around that time with the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick and many others coming through.
“I have no regrets about my time there – I enjoyed it.”
Britton on working in the media
Unfortunately for Britton, a knee injury in pre-season kept him sidelined for the first few months of Swansea’s fourth year in the Premier League, before raucous reception from the Swansea faithful greeted the diminutive midfielder upon his return to action against Arsenal in November.
But while his injury layoff left him frustrated, it did allow the 32-year-old time to consider life after football.
During his absence from the pitch, the 32-year-old switched to the studio and the stands to talk about and provide insight on the beautiful game.
“It was the longest period I’ve been out in my career through injury and it was a difficult time,” admits Britton. “I just tried to keep myself busy and, at the age I am now, I know football can’t go on forever, so I need to think about different avenues for when I finish.
“The media side of things is something I like doing – I’ve done a few things with the club, with the BBC and with Sky. It was a good experience and I really enjoyed it, so it’s something I’d like to do more of if I get the chance.”