Both managers secured a first point with their new clubs but it will be Russell Martin who will be the more satisfied as his injury hit Swans side held their own against Slavika Jokanovic's promotion favourites...
Martin will rightly be extremely pleased with his side’s performance, which was much more assured than the display at Blackburn on the opening day, against arguably better opposition.
The improvement was made all the more impressive given the fact that Martin lost his two most experienced defenders before the game, Ryan Bennett and Kyle Naughton being replaced by rookie Brandon Cooper and left wing back Ryan Manning, both of whom slotted into the back three as if they’d been there all their lives.
A little further forward Flynn Downes made an immediate start to his Swans career after signing from Ipswich earlier in the week for a deal said to be over £1m
The visitors included ex Swans loanee Rhian Brewster in their line up and former Swans striker amongst their replacements – £50m in transfer fees, give or take, between them, a testament to the strength of a Sheffield United squad mostly intact after its relegation from the Premier League last season.
It promised to be a tough but interesting night for the home side and with the twin joys of welcoming a very popular new managerial appointment and revelling in the first live home game in 525 days (I know, I know, I keep using that stat!!) there was a buoyant atmosphere amongst the 16,000 crowd.
There were two particularly interesting interested observers in that crowd; Man Utd youngster Ethan Laird was there ahead of a medical on Sunday whilst American board member (NOT INVESTOR) Jake Silverstein was also present at a Swans game for the first time.
The late Saturday night kickoff time and the presence of the SkySports cameras added to the air of excitement and anticipation.
The buoyancy gave way to poignancy though just before kick off as Kevin Johns – back where he belongs, warming up the Swansea City crowd – delivered a moving tribute to all those fans from both sides that lost their lives during the Covid pandemic, and the NHS staff that helped so many more survive it.
Against that seething cauldron of emotion the game itself was a little bit of an anti-climax with the Swans confident in control of the ball but lacking in the final third and the Blades happy to cede possession but make better use of what they did have. If the away side had been more clinical that tactic would have worked, delivering all three points, but Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick in particular were way too wasteful and a goalless stalemate was probably about right on the night.
Optimism tempered by realism rippled through the stands as Martin’s first home game kicked off and his side started in confident fashion, looking to pop the ball about at every opportunity.
It almost went disastrously wrong right from the start though as Steven Benda so nearly got caught out with the ball at his feet again, just as he was in costly fashion the week before when he was robbed and then deemed guilty of giving away a penalty for what turned out to be the winning goal.
This time the big German keeper got lucky as his slow reactions allowed David McGoldrick to charge down his kick and there was a collective holding of breath by thousands as the ball shot past the post.
Benda allowed himself a wry and rather sheepish smile, knowing he’d well and truly dodged a bullet, whilst the crowd let out the breath they’d been collectively holding and went back to singing and chanting in support of the home side.
The players responded accordingly, passing and probing, new signing Flynn Downes in particular at the heart of things. Occupying a deep lying spot next to his new skipper Matt Grimes, Downes did his best to dictate play, buzzing around and demanding the ball at every opportunity and popping it off constructively as soon as he received it.
The probing almost paid dividends as makeshift right wing back Joel Latibeaudiere found himself with space inside the box from Cullen’s set up, but his right footed shot was blocked. The rebound was also blocked but that was as much due to Cullen slipping at the crucial moment as it was down to good defending.
The home side kept up the pressure and Downes quickly found himself with a shooting opportunity and with the East Stand encouraging him to shoot, he let fly from distance but his effort was well over the top.
The little flurry in the final third ground to a halt though and the Blades hit back on the counter, but Benda was well behind McGoldrick’s effort.
Billy Sharp was the next to test Benda, heading goal-wards from a free kick, but in keeping with the rest of the half the finishing was poor. It didn’t seem to overly bother the home crowd who were delighted to see the Blades fluff their lines and content to watch their own side dominate possession whilst attempting to attack and create chances even if the ambition didn’t come off.
And so the fans were largely happy as the first period drew to a close even though their side had failed to register a shot on target despite having more than 65% of the football!
The first half had kind of petered out, taking on the air of a testimonial for the last ten, but within a few minutes of the restart the heat got turned up from slow simmer to boiling. It was referee Keith Stroud moving the dial really as he booked Matt Grimes for a fairly routine challenge. Having seen the away side indulge in a few far more “robust” challenges without punishment, the yellow for the Swans captain cranked up the noise among the home fans.
And the heat continued to rise as the Blades escaped with a few more questionable challenges. It didn’t help that former Swan Brewster – cutting an isolated and frustrated figure out on the wing – adopted the ‘Norman Wisdom’ approach to front play, falling over in comedy fashion whenever a challenge came near him.
Brewster wasn’t the only one practicing social distancing on the touchline – both Bidwell and Latibeaudiere were finding acres of space but too often they were ignored, the player in possession electing for the shorter pass in crowded areas instead.
As the hour mark approached Jokanovic made his first changes, Ben Osborn replacing Oliver Burke and Oli McBurnie coming on for Sharp. McBurnie came on to a warm reception from the Swansea faithful, as much for his gesture paying for the funeral of Mitchell “Little Mitch” Powell and consoling his family in the stands as for his spell knocking in goals for us a couple of years ago.
Mind you, the ‘love-in’ lasted only as long as it took for McBurnie to get himself involved in a couple of tasty tussles with the outstanding Ryan Manning who adapted brilliantly to his new centre half role.
Martin responded with a change of his own, hauling off Jamal Lowe for Joel Piroe, the former’s last contribution of a quiet evening being his best contribution as he worked a chance for himself and finally tested Ramsdale in the United goal.
Sheffield’s subs soon threatened, Osborn feeding McBurnie the lanky Scot’s effort was well blocked close in.
With the home side still looking short up front and now suffering from a slow down in midfield as the likes of Downes and Paterson tired, Martin rolled the dice again by bringing on Morgan Whittaker for the ineffective Cullen. I don’t know what Whittaker has been feeding on over the summer but he suddenly looks like a Wesley Snipes stand in and his introduction brought a bit more directness and trickery to the front line.
However it was the Blades that finished the game stronger, creating a clutch of chances that were quite frankly wasted. McGoldrick and Osborn badly missed the target in quick succession, the former with a free header and Osborn with a right footer that sailed over the bar.
With clock ticking towards the 90 minute mark Yan Dhanda came on for the clearly knackered Paterson as Martin continued to try to win the game – a refreshing change from the previous regime’s ultra cautious approach.
There was time left for McBurnie to get his name taken and earn some jeers instead of cheers as a naughty challenge saw the ref brandish a yellow card but with the five additional minutes almost up, the Swans couldn’t take advantage of the resulting free kick and an entertaining game came to close without a goal.
There was a fair bit of competition with both Brandon Cooper and Flynn Downes both impressing on their competitive debuts, but Manning made the award his own with a composed but combative performance in an unfamiliar centre back role.
Just under 16,000 packed into the Liberty Stadium for their first look at the new Swans manager, and their first taste of live football in nearly a year and a half – and they were treated to an encouraging display against the recently relegated promotion favourites. There was plenty of passing to admire but also resolute defending by both sides. Only the absence of goals knocks a point off the rating.
There were no goals to cheer, there were precious few threatening moments from the home side, but that didn’t seem to matter to the fans packed into the Liberty Stadium once more.
There was genuine joy at being able to simply experience a match day routine once again, and an appreciation of what the manager is trying to do and the time it will take to get it right.
It also helped that certain players thrived on the night; new signing Downes looks a very useful addition and he’ll get better once he builds some fitness.
Young centre half Brandon Cooper slotted in seamlessly in the absence of Ryan Bennett and he can be a ‘Poster Boy’ for going out on loan as his spell at Newport last season appears to have been the making of him.
And of course Ryan Manning excelled in that left of centrelot in the back three. I confess I was hugely sceptical when the game kicked off and it was he and not Bidwell in that position, but Manning made a mockery of my concerns and he’s put his hand up to be a real option in that position in the future.
The downside was the lack of threat in the final third. Jamal Lowe looks even less like an orthodox striker and Liam Cullen looked lost operating in tandem with Paterson just behind Lowe. Time and additional personnel will see Martin sort things out but it needs to improve pretty quickly as goals not only entertain the masse, they also win games, and we need to pick up points as we go on this journey of rediscovery of the Swansea Way.
All in all it was a hugely encouraging evening. There was a marked improvement over the Blackburn defeat and plenty of positives.
There was also a crucial point, and one secured against a strong favourite for promotion, albeit one still struggling to come to terms with relegation.
Hopefully the improvement will continue on Tuesday night against Stoke – but with a home goal to send the horrible Potters home in defeat.