It's the moment we've all been waiting for as fans are allowed back into the Liberty...err I mean Swansea.Com Stadium. A sell out 16,000 crowd is expected to watch the Swans take on Sheffield of the United variety in a Saturday night fixture in front of the Sky TV cameras...
525 days…that’s how long it’s been since the majority of Swansea City fans were able to take their seat at the Liberty Stadium. And oh how things have changed since that terminally boring 0-0 with West Brom, and I’m not talking about the societal changes brought on by Covid that forced football to shut down for a period and forced fans to watch from the comfort of their home until the very end of last season, when small numbers were let back in for the play offs and major finals.
No, our club has gone through so much in that time, with two play off appearance, a raft of changes in personnel on the pitch, a change of manager, and even a rebrand of the stadium that now means I really should refer to it as the Swansea.Com Stadium in this preview and all others to come. But hey, if the BBC and Sky are still referring to our home ground as the Liberty then I’m just following the Liberty crowd by doing the same!
Most of all though it’s the change of philosophy and style that the new manager brings which means the 14,500 home fans that will be in attendance tonight do so with over excitement and relish instead of the reluctant habit that saw people take their seats to watch “CooperBall”.
And with Sexy Russ bringing his brazen, tarty, stocking and suspenders style to proceedings, and a strong (almost) Premier quality Sheffield United as opponents, this could be the raciest of encounters to welcome the fans back, and all in front of the Sky cameras too.
525 days…the long wait is over, time to tie on the Swans scarf and get ready to ruin every song and chant in our repertoire as we get behind Russ and the boys.
In last week’s Pre Match Musings I said that Russell Martin had a squad thinner than Dennis Lawrence’s left leg at his disposal, but this week he has a little more flesh on Big Den’s bone with Ryan Manning’s return from Covid protocols and the exciting arrival of Flynne Downes from Ipswich.
Whilst last week’s opening day defeat at Blackburn will have delivered some harsh lessons, Sexy Russ has had another seven days and a rampant win over Reading to not only learn about his new squad but also impart his ideas and lay down his laws.
Whilst Downes has come in, captain Matty Grimes has remained…for now. The influential midfield anchor could yet have a future at the club with suggestions of a little additional financial backing from the owners and the proceeds from the stadium naming rights deal providing a little financial breathing space. But for me, it all comes down to how much a Fulham or a Watford want the player – if either of those clubs, or another big hitter, makes a serious move then Grimes will be gone, neither player nor the Swans able to resist a big pay rise and a big fee respectively.
Although dogged midfielder Jay Fulton is still suspended and Liam Walsh is still covered by his mam’s letter to his PE Teacher, Sexy Russ still finds himself with some options.
The thrilling midweek win over Reading in the Carabao Cup saw several players putting their hands up for further selection; Joel Piroe impressed and got his first goal, Yan Dhanda found some strings to pull, Dan Williams continued to force his way into the picture and Morgan Whittaker again showed why he should have played more after signing in January.
But it was Joel Latibeaudiere playing right wing back that raised eyebrows and Wyndham Evans’ blood pressure in equal measure.
It all adds up to some interesting selection dilemmas for Sexy Russ as he seeks to select a side to excite his first crowd at the Liberty (yeah, that was deliberate!!) but also secure his first points of the season.
Just like the Swans the Blades have a new manager in place looking to install a more attacking approach.
And just like Russell Martin, new gaffer Slavisa Jokanovic got off to a losing start. Slav’s side dominated possession against Birmingham but were frequently undone by defensive mistakes.
That’s where the similarities end though. Relegated United are one of the favourites for promotion this season and their squad is still crammed full of Premier quality players. Their budget would make Julian Winter’s eyes bulge. Oh and Slav is nowhere near as sexy as our Russ.
It’s good and bad news for the Blades boss with sought after ‘keeper Aaron Ramsdale still between the sticks but dangerous French forward Lys is out injured.
Jokanovic’s big selection headache will be which former Swans striker he chooses to replace Mousset. Brewster or McBurnie? If Slav has any sense then he’ll go for the former for two reasons. Firstly, he should build on Brewster’s long overdue first goal for the club in the midweek win over Carlisle.
And secondly, Oli’s just as likely to jump into the East Stand, open a can Sennets Extra and start signing anti-Cardiff songs as he is to score past his beloved former club’s current ‘keeper.
The Ed's XI
More options, more knowledge of the players and more time on the training paddock will surely mean changes to the side that started against Blackburn last week. Although it won’t be a radical overhaul I’d guess.
Steve Benda made a costly error in last week’s defeat but aside from that he was excellent between the sticks and constructive with his passing from the back. He’ll keep his place in goal for sure.
Martin may make a couple of interesting changes along his back five on the strength of what he’s seen over the last seven days.
I’m tempted to think that Martin will try the Naughton/Latibeaudiere experiment again with the former taking up a place at the centre of the three centre halves bringing composure and a more reliable passing platform than Ryan Bennett can provide.
That’ll leave Latibeaudiere to occupy Naughton’s spot at right wing back, a prospect that has more credibility after a solid goalscoring performance in the position against Reading, albeit a young Royals side.
Bidwell, Bennett and Cabango will fancy their chances of occupying the remaining positions but Bidwell in particular will be looking over his shoulder at Ryan manning’s return whilst Brandon Cooper could force himself into the equation after impressing at Reading.
Midfield will be fascinating as Martin looks to absorb the absence of Fulton and the loss of Korey Smith to injury. Somehow he’ll have to incorporate the likes of Paterson and Dhanda alongside Grimes without leaving us too soft and vulnerable. I’m guessing it will be a little early to throw Downes in from the start, although he sounds like there perfect foil for Grimes, and so maybe Martin will be tempted to give impressive youngster Dan Williams another opportunity.
Up top there are four players vying for two places. Jamal Lowe will almost certainly take one of them although he’s yet to really get started this season. The man in possession of the other place, Liam Cullen, didn’t do himself any favours with a muted performance last week, his only real effect on the game seeing his two big chances saved by the Rovers ‘keeper. He’ll be sweating over selection with both new signing Joel Piroe and Morgan Whittaker making more impact in midweek.
So here’s my guess at Sexy Russ’s starting XI: Benda; Latibeaudiere; Bennett; Naughton; Cabango; Bidwell; Grimes; Williams; Paterson; Lowe; Piroe
What a difference seven days can make – schoolboy errors everywhere and a disappointing 2-1 defeat had the critics already sharpening their knives for Martin, but a majestic passing performance at the Madjeski (I ain’t calling it the “Select Car Leasing Stadium” – PAH!) had the pundits purring.
Sexy Russ has had the opportunity to properly prepare for this game and there should be a whole lot less unforced errors undermining our new passing game. Throw in the presence of the Jack Army in significant numbers for the first time 525 days (I’m sure I’d mentioned that stat somewhere before) and the Sky cameras for a night game at the Liberty and we’re all set for a good performance I feel.
But our opponents will be a real test with their squad still full of players that performed in the Premier League and a determination to right the wrongs of last week’s defeat to Brum and justify their label as one of the favourites for the Championship title.
Both teams registered possession above 70% in their defeats last week so we know we can look forward to plenty of football on the deck (wow, it feels good to say that!), and I’m betting we witness a high octane encounter with plenty of goals in what a predict will be a high scoring stalemate…