In a pocket of south Wales, there is a patch home to some of England’s burgeoning talent. Since taking charge at Swansea, Steve Cooper has borrowed or signed five players who were part of his victorious team at the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, but perhaps the most precocious talent from that group will line up for the opposition when Manchester City visit in the FA Cup fifth round. Phil Foden never came close to becoming the sixth. “If we did ask the question, I think we would’ve got a swift reply,” Cooper says, smiling.
Foden, Cooper says, spent that tournament with a ball close to his feet everywhere from the training pitches to the hotel corridor. He scored twice in the final and flew home from Kolkata with the Golden Ball. Conor Gallagher, Morgan Gibbs-White and Rhian Brewster are playing in the Premier League after reuniting with Cooper on loan at Swansea; Marc Guehi has returned on loan from Chelsea for a second season; and Joel Latibeaudiere, who captained England to victory over Spain in the final, has signed from Manchester City.
Then there is the goalkeeper Freddie Woodman, godson of Gareth Southgate, who has returned for a second spell from Newcastle, and the forward Morgan Whittaker, who worked with Cooper’s assistant Mike Marsh across England’s age groups and signed from Derby last month.
City are renowned for their slick artistry, with Foden enjoying the role of Pep Guardiola’s creator-in-chief, and Swansea, too, pour forward with purpose, particularly via the boundless energy of the wing-back Connor Roberts, but Wednesday’s meeting will also mean the league’s meanest defences will collide.
City, who have won their past 14 matches, are top of the Premier League and Swansea’s push for promotion from the Championship is built on solid foundations, with Woodman keeping a league-high 15 clean sheets. Guehi has been outstanding and the England Under-21s manager, Aidy Boothroyd, presumably left impressed after taking in Friday’s win over leaders Norwich, another clinical and remorseless performance.
Swansea’s academy has supplied a stream of Welsh talent, including Ben Davies to Joe Allen, and, more recently, Daniel James and Joe Rodon, who left his boyhood club for Tottenham on deadline day in October. Spurs paid £11m for the defender, a sum many Swansea supporters consider daylight robbery, but the signing of Ryan Bennett on a free has eroded any concerns over the defensive hole they feared his departure would leave.
Bennett has slotted into Swansea’s three-man defence, alongside Guehi and the 20-year-old Ben Cabango, the latest academy graduate with Wales honours. It may be unfair to paint Bennett as a no-frills defender, but the 30-year-old, who nine years ago came within hours of signing for Swansea before turning around on the M4 and heading for Norwich, is among a dying breed who tuck shirt into shorts before games. “My son has picked up on that and now every time he tucks his shirt in he calls himself ‘Benno’,” says Cooper, smiling.
“Ryan has been a really good addition. I realised quickly that you do need a good balance of youth and experience: the wide-eyed, fire-in-the-belly young players and the experienced, wily old players who can add the right advice at the right time.”
Swansea are third in the league and, while City pose formidable opposition, a win from the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. The last time Swansea met City, in 2019, Matt Grimes opened the scoring, but Sergio Agüero’s controversial winner, which was marginally offside, led Guardiola to strike an apologetic tone post-match, when Graham Potter was in charge.
It is not just Foden who stays in touch with Cooper in the City camp. Cooper worked with Rodolfo Borrell, Guardiola’s right-hand man, while academy manager at Liverpool, where he coached Trent Alexander-Arnold and Raheem Sterling, and studied Guardiola’s Barcelona before taking charge of England’s Under-16s.
City’s former director of academy, Mark Allen, credited with helping nurture Foden and Jadon Sancho, was recently appointed to the same role at Swansea.
On the face of it, Swansea are in a good place, but the elephant in the room remains their American owners, who broke cover last week, acknowledging in an interview that they have made mistakes since taking over in 2016. It is almost 18 months since Swansea City Supporters’ Trust got a mandate from its members to take legal action against the club’s former and current owners over the sale of the club, although no proceedings have started.
Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan bought a 68% controlling stake, with the Trust retaining 21.1%. The Trust welcomed the interview but there remains friction between some supporters and the owners. “We are doing well in spite of them [the owners], not because of them,” says Steven Carroll, editor of the fanzine Swansea Oh Swansea.
Potter worked minor miracles, further enhancing his reputation by guiding Swansea to a mid-table finish and Cooper, who led the team to the play-offs on a modest budget last season, has made a similar impression. “He deserves all the credit in the world,” says Nigel Davies, editor of the fanzine A Touch Far Vetched. “He projects a calm and focused approach to things – he doesn’t get too carried away – and even though it’s not the free-flowing football we saw under Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martínez and [Michael] Laudrup, it is not boring stuff. And he gets results.”