Heroes and Legends: Alan Curtis and the history of Swansea City
By Huw Bowen
In these days of the tabloid newspaper and Sky Sports hysteria about The Premiership, when a goal scorer is routinely described as a ‘hero’ and a foul-mouthed teenager is hailed as a ‘megastar’, it seems that we have almost entirely lost sight of the full range of the qualities that go into the making of proper footballing legends. The true legend – and we are talking here of Legends with a capital L – is more than simply a great player; indeed he is more than a hero.
First and foremost, of course, a Legend has to have possessed outstanding technique on the pitch, sublime skills, or trademark strengths which contribute to a tremendous playing record of achievement at a high level over a long period of time. That almost goes without saying. But he has to have much more than that. He has to possess personal qualities that earn him widespread respect from team mates, opponents, and fans; he has to have modesty, integrity, and time for people; and he commits himself to a club for a large part of his life, through thick and thin, good times and bad. He might somehow have played for another team (yes, evenCardiffCity), but he is always associated with only one club. Above all, perhaps, he has that little extra – the X factor, if you like – which enables him to represent the very essence of his club, defining it for an era and sharpening it a sense of identity. Thus heroes come and go, but Legends are rooted in a club. Indeed, to take the meaning of the word ‘legend’ literally, they are men who are inscribed deeply into the history of a football club. These men are, therefore, very few and far between, and under the terms of these strict criteria, it can be said that The Swans have had perhaps only three such Legends: Joe Sykes, Ivor Allchurch, and Alan Curtis. Discuss!
It is certainly true that the Swans have possessed many great players, a good number of number of whom were local boys, whose skills and exploits mark them out as special in the club’s rich history: Jack Fowler, Cyril Pearce, Cliffy Jones, Terry Medwin, Mel Charles, Mel Nurse, Robbie James, Ante Rajkovic, and Bob Latchford, to name just a few chosen randomly from across the decades. But these players (and others) all only flowered briefly at the Vetch or they are associated with major success at other clubs before or after their time with the Swans. They were all heroes in their time, but they did not become legends. Of course, but for the tragedy of an early death Robbie James might well returned to the Swans in some off-the-field capacity and thereby written himself even more deeply into the history of the club; and long after his playing career was over Mel Nurse took a major part in successive battles to save the club from extinction. Consequently, both come very close indeed to elevation to the status of Swansea Legend (Okay, okay, I could be persuaded).
Then again, the Swans have had their fair share of committed loyal servants – once more, all heroes – who left their mark on the club over a period of lengthy service: Wilfie Milne, Reg Weston, Harry Griffiths, Herbie Williams, Wyndham Evans, Roger Freestone, and others. Again, I could be persuaded that in this category Harry Griffiths is properly deserving of the status of Legend, for his work and selfless sacrifice off the pitch after the end of his long playing career. And, of course, in a category of his own is John Toshack whose managerial feats were indeed legendary, but Tosh’s time at the Vetch can now be seen to have been comparatively brief (did the golden age really last for only five seasons?), sandwiched between a great playing career at Liverpool and an exotic management tour of Europe. BeyondSwansea, who do people most associate Tosh with: Liverpool,Swansea, Real Sociedad? It is difficult to say. No, if we are seeking true Legends – and here we are talking players not managers – it has to be Sykes, Allchurch, and Curtis; men who performed elsewhere but who were ‘Swans’ through and through, and who cannot be seen in anything other than a white shirt.
Joe Sykes played 314 games for the Swans between 1924 and 1935. Slight in stature and physique, he was the ‘doyen of the carpet passers’. He was a key component and inspirational captain of the very strong side of the mid- to late-1920s that in 1926 almost touched the twin peaks of an FA Cup Final and promotion to the first division. But he contributed so much more than that to the club when, following his return to the Swans as assistant manager in 1947, he played a crucial role in identifying, signing, and nurturing the local talent that came together in the attractive Swans sides of the 1950s. A quiet, modest, dedicated man who was widely respected and revered, ‘Mr Sykes’ as he was known to all encouraged a passing game that became a trademark style of a team blessed with a superabundance of attacking talent. As late as 1967 he was still dutifully serving the Swans as caretaker manager, his active commitment to the club having spanned over forty years.
Joe Sykes was a central figure in two golden eras – the mid-1920s and the 1950s – but Ivor Allchurch (whose mentor Sykes became) was THE golden boy of Swansea soccer. Nothing needs to be added to that statement because it is simply beyond dispute. Ivor might not have served the Swans off the field in the way of Joe Sykes, but his influence on the club, and indeed the town, was all-pervasive, and for two generations of supporters he was the Swans: a player without equal but also a quiet, unassuming gentleman. And in case we are being a little parochial here, let us remember that in 1998 the Football League included Ivor Allchurch MBE on its list of ‘100 League Legends’. Enough said.
And so, to Alan Curtis. The details of his career are outlined elsewhere and they show that he more than fulfils the qualifications needed by a truly great player. The record speaks for itself, but he was also a player of rare style, poise, and intelligence. Fans of a certain age will see in their mind’s eye a characteristic drop of the shoulder, a sudden change of direction, close ball control, and a lethal finish. All these attributes were evident when he played in a very poor Swans side of the mid-1970s but remarkably, perhaps, they came properly to the fore as the side got better and better during the Toshack era. Alan grew with that side, but he also became its most creative element, wreaking havoc on the right-hand side with his darting, jinking runs. He was in his prime just as the Swans arrived in Division One, and during that first season he became perhaps the most potent attacking force in British football, scoring goals but also creating them. Certainly he put Kevin Keegan – then the leading English light – firmly in the shade, and when Keegan’s side, Southampton, arrived at the Vetch in April 1982 , few neutral observers could have dissented from the North Bank’s raucously sung opinion that ‘We all agree, Curtis is better than Keegan’. The evidence was there for all to see, and just to prove the point Alan scored an effortlessly brilliant winning goal, involving a long run from the half way line, and a cool finish.
But, as has been stressed, this by itself is not enough for legendary status, and we have also to consider Alan as a club servant, and as a man. He has performed numerous off-the-field roles for the club over the last fifteen years, stepping into the breach on many occasions during far-too many times of crisis and somehow managing to keep the whole dilapidated and sometimes farcical show on the road. He has been through frequent hard times at the club – on one occasion his wages arrived as a bag of £1 coins – and he has met with disappointment, rejection, and indeed public humiliation. But throughout it all he has kept his own counsel, and behaved with great dignity and poise, loyally declaring that it is the club that matters most. There have been no histrionics, tantrums, or accusations; just a few calm, measured words, and then a retreat from the limelight.
To end on a personal note: I have only spoken to Alan Curtis on two occasions (or rather, being completely overawed, I mumbled some nonsense), but he listened to me patiently and answered carefully as he does to all who approach him. He did not disappoint, as do so many ‘stars’ or ‘celebrities’. There is of course no law that decrees that good footballers also have to be ‘good blokes’ – many are not – but it is uplifting when, to us who look on from afar, our playing idols also seem to be men of real substance and decency. It is because of this that, as with Joe Sykes and Ivor Allchurch, Alan Curtis personifies for me all that is great about Swansea Town/City football club. That is why he is inscribed at the very heart of the history of the club; that is why he is a true Swansea Legend (with a capital L).
First published in the match programme, v Fulham, 23 July 2005.
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