Angel Rangel on the highs and lows at Swansea: We lost our way under Monk

In Depth

Joining Swansea City in June 2007 changed Angel Rangel’s life. At the age of 24, he was finally a full-time professional footballer, and he would go on to become a club legend over the next 11 years, developing close ties to the city and the supporters during the most successful period in their history.

Rangel made 374 appearances for Swansea and won two promotions as well as the 2013 League Cup. Gradually establishing themselves in the Premier League, the Swans held their own in European competition before the ideals that had underpinned their remarkable ascent were compromised.

The abandonment of Swansea’s principles, culminating in relegation in 2018, still pains Rangel, but he speaks of his time there with great warmth. It’s where he played the best football of his career, at the highest level possible, made lifelong friendships, met the woman who is now his wife and started a family.

“Swansea will always be my club, and I love the club one million per cent,” says Rangel. “I like to believe that it’s the same for them towards me.

“The journey we had, and the memories and everything we experienced together, will never go away. I still keep in touch with so many people at the club.”

‘I’ve got nothing to lose here’

Before joining Swansea, Rangel was playing for Terrassa in Segunda Division B, Spain’s regionalised third tier.

Crowds of just a few hundred were commonplace and La Liga was a long way off. He was on a part-time contract and working as an accountant while hoping for his big break, which arrived unexpectedly.

In South Wales, Roberto Martinez had recently returned to his former club as a novice manager with serious ambitions. He wanted to play his way out of League One and was looking for technically accomplished players who would suit his system.

Having gone to scout a member of the opposition, he discovered Rangel by chance and soon made him a key target.

“Roberto talked very well,” Rangel says. “He mentioned to me about the stadium being full every game, and the brand of football he wanted to play. He sold me the opportunity in a very good way, because I also had the opportunity to go to a top 10 team in Greece.

“Even though they were in League One, Roberto was telling me, ‘This club’s going to be in the Premier League in a few years. We’re going in the right direction.’ I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to lose here.’ It seemed like he believed in me and I made that decision then.

“It was a big step for me. You start a new chapter in every single way – life, culture, different country, different football. Everything was new, but it was a great challenge, and it became a great opportunity.”

Rangel’s first season in South Wales was a triumph. Swansea comfortably won the title and he was named in the PFA Team of the Year alongside four colleagues – Garry Monk, Andy Robinson, Ferrie Bodde and top scorer Jason Scotland.

Swansea then made a seamless transition to the Championship, continuing to dominate the ball against much better established and more expensively assembled teams.

The incoming Paulo Sousa as manager made slight adjustments to their style of play, but their commitment to possession football never wavered and they continued to punch above their weight.

“In League One and the Championship we had a very low budget,” Rangel says. “To be different to the rest, who were investing more money than yourself and have got better players, you need to find another way. I think that’s what the club was trying to do.

“Huw Jenkins was a very smart chairman, appointing the right managers to bring in the right players with the right style. At the end of the day, when you’re on the pitch it’s 11 against 11, no matter what, and the team will always beat individuals.

“We always played as a team, always with the same philosophy, regardless of the result. You trust the process. We got promoted the first season, then it took us three years to actually get into the [Championship] play-offs. But we never changed.

“We had some bad days, and the fans weren’t happy sometimes – a lot of backward passes and sometimes you don’t get forward as much as you’d like to – but that’s part of the process, and in the end it paid off.”

The most special day

After twice finishing just shy of the play-offs, the Swans made it third time lucky under Brendan Rodgers’ management.

In the semi-final, Darren Pratley’s dramatic late goal from his own half completed a 3-1 win over Nottingham Forest at the Liberty Stadium. Facing Reading at Wembley, Scott Sinclair grabbed a hat-trick in a pulsating final in which saw the Swans triumph 4-2.

“That day will always be the most special one,” Rangel says. “When the final whistle went you just saw so many things in your head. All those years of working hard, and how many struggles and challenges you had to overcome to actually get to that point.

“I was out of contract after that game but still I knew I had achieved it. Not just me, but my family too, because they’ve always supported me.

“A lot of the boys in that team hadn’t been in the Premier League. It was a dream that we were chasing, and we all got it. It was a life-changing moment. Tears in the eyes. Happiness. I still get goosepimples now. It was a great day.”

Most pundits expected Swansea to struggle at the top level, questioning how they could continue with the same approach when faced with some of the world’s best players.

A humbling 4-0 defeat to Manchester City in their first Premier League fixture seemed to confirm their worst fears, but Rodgers’ side refused to change for anyone.

“You always have doubts because you’ve seen the top players wrecking defenders, but there was something about us. I think it was the stability of the club at the time, with a manager that was enjoying working with his players. He had so much faith in us.

“We were so close with each other – British and foreign players all together. We were going into games knowing that no matter who we played against we were going to try to dominate with the ball.

“You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to lose some. But that’s exactly what we did that first season with Brendan.”

Valencia (A)

Swansea grew in confidence and ended their first top-flight campaign since 1983 in 11th place. Incredibly, Rangel had more touches of the ball than any other Premier League player, demonstrating Swansea’s unflinching commitment to passing football, and the extent to which full-backs were expected to contribute to the attack.

Next year, a 5-0 thrashing of Bradford City gave Swansea their first major trophy. They had already done the hard work by eliminating Liverpool and Chelsea in earlier rounds, so were able to put on a show at Wembley as they secured qualification for the Europa League.

For Rangel, captaining the Swans to a 3-0 win over Valencia at the Mestalla was a perfect demonstration of the progress that player and club had made. It was the pinnacle of the Swansea project that Roberto Martinez had first shared with him six years previously.

“The fact that we were flying all over Europe to play games was unreal,” says Rangel. “We went to great places. The most special one was Valencia away. It was my first captaincy and we beat them 3-0 away from home.

“It was a fantastic day. I live only 45 minutes from Valencia, so all my family and friends came over to watch the game.

“Apart from that, we went to Switzerland, Russia, Romania, Italy. It was just a great experience. It does affect you in the league though. It’s such a tough schedule, having to play on a Thursday night and then on a Sunday, knowing that the others have already played on Saturday.

“You’re always catching up. It’s tough, but at the same time I would have loved to have done it in more seasons because it was incredible.”

Once Michael Laudrup was sacked in February 2014, nothing would ever be quite the same again. Swansea became a different team under Garry Monk.

They finished eighth in his first season, their highest placing during their seven-year stay in the Premier League, but were playing a more reactive brand of football.

“Instead of going for a manager who had some experience and could carry on the Swansea way, we went for someone who had been captain of the club, Garry Monk. He was a fantastic team-mate and a great captain, no complaints there.

“He took the job and kept us up. His first full season in charge he did a fantastic job, but we weren’t playing the same way. He didn’t want to play the Swansea way that he had played for so long himself and succeeded with two promotions.

“He decided to go for something more strategic in terms of formations. Being hard to beat, giving the ball more to the opposition and playing more counter-attacking football.

“It did work, but, in my opinion, that’s a way of playing where you will succeed in a short space of time, but you will become a surviving team in the Premier League. You need to have a clear identity, like we had before, to be able to establish yourself.”

‘It became a business’

It was a drastic departure from the much-fabled Swansea way and they became used to battling against relegation. Eventually, after cycling through several different managers in search of an answer, they succumbed to the inevitable in May 2018.

“It always seemed like a desperation move, a desperation decision, to try to get back on track. Huw Jenkins and the board sold the club to American investors and it seemed like, again, the club lost a bit of its nature as a family club. That was going away a bit.

“You could see that the club was a bit more cold. People in the offices were getting fired. They were getting rid of people who had been at the club for 20, 30 years. You could see things were changing. It became a business.

“Of course, football is a business, but you need to know the history and the nature of the club and the city, and what they’ve done in the last 20, 30 years. I don’t think that was the case.”

It was a sad end to a joyous chapter in Swansea’s history. Rangel, whose fortunes had become so entwined with the club’s, felt helpless and frustrated.

“In the last season, when we got relegated, I played like five games. I wasn’t involved at all. That was already very tough for me, not to be involved in a team that was struggling.

“I lost my head in training a couple of times because I was captain as well and I was like, ‘What can I do to help this team stay in the league? Because we are going down, no doubt.’”

Rangel had already been informed that his contract wasn’t going to be extended and he left that summer. He was at least granted one final appearance at the Liberty Stadium, even if it did end in defeat to an already relegated Stoke City.

“It was great to have a farewell in the last game of the season. I had the chance to play that final game and say bye to all the fans and everyone at the club. It was very emotional for me and my family.”

A potential move to DC United, a club also controlled by Swansea’s American owners, fell through and left Rangel facing an uncertain future. He trained with Bengaluru FC of the Indian Super League but was still out of contract once the 2018-19 season started.

After QPR had lost their opening two games, Steve McClaren got in touch. His young squad needed some experienced figures to provide leadership in the dressing room and on the pitch.

“It was a great opportunity for me to stay in the UK, with a great, historic club. It was not too far from Swansea and I was very excited to go there.

“I’ve had a great time. My first season at the club was so enjoyable. Completely different to the Swansea way – a typical 4-4-2, more direct football. But I enjoyed it because everyone knew what they were doing, and we finished quite comfortable in the table. It was great to feel wanted again.”

Rangel, who turns 38 on Saturday, helped to steady the ship at QPR and was set to extend his stay before rupturing his Achilles towards the end of last season. Although he’s out of contract, the club are supporting him through his rehabilitation, and he remains determined to get back to fitness and play on for a while longer yet.

“Hopefully I can recover. I’m still far away from being where I want to be because it’s a long-term injury. I think I’ll probably be running in December or January. Hopefully they’ll let me train with them and I’ll go from there.

“If that means I can get a contract at QPR or somewhere in the lower leagues to finish on my terms and play a few games before I retire, that would be ideal.

“If it doesn’t happen, and I have to call it a day, I would still be very proud to say I’ve enjoyed a great ride in British football and it’s probably time to look at different opportunities.”

By Sean Cole

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