Swansea City were so close, yet so far.
The Welsh side reached the Championship play-off final last season, only to be edged out by a well-drilled Brentford side in the showpiece at Wembley.
The optimists will say that it represented progression for the club, having reached the semi-final stage 12 months prior.
But in a division where it is becoming harder to bridge the gap to teams armed with parachute payments, Swansea face a real challenge to ensure their upward trajectory continues next season.
As if that wasn’t enough, the uncertainty over manager Steve Cooper’s future will hardly help matters.
Cooper, quite rightly, has been linked with jobs at top flight clubs in recent months. It is a sign of just how good a job he’s done at Swansea.
Indeed, last year’s feat of reaching Wembley was achieved in only his second season as a senior manager.
His CV was already a stand-out one following victory with England in the under-17 World Cup four years ago. That earned him the gig at the Liberty Stadium and his reputation has only been enhanced in the ensuing two years.
But are Swansea, and indeed Cooper, now at a crossroads?
As mentioned, the Championship isn’t getting any easier.
Last season saw two clubs seal immediate promotions back to the Premier League, with another finishing in the top six.
Next year will see Sheffield United, Fulham and West Brom heavily-fancied to go straight back up too.
Loan signings have been a huge factor in City’s success over the past two seasons.
In 2019-20 goalkeeper Freddie Woodman played a major role, whilst the January arrivals of Marc Guehi, Conor Gallagher and Rhian Brewster added a youthful look to the team’s spine. Guehi stood out defensively, whilst Gallagher’s creativity and Brewster’s 11 goals surged the team into the top six.
Two of the quartet returned on loan deals this season, with Woodman winning the Golden Glove award for a superb haul of 20 clean sheets, whilst Guehi enhanced his reputation even further with a series of commanding displays.
They played a pivotal role in helping City reach Wembley only to come unstuck against a Brentford side that were ruthless on the day.
Both Woodman and Guehi now returned to parent clubs Newcastle and Chelsea respectively and are unlikely to be back any time soon. Add their departures to the exit of star player Andre Ayew and Swansea suddenly have a decent-sized rebuild on their hands.
It’s well-documented that Ayew’s wages were the highest in the Championship, but you cannot put a price on the 31 league goals he’s scored across the past two seasons.
Those strikes, and Ayew’s personality, were crucial to the Swans achieving a top-six finish. After falling short, it came as no surprise when the Ghana striker’s departure was confirmed, such is the sobering financial landscape of football right now.
Now, they have to go again. A third successive campaign where they must slog it out over the course of a punishing and gruelling Championship campaign.
If Cooper is the man tasked with mounting such a challenge then he will want to avoid the fate of one of his predecessors.
Carlos Carvalhal bossed Swansea in the second half of the 2017-18 campaign, and was unable to prevent them dropping out of the Premier League.
But before that experience, he was in a similar boat to Cooper’s side now.
The Portuguese took over at Sheffield Wednesday with little fanfare. He wasn’t a well-known figure within English football and in general fans didn’t really know what to expect – much like when Cooper arrived at Swansea in 2019.
But Carvalhal built an entertaining Wednesday side and led them to back-to-back play-offs. They, like the Swans in future years, were dreaming of a Premier League return but they fell short on both occasions.
The third season was the one where many thought it would finally be their year, but instead the wheels fell off. Poor signings and a lack of momentum had them regressing and Carvalhal was axed before Christmas with the team 15th in the table.
Cooper’s first comments since that recent Wembley defeat were quite telling, in that he appeared to suggest he is ready to have a third shot at glory with the Swans.
He said: “When you lose a final, it is hard to feel like you have had a really good season.
“We have had a really good season, but we will have to come again.”
If he does remain in South Wales, Cooper will be desperate to avoid a hangover campaign and instead ensure it’s third time lucky for the Swans.
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