It was easy to believe in Michael Laudrup. Between a legendary playing career, Jon Hamm’s looks, and a philosophy that melts the heart of any ‘play the right way’ aestheticist, it’s no wonder the man was being linked with so many big job openings last summer. It didn’t hurt that his latest team, Swansea City, had just won silverware in England, but even if the Swans hadn’t claimed the League Cup, Laudrup’s mystique would have still created links to Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. After all, who doesn’t want to hire Don Draper?
As we’ve found out over Mad Men’s last eight years, perfect hair, a bone-cutting jaw, and the charisma to captivate beyond explanations leads to false belief. Now, with Swans chairman Huw Jenkins forced to call time on his Don, Swansea fans are left wondering what will become of their team now that their Draper has been shown the door.
Perhaps that’s too dramatic. Swansea of all teams is used to changing coaches. But as Jenkins pointed out in his announcement, this is the first time in a decade Swans have had to dismiss a boss. Before Laudrup, Brendan Rodgers had brought the Welsh team into the Premier League, using the club as a springboard to Anfield. Prior to him, Paolo Sousa guided the Swans before taking off for Leicester City, and before that, Roberto Martínez made his managerial name by taking Swansea into the second tier. All the while, Swansea maintained an approach that played progressive in addition to winning soccer. All the while, Swansea kept moving up the English ladder.
Laudrup seemed like a perfect fit – somebody whose reputation could match the ambition of a club that had established itself in the first division. Denmark’s greatest player ever — somebody who starred for all of Juventus, Barcelona, and Real Madrid — Laudrup would add a level of panache that could elevate Swans beyond Rodgers’ and Martínez’s success. For a club that had never won a major title, drawing a man of Laudrup’s mystique to the Liberty Stadium was a relative coup.
That coup produced immediate results. He was able to leverage his experience in La Liga, bring in Michu, and win silverware in his first year. If Laudrup was Swansea’s Don Draper, then 2012-13 was his carousel:
Silverware makes you believe, so in the same way we didn’t worry about the empty bottles coming out of Don’s office, it was easy to overlook Laudrup’s problems. A murky past that didn’t add up to his present plagued Don as much as Michael, only where Draper never talked about Dick Whitman or Korea, nobody mentioned Laudrup’s one-season stints at Getafe, Spartak Moscow, or Mallorca. Where Don Draper disappeared to Southern California to hit on Anna’s niece, Laudrup let Swansea regress after claiming the League Cup. Distracted, intoxicated by his Draper-ness, Don lost his edge, just as winning a trophy make Laudrup forget.
Swansea are supposed to be the underdogs. They’re supposed to be Welsh upstarts. They’re supposed to be the feel good story that appeals to the neutral’s hearts. They’re not supposed to be resting on laurels, deserting Pete Campbell to lounge in the California desert. They’re supposed to be chasing Dow Chemical.
On Tuesday, our perceptions finally caught up to reality. Laudrup ceased being the hero. Unable to find new solutions, and with rumors from behind the scenes describing tensions that forced Jenkins’ hand, Swansea could no longer ignore the obvious. The club is two points from relegation. They’ve gone from playing beautiful, flowing soccer to holding the ball with little product. The man they were paying to help them build beyond the mire was guiding them back into it. It was time to move on.
For some, today’s move was a surprise. Had Laudrup been a little less Draper, it wouldn’t have been. It’s been over a season since Swansea played to the standard Laudrup inherited. He pushed the club to its greatest glory, but he was also on the brink of leading them to a debilitating failure. Sterling Cooper had to move on from their Jaguar high, just as Swansea had to move on from the League Cup. At some point, the lesson’s so clear it’s painful: Not even Don Draper can avoid getting results.
The same year Mad Men debuted (2007), we started to see the cracks in Laudrup. Until then, the then-43-year-old was perfect, building on near rarefied playing success with four successful seasons at Brønbry. But he saw himself as too big for Getafe, never adapted to Moscow, and resigned rather than be troubled at Mallorca. Even before Swansea, he’d become a drifter, his new career an ill fit for an icon.
Swansea were given no choice but to move on. In the process, we’ve come to see a new Michael Laudrup. This wasn’t a coach building toward a place at a bigger club. This was somebody holding on in the face of failure, and as much as we want him to succeed, we’re forced to see him as flawed.