Today we learned the sad news of the passing of former Swansea City manager John Hollins at the age of 76.
During my time as a fan, no one has had a longer spell in the dugout than Hollins, who was in charge from July 1998 until September 2001.
When he took over we were at a very low ebb, having just recorded one of the lowest finishes in our history – 19th in what is now League 2. But he would ensure an upturn in form as the 20th century drew to a close.
For my 11th birthday, my present was being Swans mascot for the home game closest to that date, which so happened to be Cardiff. The first event of the day would be meeting the manager in his office early in the morning as it was a lunchtime kick off.
I was greeted by a man burning with enthusiasm and he said I could sit in his chair and happily signed an autograph. He asked my name followed by “was it ph or a v” and when I told him “v” he quickly replied with “v for victory, remember that”. And he was true to his word as Matthew Bound struck late on for us to win 2-1, in what would prove to be the final derby at the Vetch.
One of the standout moments of his reign came a few weeks later. We’d despatched Millwall and Stoke in the early rounds of the FA Cup and were then paired with high flying West Ham and 3,500 travelled in hope of an upset.
It was one of the great away days of that era, the Jack Army were in full voice and looked like dumping out Harry Redknapp’s side when Jason Smith scored a superb header in the second half, but the Hammers secured a replay late on thanks to Julian Dicks.
But our chance hadn’t gone, and in front of a capacity crowd at the Vetch, Martin Thomas became the hero as we triumphed 1-0 to dump out a side three divisions above us. The full highlights are on YouTube and I would strongly recommend watching them sometime. It didn’t half make me realise how much I miss the old place.
Having missed out on promotion by losing to Scunthorpe in the Play-Offs at the end of that season, Swansea aimed to go one better in 1999/2000, and after an average start put together a sequence of nine consecutive league wins – a club record that still stands to this day.
Many of those victories were 1-0 and in truth that side was not easy on the eye. It was built on being solid at the back with strong centre backs in Smith and Bound, with the ever dependable Roger Freestone in goal. We only conceded 29 all season, and secured promotion by beating Exeter 3-0 in the penultimate game to set up a title decider at Rotherham the following week.
The title, a first one in over half a century was secured with a 1-1 draw, but it was put into perspective by the news of the sad loss of supporter Terry Coles before kick off.
In truth the following season was very disappointing, after barely strengthening the squad it was always likely to be a struggle. Even though when you’d see Hollins, as me and my father often would when I’d make my way to the East Stand before a game, he’d be coming out of the lounge in the corner having given a talk to the sponsors. That same enthusiasm and confidence would still be there, even though we were losing most weeks and most were resigned to our fate.
Relegation at the end of that season was no surprise and Hollins was relieved of his duties after a loss at Plymouth early on the next season.
In the years since we’ve been very spoilt so it’s easy to overlook this period in our history and as I’ve alluded to, you most certainly couldn’t call it the Swansea way in terms of style. But eight of my first nine season tickets were in the bottom division, and there wasn’t much to shout about. Yet he gave us a cup run and a league title in that three year spell.
I look back on those years fondly, as I’m sure many others do who were Vetch regulars.
Even though he’s no longer with us, his name will forever be in our history as one of only four men to lead the club to a league title and one who lead us to our record for consecutive victories. Something I’m sure he was very proud of. My thoughts are with his family and friends.