It’s the opening day of the 2011-12 season. Swansea line up against QPR at Loftus Road showcasing their brand-new centenary away shirt in the colours of the Welsh flag, whilst QPR are in their trademark blue and white hoops.
There were a plethora of fresh faces on both sides, most notably in the dugout where Danish legend Michael Laudrup inherited the successful foundations laid by Brendan Rodgers the season prior.
Swansea, the newly promoted underdogs, in their inaugural premier league season, had simply been a revelation, achieving a comfortable 11th place and looking entirely at home amongst the big boys.
Yet there was a weird tinge of trepidation. It’s not uncommon for a side to come unstuck in their proceeding campaign, owing to the oft-cited ‘second season syndrome’ or hangover effect. Their opponents that day were also nursing their own peculiar hangover, the champagne shared in mutual joy with Manchester City whilst securing last-gasp survival, in what will eternally be regarded as “the Aguero game”.
Yet the two sides fates couldn’t have been more divergent. QPR would finish the season rock bottom, and it showed on the day. Meanwhile, Swansea were in glorious ascendency. The Swans sauntered to a 5-0 win away from home, but in truth, it could have been about twenty. Laudrup had landed, yet on the day his limelight was stolen.
Making his debut that day was shaggy-haired Spaniard Miguel Perez Cuesta, or simply Michu to you and me. In a league with a global outreach but a largely insular fanbase, the immediate reaction to seeing him coming out for the new season wearing the iconic number nine was merely a baffled “Who the ‘eck is he?”.
Bemusement immediately morphed into astonishment eight minutes in, when the ball fell to the two million pound man who proceeded to nonchalantly curl the ball home from the edge of the area, left-footed and to the keepers left. It was a telegraphable shot but one so well placed that Rob Green was left clutching at air, unable to prevent it going in via the post. It was an enticing prelude to what would be a remarkable season
To prove it was no fluke, eight minutes into the second half he repeated the party trick, another nonchalant curl, but this time there was a bit more panache demonstrated. The ball was coming at pace from a low cross and Michu met it deftly, gracefully guiding it high into the adjacent top corner.
He spontaneously burst out into his now signature celebration, cupping his hand to his right ear whilst rotating it frantically. Fifty three minutes into the season and he was somehow a fan hero already. Scoring in the next two home games only served to intensify the hype around Swansea’s rough diamond.
Watching Michu play in the white of ‘the Swans’, with their club centenary shirt carrying a luxurious golden trim, seemed to import a Madrid-esque aesthetic to the Liberty Stadium. He was a manifestation of what everyone admired about Spanish Football – the glory and finesse that tacticians worldwide sought to capture.
At that moment in time, Spain were both World and European champions. Swansea already had a certain Mediterranean flair courtesy of fellow countrymen Chico Flores and Pablo Hernandez. However, Michu represented the icing on the proverbial top. He was a luxury player, but not in the way that is oft-used as a euphemism for lazy.
Instead, he was smooth, silky and had an eye for the spectacular. There was a bit of an intangible genius to his performances too, brilliant, but in a way that’s hard to fathom. He wasn’t quick nor possessed with agile dribbling skills, actually, he scarcely dribbled at all. It was all about effective movement and awareness, popping up at the right time to receive and meet the ball, conducting the tempo of attacks and making space invading runs.
If you watch his Swansea goals, there is no instance where he is left to clumsily sort his feet out like a drunken line dancer. Instead, his body seems to be perfectly aligned to the target as if it was born that way with his head always up.
In front of goal, his composure stands out a mile amongst the homogenous chicken-headedness of the Premier League, always taking the optimal number of strokes of the ball as though it’s one of those training matches with a three or two-touch limit, before inevitably bending it into the corner.
Another overlooked Michu impact was that he routinely tested the mettle of the leagues very best defenders. In the 12/13 season, he scored against Chelsea, twice against Man United and three times against Arsenal. Thus, over a quarter of his goals output were against that season’s top four, respectively. His performances were so eye-catching that he managed to play his way into the all-conquering Spain squad, starting in a qualifying victory over Belarus. This proved to be his first and only international cap.
The high point of his time at the club culminated in a League Cup victory over banana skin Bradford, who had upset the likes of Arsenal and Aston Villa en route to Wembley. Many predicted them to do the same to Swansea in the final.
In truth, they were never even given a kick. In the 15th minute, Michu made a smart run out wide left, before cutting in and placing a laser-esque shot towards the right-hand corner, the keeper produced a wonderful save, but he couldn’t prevent diminutive winger Nathan Dyer from slamming home the rebound.
On the eve-of half time, Michu received the ball, back to goal. As he turned, the defender backed off half a yard instead of pressing him. This provided the millisecond he needed, to turn opportunity into a left-footed finish into the corner.
It was reminiscent of something from the UFC, one momentary indecision and down you go. It would have been kinder to end the game there as Swansea romped to yet another five-nil victory. It remains the only trophy Michu and Swansea have ever lifted, and in the process qualified them for Europe the following season.
Instead of kicking on, the following season marked the start of an irreversible physical deterioration. Following a persistent ankle injury, Michu was continually rushed back into the fold, ‘the Swans’ desperate to utilise their kingpin and Michael Laudrup under increasing pressure to sustain the miracles of the previous season.
It was a no-win situation as Michu was visibly not the same player and Laudrup had proved himself to be incapable of tactical flexibility. Without the Spaniard, Swansea were incomplete yet playing with him only exacerbated his ankle problems.
Before he waved goodbye, Michu had one final brilliant performance to offer up in a Swansea shirt. The pure red away shirt he first wore had evolved into a futuristic purple and yellow monstrosity and whilst his body was visibly failing him, Michu offered up what can now be regarded as a golden goodbye with a goal and an assist against the Spanish giants Valencia away from home.
It finished 3-0 to the Welsh club at the Mestalla that day, a result that probably ranks as the club’s second most famous.
Swansea now had a new toy in the form of a red-hot Wilfried Bony and a change of approach. As cruel that sounds to Bony, whose first spell at the club was magnificent, you can pinpoint his signing as the moment where Swansea went astray. Gone had Rodgers tiki-take-lite, going was Laudrup’s fluid passing game and incoming was the homogeneous “sign the top scorer in the Dutch league the previous season” attitude.
Laudrup was swiftly sacked and proceeding his well-built side were a largely contradictory bunch of managers and players, to the point where their squad was left with no clear orientation or purpose.
The real reason Michu is held in such high regard is irrespective of his graceful playstyle, red-hot form, bargain price tag or even iconic celebration. It is the fact that he was the last of a dying breed, a thinking man’s signing with absolutely no hope or pressure attached to it. This is an ode to Michu, the final “Who the ‘eck is he?” that came out of nowhere, to blow people’s minds.