Danny Swanson will play one of his first matches for his beloved Hibs against both the manager and club who gave him his big break in senior football 12 years ago.
When the 30-year-old former Dundee United, Peterborough, Coventry City, Hearts and St Johnstone midfielder rocks up at Shielfield Park for his new team’s pre-season friendly against Berwick Rangers on July 11, he will surely allow his mind to drift back to where and when it all took off for him. John Coughlin, who was Berwick manager in summer 2005 and is back there now in his second spell in charge of the club, recalls talking a chance on the little Leith Athletic teenager when no-one else would.
“I was at school with Danny’s uncle Stevie and I knew the Swanson family pretty well,” Coughlin told the Evening News. “We kept in touch over the years and people kept talking to me about Danny. He was at Leith Athletic but he wasn’t going anywhere fast as no other club would look at him because, physically, he was very small. We brought him down to train at Berwick, not necessarily as a favour, but on the insistence of Stevie and his dad John. They said ‘listen, take him into training and he’ll change your mind’ and he did change my mind very quickly.
“I think a few of the players were surprised I’d brought Danny in because he was so small but after one or two training sessions, they were like ‘by the way, where did you get this guy, what a player.’ He was a very, very good talent. Temperamental at times, but a fantastic footballer, and that was recognised very early in his Berwick career. He made a fairly instant impact.”
Although blown away by his raw talent, Coughlin had concerns about Swanson’s physique and lack of tactical discipline potentially preventing him moving into the full-time ranks.
“Straight away, I could see he had the football ability, but I did doubt whether physically he’d develop well enough to go full-time,” said Coughlin. “He also had his own rules about how to play, so I had to try and get him to adapt. I was actually a bit annoyed when I read an article after Danny went to Dundee United and Craig Levein was saying Danny had been allowed to do what he wanted on the pitch – that wasn’t true. Anybody who knows me will know I’m hugely disciplined in what I do and big on organisation. He did take a wee while to get used to coming out of boys football and playing first-team man’s football and get to grips with what I wanted from him, in terms of what I was expecting from him on the discipline side of things. But ultimately his football talent just superseded everything else because he had so much ability to beat people and make things happen.”
Within a couple of years of playing for Berwick, Swanson, who had been working as a plumber, was attracting attention from full-time clubs. Dundee United ultimately snared him for around £40,000 midway through the 2007/08 season when he had just turned 21.
“He became a players’ favourite and a fans’ favourite at Berwick,” said Coughlin. “He was our star asset, and when it became time for him to move on, he didn’t have an agent so I actually helped him do the deal with Dundee United. I wasn’t acting as his agent – it was a case of me helping him out as his manager and his friend and trying to steer him in the right direction.
“Hamilton came in for him first and Billy Reid was desperate to buy him, so we went there and had a look around but he didn’t fancy that at the time. With no prompting from me, Danny immediately said when we got in the car ‘it’s not for me.’ A lot of guys at that stage would have got starry-eyed and jumped at it because that would have been a big move for him to a club who have a reputation for developing young talent, but I thought ‘fair enough, you know your own mind.’ Then within days, Dundee United made their move and I took him up to Tannadice. The deal was done within a couple of days.
“United were riding high under Craig Levein. It was the right deal for Danny to take at that time, and he’s never looked back. If he stayed at Berwick, he might have missed his opportunity and never made it to where he is now. He needed that move to develop at a full-time club.
“He’s certainly benefited from going full-time because you see a different Danny Swanson now. He’s had a good career, made a bit of money and had some good moves. You don’t go down to Peterborough and Coventry City if you can’t handle it physically, so he’s obviously worked really hard at that, but I think he needed the full-time environment to bring him on. If he hadn’t got the chance to go full-time when he did, he’d probably still be playing in the lower leagues just because he wouldn’t have had the same chance to develop himself physically. There were certainly never any issues about his ability on a football field. He could beat people for fun and score goals. He’s a really good guy who comes from a great family, and I’m glad for them all at how it’s turned out for him. Sometimes you just need somebody to give you a chance. We gave Danny that and he took it with both hands.”
The main surprise for Coughlin in relation to Swanson is that it has taken so long for the mercurial Leither to finally get taken on by his local team.
“Hibs wouldn’t look at him when he was younger,” said the Berwick manager, who is also an Edinburgh-based Hibs supporter. “I remember people asking at the time why Hibs weren’t looking to sign him. He was a boyhood Hibs fan on their doorstep and I think a lot of people felt they had missed a trick in not taking him at the time when he went to Dundee United [in 2008]. He’s taken a long time to get to Hibs, but I think a lot of people will say he should have been there long before now.”
Coughlin believes Swanson, who scored 15 goals for St Johnstone last season, will thrive on his move to his boyhood team and illuminate Easter Road with his natural talent.
“The Hibs fans will love him,” said Coughlin. “He’s got the ability to excite people as soon as he gets on the ball and there are very few of those in Scotland just now. There’ll be an air of excitement around Easter Road when he gets the ball. He’s got so much creativity.
“He’s one of those boys you think ‘if you were born in Spain, you’d have had international caps years ago’. The Spanish would value the type of talent he has, whereas in the British leagues we look more towards the physicality of players.
“He’s got the change of direction, which not a lot of players have, even at the top level. Right foot, left foot, it doesn’t matter to him. At St Johnstone, Tommy Wright let him play wherever he felt he could cause the most damage and you’d see him popping up all over the park. In a 4-2-3-1, Danny’s perfect for any of those three attacking midfield positions. To me, he was always a No.10 because he was such a creative player behind the main striker.
“As a Hibs supporter myself, I’m excited to see him playing for Hibs and making things happen and scoring goals.”