From the bottom to the top

9th December 2013

At just 20 years of age, Leon Britton was about to immortalise himself in Swansea City's history.
On loan from Premier League side West Ham, Britton was given his first taste of senior football by the Swans midway through the 2002-03 season.
But after swapping the bright lights of London and the glamour of the top-flight, the midfielder found himself in South West Wales at a club in serious danger of falling into football's abyss.
Financial problems off the pitch and continuous struggles on it meant that the Swans were perilously close to losing their Football League status by the time May 3, 2003, arrived.
A priceless away win against Rochdale the week before gave Brian Flynn's men a stay of execution, but they knew anything less than a win against Hull on the final day could see them drop into non-league.
At the time, it was expected to be Britton's last game as a Swan, with his loan due to expire shortly after.
Instead, it proved the beginning of a wonderful relationship between club and player - and a journey that would take the pair to the Promised Land of the Premier League. 
"I've played a lot of games since that day, but I remember it like it was yesterday," said Leon.
"The build-up to the game was so intense, and it was impossible to switch off during that week. I think there was a danger that we could be mentally tired before a ball was kicked, but it was treated like a normal game by the management.
"I remember the day of the game clearly. It was pouring down and there was a lot more people in the ground than usual during the warm-up.
"Curt got us in the huddle and drilled home how much this club means to everyone. It was very motivational, especially as he is a club legend."
After all the talking, build-up and anticipation, it was Leon himself who was in the thick of the action as early as the seventh minute.
The tricky winger was tripped in the box by Hull defender Steve Melton, with the referee pointing straight to the spot.
Local lad James Thomas converted the penalty to give the home side the perfect start, before two defensive errors allowed Hull to take a 2-1 lead midway through the first half.
"The atmosphere went so quiet," recalls Britton. "Thinking back, trailing 2-1 in a game of that importance, it still sends shivers down my spine.
"But we got a goal before half-time. I don't know if it was a penalty, but we didn't care if it was really handball or not. Thommo was cool as can be, once again.
"Getting in at half-time was massive for us. We knew we had 45 minutes to get ahead, because if we did that then the fans would carry us through."
Lenny Johnrose put the Swans ahead shortly after the interval before Thomas completed his memorable treble with a sublime chip over Alan Fettis.
"You couldn't write a better story with the local lad coming back to his club to save the day with a hat-trick," said Leon. "I don't think Thommo has bought a drink in Swansea since that game!
"After the final whistle went the crowd went crazy. The celebrations will never be forgotten."
The victory meant Brian Flynn's side stayed in the Football League, but that was just the beginning.
As for Britton himself, he was aware that his time at the club was at an end.
"I had to treat it as my last game for the Swans," he said. "We had a few lads on loan at the time and during that period we grew very attached to the club.
"We were all battling together - the players, the staff, the fans, the city. We were all determined to keep the club up.
"Loan or not, this was my club. That's how strongly I felt.
"I told Brian Flynn I didn't want to go back to playing reserve team football at West Ham and that I would sign for Swansea if I was allowed to leave.
"I only wanted to come here - I wasn't interested in anywhere else. I didn't even think of talking to any other club.
"The rest, as they say, is history."
Following that historic day at the Vetch Field a decade ago, a lot has changed in this part of south Wales.
Three promotions followed over the next eight years as Swansea City took their place on the biggest stage of all - the Barclays Premier League.
All of a sudden, the dream had become a reality.
"If you are being honest, we couldn't have dreamed we would be where we are now ten years ago," said Leon.
"To get promoted to the top-flight was a great moment for us, but we are now in our third season here and doing well again.
"It wasn't so long ago that we were just focussing on trying to get out of League Two. Then we had to get ourselves out of League One and once you're in the Championship, suddenly it is a case of one good season and you could be in the Premier League."
And if any player has epitomised the symbolic nature of Swansea's rise through the divisions, it is Leon himself.
After featuring across all four leagues, he passed the 400-game mark for the club last season as the Swans went on to win their first major trophy in the form of the Capital One Cup.
The Wembley arch was a far cry from his debut at Exeter as a wet-behind-the-ears youngster, and the 31-year-old was in good spirits when asked what he thought had changed since his senior debut. 
"I certainly haven't grown," he joked. "And I've lost the bit of pace that I had!
"But I think I've improved as a player over the last ten years. When I first came here I was 20 years old and wanted to try and beat players and do some tricks.
"Since then I've become a holding midfielder so my role has changed in the team somewhat.
"But as the team improved over the years, I had to as well otherwise I was at risk of being left behind."
Ten years on from that rainy day at the Vetch Field and both Swansea and Hull find themselves with a rather different outlook.
The Tigers secured promotion to the Premier League last season after a three-year absence, with Steve Bruce's side settling in well after a number of impressive results.
Swansea, meanwhile, are approaching the midway point of their third season in the top-flight, as well as standing on the brink of the knockout stage of the Europa League.
But tonight the two clubs meet on the biggest stage of all, and Britton believes the occasion is something to be savoured.
"It will be a tough test," he said. "I think they have settled into the league very well and picked up some impressive results so far.
"We were in their position not so long ago; you're fighting for your lives in every game and for every point.
"You work so hard to get to the Premier League that you don't want to be there for one season and then drop back down.
"Ten years ago we were both in the bottom division, albeit we needed to win that game to stay in the Football League.
"We have played each other since then in different leagues, but tonight shows just how far both clubs have come in such a short space of time.
"It's been a rollercoaster ride but a very enjoyable one."