Last season was a significant one for Stephen Kingsley. The Scottish left-back started his first English Premier League game at the Emirates Stadium in a match against Arsenal last March, becoming a first-team figure at Swansea City. Ultimately, it turned out to be a watershed moment in the 2015-16 campaign for the Welsh side.
With Kingsley in the team Swansea claimed a remarkable 2-1 away win over the Gunners, sending them on a streak that saw them lose just three of their final 11 fixtures to conclude the season. Having spent his first two seasons as a Swansea player on loan at clubs in the lower leagues – at Yeovil Town and Crewe Alexandra – Kingsley became an integral figure, with his rise into the first-team fold coinciding with an upturn in form which saw the Swans secure top-flight survival.
Now, however, Kingsley finds himself on the outside looking in as the South Wales club enjoys another season-saving resurgence. The 22-year-old has made just two appearances since the turn of the year, losing his place in the Swansea City lineup to January signing Martin Olsson as the club has won five of their ten fixtures under new manager Paul Clement.
“It has been difficult not playing too much,” he admits. “I’ve only had a handful of games under the new manager. I’d like to have played more. The reality of it is that if the good form continues I might not get much of a look-in until the end of the season. Martin [Olsson] has come in and has done very, very well. When things are working you’re not going to change much. My only objective now is to impress in training and take my chance when it comes.”
Kingsley got that chance against Bournemouth last Saturday, with Olsson missing out through injury. The Swans, however, suffered a disappointing 2-0 defeat, sucking them back into trouble near the foot of the Premier League table. Kingsley, along with the rest of his team-mates, is preparing for a hard slog between now and the end of the season. Whether he plays a significant part in that slog is something Clement will decide.
Bob Bradley saw Kingsley as his first-choice left back, but the American only lasted 86 days and 11 games at Swansea. As the first American coach in Premier League history, his nationality became a talking point during his time in South Wales. One newspaper claimed Swansea’s players dubbed Bradley “Ronald Reagan”, while Soccer AM dedicated an entire segment to parodying the former USA and Egypt coach and his use of Americanised terms like “PK” and “road game”.
“He had an American style about him, especially in some of the things he said,” says Kingsley, attempting to explain why things went so badly so quickly for Bradley in South Wales. “It was something the players were obviously aware of because it is a little different, but it wasn’t something that ever came into conversation. It wasn’t really discussed or anything, it was just seen as who he was. I don’t think being American counted against him in any way, certainly not within the dressing room.”
Clement, as a character, offers something different, although the former Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain assistant has turned around Swansea’s form by simply going back to basics, according to Kingsley. “He’s not named dropped anyone yet,” the left-back laughs.
There may have been no mention of Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Robert Lewandowski in training, but having a coach of such pedigree, who has coached such talents, has certainly played a role in re-floating the sinking Swans. “He has worked with some of the biggest clubs and the best teams, but I think he’s really enjoying the challenge at Swansea,” continues Kingsley.
“I think he believes in us to be much higher than we are right now, I think that’s reflected in the results we have had [under him]. He doesn’t really mention players he’s worked with, but the way he talks and the way he holds himself, you can tell that he has worked at the top level.”
The hope for Kingsley as an individual is that Clement, a coach who excels at the coaching side of management, will aid him in reclaiming his place in the Swansea starting lineup, developing him into a proven Premier League performer. Should he do that, international recognition will follow, just as it did towards the end of last year.
Named in Scotland’s squad for November’s World Cup qualifier against England at Wembley, Kingsley had started to force his way into the national team fold. But he wasn’t too surprised at missing out on a place in Gordon Strachan’s party for this week’s matches against Canada and Slovenia, given how little he has played of late. The competition is tough, too, with Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Lee Wallace named ahead of him.
In any other generation Kingsley, who moved to Swansea from Falkirk in June 2014, would surely boast more than just the single cap he has to show so far. He finds himself a part of perhaps the finest rank of Scottish left-backs in history, with Robertson, Tierney, Wallace and Kingsley all scrapping for inclusion. So does such competition for just one place exasperate Kingsley?
“It’s not a frustration, no,” he explains. “I think the other boys would tell you the same thing – it’s a case of proving yourself. It’s more of a challenge that there is such competition for that one place in the team. That competition is a positive, not a negative, but first I need to get back in the team at Swansea and that gives you a better chance of a call-up. It’s difficult because there is so much talent at left-back, but you have to accept that challenge.”