At 31, there isn’t much Andre Ayew hasn’t seen.
He’s played at two editions of the FIFA World Cup and several Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, led his country to unprecedented glory at a junior World Cup, and even enjoyed quite a few Uefa Champions League adventures.
Even so, arguably the biggest game of Ayew’s career is still to come — just three days away, actually.
Saturday’s Championship play-off Final, truthfully, wouldn’t be the grandest occasion Ayew will ever grace, but its significance won’t be lost on him: the culmination of the effort and devotion he has invested in getting Swansea City, his club, back to the Premier League, where he found them in 2015 (and 2018).
They’ve come this far — well, almost this far — before.
Just about ten months ago, Swansea took in two Championship play-off games against capital-based Brentford that would define their season. Steve Cooper’s team had won the first 1-0 at home, before exactly zero fans, and looked to build on that slender lead in the second.
That task would prove difficult, and ultimately impossible, to complete. Brentford were the far stronger side, finishing the regular season third on the table (just two points shy of automatic promotion to the Premier League), with Swansea 11 points below in sixth.
The gulf between the two teams was painfully evident in how the second game turned out, with the Welsh club suffering a 3-1 battering. Brentford advanced to the final, against West London rivals Fulham, but their own failure to overcome that ultimate hurdle would have brought Swansea little comfort.
It couldn’t have been easy, especially on Ayew.
Six years after first joining Swansea, Ayew has grown to love the club even more than he did when he arrived from France’s Olympique Marseille. He believed, at the time, that “this was the right place” for him, and it’s safe to assume Ayew still feels that way.
That sentiment surely survived a difficult spell away from Swansea, after a club-record move to West Ham United which followed a great first year in England; if anything, Ayew’s struggles as a Hammer reinforced his conviction that the Liberty Stadium was truly where he belonged.
Home is where the heart is, right?
When Swansea offered him a return ticket — breaking the bank to do so — after a separation that lasted all of 18 months, Ayew couldn’t refuse a deal sweetened by the prospect of a reunion with his younger brother, Jordan (with whom he had played at Marseille); he’d missed home and, just as much, home had missed him.
Swansea, in Ayew’s absence, had laboured without a player it had quickly learned to rely on but hadn’t weaned themselves off, and his mid-season return was the spark expected to help halt the club’s slide down that season’s Premier League table.
It didn’t quite work, with relegation at the conclusion of the 2017/18 campaign ending Swansea’s seven-season stay at the top. In its aftermath, Jordan hurriedly sought a way out of Championship football, landing a loan move — later made permanent — back to the Premier League, with Crystal Palace.
Not many Swansea fans lost sleep over that departure or even regarded it as much of a loss, but there certainly was a sense of betrayal when the older Ayew left, too, for Turkish giant Fenerbahce.
It was bad enough that Ayew had failed to drag them to survival in his first season back, but to jump ship — even if only temporarily — once they had actually sunk?
The club, of course, might have wanted to hold on to its prized asset, and there were probably concerns over whether Ayew would want to stick around for the tough times ahead.
Swansea’s bigger worry, though, was the cost of keeping Ayew. No longer living the high life, they were actually more than a little relieved that Ayew’s big wages were being struck off their bill for a while — for good, possibly, if Fenerbahce would buy him outright.
But Ayew returned after a year, rolling his sleeves and entering the trenches to help Swansea get back on their feet. For two whole seasons now he’s been at it, and all that hard work nearly paid off last term, as related at the outset.
It was Ayew’s goal, a well-taken volley, that gave them the early advantage, going into that second leg against Brentford. As narrated, however, Swansea crumbled, ensuring their hopes would remain frozen for another season — this season.
Swansea are back for another push, having finished the regular season in fourth place, up from sixth last term, and with more points (although the race for Premier League promotion has generally been more keenly contested).
That improved performance — especially evident in the fewer goals Swansea conceded — gave them two advantages in the play-offs: of facing a lower-placed side, and of hosting the oft-decisive second leg.
And Swansea made the most of those perks, winning the first leg 1-0, away to a Barnsley side that had made quite a leap from last season to this one. Ayew, again, was the difference, scoring his 17th goal of the season (one more than he got in 2019/20) — a brilliant curling effort worthy of winning any game.
It hadn’t won the tie, though, and with ‘away goals’ not counting double here, they had it all to do at home. Playing before their fans (some 3,000 of them) for the first time in well over a year, Swansea drew on the positive energy cascading from the terraces to strengthen their grip with another goal before recess.
But Barnsley emerged strongly on restart, taking the game to their opponents and leveling the score on the evening to set up a tense finale. Swansea survived, with Ayew’s goal ultimately proving decisive and booking a place in the May 29 final at Wembley.
Brentford — remember them?
This season, too, the Bees have buzzed, only missing out narrowly on a direct Premier League ticket. But while they still finished ahead of Swansea, the margins were not so wide this time, and the latter would fancy their chances.
Brentford’s record in finals, after all, isn’t so good. They’ve lost quite a few over the years, including last season’s Championship decider that extended their wait for a return to the top-flight to 74 years.
Swansea’s own wait has been shorter — only three seasons long — but their hunger is no less intense, and few in their camp feel it more intensely than Ayew.
None, arguably, is more confident.
“Last season, when we had to win we had to play really well. We couldn’t win playing a little bit ugly. But this year we have become a complete squad,” Ayew told the BBC.
“We want to play football, but when it’s not on you have to match what the opposition brings. You have to deal with it and that’s what we have been able to do.”
That ability to grind out results has gotten Swansea through some hairy moments, as has Ayew’s appetite for the big occasion, and the Jacks would need both — and then some — against a Brentford side that reached a League Cup semi-final this season.
But what if even that, in the end, isn’t enough?
What if, despite the optimism and hunger, Swansea are, for a second successive season, unable to find a way back to the big-time after getting so close?
It’s a question Ayew has been asked, and which, surely, he must have asked himself.
“I’m not trying to think about what can happen because I want to put everything that I have into what’s coming,” Ayew, in a recent conversation with The Athletic, said.
“And if I say something now I will be a liar, because I don’t know what the situation will be. What I know is that we have a chance to get up.”
In the two summers since Swansea went down, Ayew has had offers — “for the Premier League, for Ligue 1, for Serie A etc,” he claims — but has chosen to remain involved in the bid to reverse the club’s fortunes, partly because he “took the responsibility (of relegation) personally.”
He might think nothing of playing in the Championship, insisting it isn’t beneath him even as Ghana captain, but Ayew might have little reason to keep the faith if Swansea don’t utilise the latest opportunity.
His obvious desire to return to elite-level football — in England or elsewhere — aside, the imminent expiry of Ayew’s current contract could also see him walk.
And even if Swansea believe he would continue to provide value for money for another season or two, it is worth noting that the parachute payments that have helped the club maintain Ayew as the English second tier’s highest-earning player cease at the season’s end.
Unless he’d be willing to forfeit a big chunk of his reported £80,000 weekly wage (unlikely), or Swansea sell some more of their other players to keep him pegged at that hefty five-figure sum (even more unlikely), Ayew’s time at the club could be over.
Like he said, though, it’s a few days too soon to contemplate that scenario. For now, ‘The King’ — which is what Ayew is called by his teammates, such is the reverence accorded him in the dressing room and on the coast of South Wales — still reigns.
For how much longer, though?
Saturday can’t come soon enough.
Yaw Frimpong — Ink & Kicks