Before Fernando Llorente, Wilfried Bony, or Michu, Lee Trundle was the man Swansea City turned to in search of goals. A much less expensive or exotic signing, joining on a free transfer from Wrexham in the summer of 2003, he turned out to be perhaps the most thrilling of them all.
Across four seasons Trundle scored 86 goals and embarrassed countless defenders, briefly returning on loan the year before Swansea reached the Premier League. It was a remarkable journey that started at the foot of League Two and saw the striker play an important and iconic role.
“People say to me all the time, ‘I bet you wish you were playing now’. And of course I would have loved to have played in the Premier League for Swansea – it would have been a dream come true. But I don’t look at it with any envy. I look at it with pride, to see that I’ve played a part in getting the club to where it is now, along with many others,” Trundle tells The Set Pieces.
During that first spell at Swansea, Trundle became something of a phenomenon, a viral footballer before the era of social media. Highlights of his audacious tricks and joyful showboating became a staple feature of Soccer AM and the media landscape that surrounded it. YouTube videos racked up thousands of views.
The first player outside of the Premier League to sign an image rights deal in the flush of his Swansea City fame, Trundle was yet to play higher than the third tier at the time. A promotion and a Football League Trophy were the most tangible achievements of this period, but a deeper and more meaningful connection was created with the club’s supporters.
“I’d always lived in Liverpool, even when I was at Wrexham. Coming to Swansea was the first time I’d moved away from home. When I first signed it was only a year’s contract because I didn’t know whether I was going to like being away from home. You’re living in the city, with the fans, so when you’re out and about you’d have them speaking to you about the football and everything. I just managed to get involved with the club even more.
“The way they were gave me license to go and express myself. I was never afraid of making a mistake because if I tried to do something and it didn’t come off then the fans would still clap. That gave me the encouragement to keep going. It’s a special relationship. I’ve been at other football clubs and with other fans but they took me in straight away.”
Trundle’s four years at Swansea spanned the move from a dilapidated Vetch Field to the modern expanse of the Liberty Stadium. Always something of a freewheeling maverick, but with a devotion to football and honing his technique, he was the exceptional individual in a team that included Garry Monk, Leon Britton, Roberto Martinez and Adebayo Akinfenwa, amongst others.
There were some big characters at the club, but Trundle always stood out. While most, the durable Britton aside, have since moved on, the 40-year-old is still a regular at the home of his adopted team. A Swansea City ambassador, he enjoys chatting to fans and playing a role in the local community.
‘Entertaining’ is the first word Trundle reaches for when asked to describe himself as a player. It is a fair summary. The sort of skills that were normally the reserve of console games or freestyle footballers were a regular sight in South Wales during an eventful career.
Trundle has never lacked confidence but was a continual source of frustration for many coaches when he first started out. Trials with Tranmere Rovers and boyhood club Everton came to nothing and he entered the local non-League scene. There was interest from professional sides over the years but Trundle’s attitude and commitment were in doubt.
“I always believed in my ability and I knew, in a way, that I was the one stopping myself being a professional footballer. It was how I was applying myself. I don’t think my ability was ever in question. There was a time when I was at Chorley that I went on trial to Preston. I played in a reserve game and scored two. David Moyes was the assistant manager then.
“He dropped me back off at my house in Liverpool and he said they had a day off but could I make my way up on the train on the Thursday. I just never turned up. There were stupid things like that. I did it to a few clubs – Crewe, Charlton.”
Trundle played for fun and with a smile on his face, like his idol Paul Gascoigne. He was reluctant to take things too seriously but a cycle of self-sabotaging behaviour was brought to an end by important developments in his personal life. The time had come to grow up.
“Looking back now, my heart wasn’t in it and I didn’t take it seriously enough. There were times when I should have been training with my non-League club but I’d just rather go down the youth club and play five-a-side so it was more my mindset that was the problem.
“I changed that when my ex-girlfriend was pregnant. As soon as I found that out, that’s when I knuckled down and started doing my own training as well as training with my team. Within 15 games of that season I’d been sold to Wrexham.”
Trundle had already scored a remarkable 17 goals by that stage, and the move was sealed with a hat-trick in a trial match against his future employers. He adapted well to the professional game during two-and-a-half years at Wrexham, ending in automatic promotion from the Third Division.
But, somewhat surprisingly, the striker then decided to take a step down to Swansea City, who had only just avoided falling out of the Football League altogether with a final day win over Hull City. It was a chance to be reunited with his former Wrexham manager.
“Brian Flynn is a massive part of my success and me being a professional footballer. Him and his assistant, Kev Reeves, worked really well with me and when I got the chance to work with them again, it was something that I jumped at. It was that freedom, and the way he man-managed me. He knew how to get the best out of me.
“He knew what buttons to press and when to press them. He built the team around me. We had a structure in place and then he’d just tell me to go out there and do my thing. Giving me that freedom got the best out of me because I felt I could go and express myself.”
Trundle did just that, delivering some great performances. He scored once on his debut and a hat-trick in only his third appearance as Swansea came from behind to beat Cheltenham Town 4-3. By the end of the season, he had become the first player to score 20 goals for the club in a season since Robbie James in 1982. Trundle repeated the feat each year.
His second season ended with Swansea claiming the League Two title, and they won the LDV Vans Trophy in his third. Trundle scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win over Carlisle at the Millennium Stadium but his post-match celebrations drew the most attention. He wore a top showing a Swansea fan urinating on a Cardiff shirt and held aloft a Welsh flag that said ‘Fuck off Cardiff’.
The police and football authorities weren’t impressed. Trundle and teammate Alan Tate were punished, but cemented their legacies in the process. “Obviously we got into trouble. We got arrested for it and had to go to the police station. We got a one-match ban, fined a week’s wages and even an ASBO because it was an offensive message.”
All the while, Trundle was becoming more well-known through Soccer AM. They first featured him plucking a ball out of the sky on his chest, rolling it around his neck and then clipping it through for a teammate. The programme opened his antics up to a wider audience and he soon became a willing accomplice.
“It took off for me because of Soccer AM. That’s why people would recognise me outside of Swansea. It got me more national exposure. In the end, instead of having to go through all my games to see if I’d done anything, they said, ‘Any chance if you do something, you could get a look at the clock and give us a rough time of when you did it?’
“So I’d find myself doing tricks in games and looking up to see how many minutes had gone so I could let them know, to save them scrolling through a full match,” Trundle laughs.
Much of it may have seemed improvised – flashes of brilliance or moments of inspiration – but his skills were heavily rehearsed. He put in the hours to make sure his moves worked, gaining an edge over flat-footed opponents as well as impressing the crowd. Underlying the playful exterior was serious application.
“I’d work my tricks in wherever I was on the pitch. I’d have different tricks for different areas, whether I was out wide or in the box. I’d work on them every single day in training. I’d stay behind and I’d always do my shooting after training and then I’d have a mess around with the ball for 15 minutes with different mannequins, just doing my tricks.
“It was something that I practised every single day. I felt it was important to keep doing that and obviously it helped. It’s no fluke that it comes off – it’s because you’ve been working hard on it through the week.”
This increased attention was followed by concrete bids in 2007, with Trundle eventually being prised away by Bristol City for £1million. As a late entrant to the professional game, he admits that money was the main consideration.
“When I left Swansea, football-wise everything was going great and I couldn’t really ask for anymore. The fans were brilliant and I loved living in the city but I didn’t turn professional until I was 24, and now Bristol were coming in with a big bid. Obviously the wages were a lot more with the signing-on fees as well.
“If I’m honest, it was more a financial move than a football one. I was happy at Swansea. I didn’t want to leave, but then this opportunity came up at 31 and someone’s willing to pay £1million for you. For me to look back on my career, that’s a massive achievement and something I’m proud of.”
The move represented a step up to the Championship, a level Trundle hadn’t played at before, and Bristol City fell just one game short of the Premier League in his first season, losing to Hull in the play-off final at Wembley.
Over time, Trundle found himself increasingly at odds with manager Gary Johnson and the club’s style of play. A bullish target man with assured touch and technique, he had been the focal point for Swansea’s possession-heavy style of play where wingers would come inside and work off him. Now they were racing down the touchline and Trundle couldn’t keep up.
After a couple of years at Neath, followed by brief appearances for Preston, Chester and Marine, Trundle retired in 2013. He still played socially with friends back home in Liverpool but the birth of a second daughter last summer meant he couldn’t travel up as regularly. A former teammate got in touch about playing for Llanelli Town.
“He asked me if I’d come down and I still love playing football so it was a chance to go and play on my doorstep. I went down and had a great season. I really enjoyed it. The team went unbeaten throughout the season – we won the league, we won the cup – and I managed to score 51 goals in 30 games. It was good to be back playing at a decent level and still producing,” he says.
Before signing him, manager Andrew Hill had asked Trundle if he still thought he was up to playing competitively. The veteran striker insisted he’d be the best player in the league. His performances, including nine hat-tricks and one that took just under four minutes to complete, convincingly backed up that claim.
Trundle was speaking just a couple of days after Llanelli Town’s opening game of the season in the Welsh League Division One. They beat Taffs Well 5-2 at home, with Trundle scoring a brace. Already off and running again, he shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
“I’m just going to see how my body is. While I’m feeling good and while I can do it I’ll just keep playing. I play for an over-40s team on a Sunday and they’ve got an over-45s, an over-50s, so who knows. My life is football and I just want to play as long as I can because that’s where I’m happiest – out on that pitch with a ball.”