They say ”what a difference a day makes”, that ”a week is a long time in politics” and that ”a month is a long time in football”. Well, it has been a long eight months in the history of Cardiff City FC, since the Championship Play Off semi-final defeat to West Ham United.
After that defeat, the evening of May 7th 2012 turned quickly from on the pitch sorrows to boardroom fury, as rumours began spreading of a ‘re-brand’ of Cardiff City and hearsay that the club would be changing their kit from the traditional blue to a new, Malaysian red. The events since are well documented, with the Malaysian owners first backtracking, but then moving on with the re-brand anyway, resulting in the huge investment from owner Vincent Tan and the teams ascension to the top of the Championship. Being eight points clear of second and ten clear of third will do a lot to quiet the rebellious sections of the Bluebird support.
But as the ‘Keep Cardiff Campaign’ wanes, the average attendances continue to bulge and supporters have been inoculated to the red kit, the desire for change is spreading thin. The horrendous club badge is still detested but the idea of playing in red, and being a Malaysian outpost in South Wales, is now almost becoming a non-issue. This is a troubling trend.
We, as football fans, have lost sight of some of the important and most cherished aspects of being a supporter of your club. The quasi-religious footballing devotion consists of a family of conditionals and experiences that make being a supporter of your team so special. The journey to the ground, the constant team selection debates, meeting new people and making friends, pints under the stand and chewing over the footballing fat. The togetherness and huddling on the terrace when it’s cold and wet and nobody really wants to be there, the chants and humorous insults thrown at players, the little personalities you create for your favourite player and seeing your dad swear for the first time. The sense of belonging, the shared emotion of a sporting story unfolding right in front of you, seen with tens of thousands of eyes but creating a singular reaction and unified emotion. The stories, the days out, the goals, the grit with which both you and your team battle. These, along with wanting your team to justify the chant and actually become the greatest team the world has ever seen, are all equal and jointly make up what it is to be a football fan.
But we have lost our way, lost sight of these simple pleasures and have forgone them, as we add too much weight to the glory and the success. Cardiff City fans have forgone the tradition, the 100 year plus heritage of the club and have sacrificed them in order to achieve promotion to ”the promised land” of the Premier League. The sheer obsession with it has consumed us, we have forgotten that we are the bluebirds, that we wear blue, shag sheep and do the ayatollah. But furthermore, not only is this re-brand repugnant for all these qualitative measures and the selling of our footballing soul, the quantitative reasoning for the re-brand is so flimsy that is unable to justify the change.
The concept of a change in kit colour is not uncommon, in fact some defenders of the re-brand cite that at first inception, the club played in amber and chocolate quarters. This is true, but Bartley Wilson initially founded Riverside FC. It was only after the amalgamation with Riverside Albion that, in 1910, the club became Cardiff City and played in blue. Historically, the club recognisable as ”Cardiff City” has always played in blue and to equate Riverside FC with Cardiff City FC is to ignore logical separation. Whilst a caterpillar evolving into a butterfly remains the same individual life, you cannot equate the caterpillar with the butterfly, and you cannot equate Riverside with Cardiff City. Cardiff City FC has always been blue.
The next step for the defence is that child’s defence, that ‘because the other kids have done it why can’t I’? Yes, the likes of Liverpool, Leeds, Crystal Palace, Stockport etc have all changed the primary colour of their kit, but all have done so for sporting reasons. Liverpool’s switch to red was to be more intimidating, Leeds switched to white to try and be more like Real Madrid and other clubs have changed in order to be more like great teams. The fundamental idea was to increase the psychological chances of winning matches, winning trophies and being successful on the pitch. The Cardiff City change, however, aims to exploit the commercial opportunities and grow the Cardiff City ‘brand’ in Malaysia and the larger South East Asia market. Here is the crux of the issue. A rift forms between those who support the movement Against Modern Football and those who embrace how clubs are now run like businesses and how more money means better players etc. This, simply, reduces to personal choice.
And this would be a perfectly fine way to conclude, if the re-brand had justifiable financial benefits. It doesn’t. The £100 million (estimated) investment is coming from owner Vincent Tan himself and the change to a red kit, in and of itself does not generate that income. In fact, when first presented with the idea from the Malaysians, the then CEO Alan Whitely has confirmed to supporters that no business plan or figures were ever presented to the board and that Tan bluntly just said that ”he believed he could do it (i.e. make the re-brand work financially)*” Despite Tan’s impressive business and philanthropic record, this certainly would not be a basis on which to undertake such a drastic re-brand of a long and historic institution.
This scepticism has been echoed in a BBC Sport piece, in which Tom Cannon, Strategic Development Expert at the University of Liverpool Management School, explains the three-pronged approach you need to develop in emerging economies. The first is success, which Cardiff have not achieved (despite reaching the Carling Cup Final), the second is exposure, which is limited due to the club playing in the Championship and not the Premiership, and the the third is academy programs, which the club has only begun running the past few years. Add to this that Cardiff are competing with Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United for the ‘red kit niche’ and you start to realise the enormity of the task. Mr Cannon also explains that regardless of how many people identify themselves as ‘fans’ of a certain club, it in no way translates into income for the club. In short, the re-brand to red brings with it no innate financial benefits and thus the only potential justification for the change in kit colour is flawed. Tan’s personal investment and actions have tarnished and forgotten the long history and tradition of this great football club, which surely violates the FA code for owners of football clubs.
The most powerful argument that owner Vincent Tan maintains is that without him, the club would be in dire financial difficulties. Whilst the much touted media scenario of ”red or dead” has been vehemently denied and Alan Whitely stated that the Malaysian investors have never been in danger of leaving, the club does owe huge gratitude to Tan for taking on the ownership of the club. Since Sam Hamman’s take over in August 2000, the clubs supporters have been sold the dream of Premier League football and the club has been pumped and drained full of money and talent repeatedly. The club has been living beyond its means financially and in terms of ambition for over a decade now and must be grateful to the likes of Lenny Lawrence, Malky Mackay and especially Dave Jones for keeping the club competitive and attractive through both the lavish and the barren financial times. This has grown the sense that the club is already a Premier League club in waiting and that the multiple play off suicides have been unnatural and undeserved for the club, despite the clubs position as promotion favourites being built on a foundation of overspending and short term ideology.
The idea that the club could go back to being forth-tier nothings with no discernible hopes of achieving what we have achieved since the millennium are utterly inconceivable; the club is a hugely attractive proposition of players, managers and investors. So, what is the solution? Reject Tan, repay our debt and see where we end up and go again like Glasgow Rangers? Or, jump on board with the Malaysians, accept what they want as they (quite likely) are going to deliver the promotion we’ve been dreaming of for a decade? Surely, the answer is somewhere in between, as both reject a fundamental criterion of what it is to support your club; the dream to succeed and the pride in your clubs traditions and idiosyncrasies As Cardiff City fans we must be both grateful and realistic; the club is in trouble and we must be thankful to the Malaysians for taking on the task, but we are a big enough club with enough potential for exponential growth to attract owners who are willing to take on the task and respect the traditions and heritage that binds all those in South East Wales together.
An average attendance of 22,000 and 90 season tickets refunded tells the story. All aboard.
*information courtesy of Ben Dudley, http://supportersnotcustomers.com/