Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cardiff City: The road to heaven or the road to hell?

The time has come. I have kept my counsel whilst Cardiff's Malaysian backers have changed the team colour, the badge and now, though not confirmed (and apparently denied this afternoon) all things are pointing to an eventual change of name. Even if that's not the case, enough speculation has been created for people to assume that's where this is eventually going.

I'm not a lifelong supporter. I've only been in Cardiff for 33 of my 53 years. I'm not even Welsh. I started going down to Ninian Park for the odd game in the mid 80's. It wasn't until I started taking my son when he was 6 in 1999 that I got a season ticket (for both of us), and we've been ST holders ever since. I consider myself to be a dyed in the wool, "City til I die" supporter.

Times have been tough. I've stood on the Bob Bank with less than 1,800 in the ground. Ah, those concrete toilets with no roof. What great times they were *cough*.

Times have been good. I was there when Blake curled in his winner against Man City, when Scott Young fired home against Leeds and who can ever forget that memorable day at the Millennium Stadium when a rare Andy Campbell goal took us up to what is now the Championship (hey, anyone remember that rebrand)?

I've also seen some dodgy people masquerading as football owners and Chairman over the years. But when Dato Tien Ghee (TG) arrived on the scene, the possibilities of money from abroad were welcomed with open arms by most fans. TG's likeability and his enthusiasm for the club was evident, although we were sure he wasn't the front man. It seemed at last that unlike previously, the club was being managed properly for once, and from a point almost of extinction, we started to rise Phoenix like from the ashes. Well that might be a metaphor to far, but you get the gist. There was no rash rush into administration with a 10 point hit and start over, but careful considered, or so it seemed, financial management aimed at resolving City's long standing debt problems. Success in terms of getting to the Premiership remained elusive, but we were regularly, to use a "Claridgism", there or there abouts.

Bolstered by the appointment of the excellent Malky Mackay as manager, the owners including the now visible front man, billionaire Malaysian business Vincent Tan, appeared to be steadying the ship. As well as reassurances about finances they had negotiated the Cardiff Blues away from CCS so that it was just a football venue and they seemed to have the full support and backing of the fans.

The future looked bright, and it looked blue.

Then almost immediately after our play-off loss last year rumours started to fly by fans "in the know" that a re-brand was being considered and that Cardiff City would be playing in red in the 2013/14 season.

Oh how we laughed.

But the rumours persisted and indeed were confirmed. There was a great deal outrage, although it was by far from universal but enough to force a pause and apparent rethink. TG told us that due to the feedback that the decision was reversed and we would be back in blue this season.

Oh how we cheered.

But then then that was thrown back in our faces. In a U turn on the U turn Vincent Tan had apparently said that continued investment in the club was wholly conditional on the rebrand. "Red or I walk", or words to that effect. Oh, and the badge had to change to, to something that looked like a badly drawn beermat, with a big red dragon and a tiny almost invisible Bluebird.

Some of the fan base declared that was enough and that they'd boycott City until we went back to blue, and there is no doubt that some have walked. However, looking at the crowds down at CCS this year, it's apparent that it's not as many as some might have you believe.

The majority, including me and my son begrudgingly accepted that if playing in red was the price of success, so be it. It was after all still Cardiff City. Same stadium, same players (as much as any club has the same players year in year out), same manager etc.

And the success has come.....nearly. Currently top of the league, and amid cries of "mind the gap", The Bluebirds look a certain bet for promotion to the hallowed Premiership.

But then a funny thing happened. Or not, depending on your view. Vincent Tan decided to give a free red scarf branded "Cardiff" to every supporter at the home game against Brighton with a promise that there would be one season ticket refund every home game for the rest of the season to a lucky fan if photographed wearing or waving the scarf. Some people merely saw this as a freebie. Some hailed the omission of the word "City" from the scarf as an obvious sign that a name change was next up. Most just saw it as a cynical marketing ploy.

Cynical marketing ploy or not, it worked. On the day, almost everyone I saw took one - some took several (wearing my blue City scarf in a gesture of pitifully small protest I declined, as did my son - he's 18 now and can make his own choice).

This in effect turned the majority of the stadium red. It felt surreal that night, it looked surreal, despite the fact we'd been playing in red all season to see the CCS, home of the Bluebirds, bedecked in red. For some who's allegiance had been in the balance this was a tipping point. The scarf giveaway, the stadium in red was the last straw.

To those who say these are "plastic" supporters, new fans, only interested in the Premiership, I say get a grip. they are not. You don't get a totally new fanbase of that size just like that. They are in the main long term City fans. And anyway, there's no number on the years of service you have to have been supporting a club to make you a worthy fan. Each person can make their own decision, and I for one am not going to judge anyone on their choice, although there are times when I wish that people having made their choice (either way) would just button up.

But then just when it seems Vincent Tan has got the majority of fans on board (albeit begrudgingly), it seems that the next trick up his sleeve, and many of the blue persuasion will say they saw this coming, is to "consider" changing the name of the club from Cardiff City to the "Cardiff Dragons".  Actually, what he said was more along the lines of "let's see where we are at the end of the season".  Hmmm...

Whilst this is far from written in stone, coming out of a BBC interview, there is usually no smoke with fire. Then, in an apparent about face (this seems to happen quite a lot) the man himself issued a statement this afternoon to the effect that a change of name is NOT in his plans, although the cynics will point out the use of his language "For the present day...." and that he reneged on his commitment not to change from blue to red last year.

The BBC interview seems to suggest that he is committed to Cardiff City - though more as a business venture to leverage the Asian market, than from a desire and love of football. His intent to mange it carefully shown by his point about spending a few million (up to £5m on a Michu like player rather than £30m on a a Torres like player who would be a waste of money (I paraphrase here). He's clearly not upset by the risk of not having every fan on side either, so long as the majority are, and he seems to think they are, based on the lovely turnout of red on the night of scarfgate.

Throughout all this, as I've kept my counsel there are several things to consider.

Why now? City are on the verge (almost) of promotion to the Premier League. The last thing they need is a distraction from the stands (I was going to say terraces, but that's for another post). The timing of this interview and the inevitable rumour, speculation and anger that follows is ludicrous.

Why at all? The only reason Vincent Tan appears to have given for the rebrand is that red is a lucky colour in Malaysia. Oh, and red sells more shirts. And he wants to make money. Apparently.

Either this man is extremely savvy, or extremely arrogant, or more likely both.

Interestingly, his parting shot on the BBC interview was, and again I paraphrase. "Why would I want to put money into the club if not for good? Do I look stupid?".

Well actually, Mr Tan, with your red City shirt tucked into trousers belted above the wait, do you want me to answer that honestly?

So where does this leave us? Leave me? Leave the club?

Well the fan base is being ripped apart. There's some real vitriol out there which is sad, but I suppose predictable. There is a huge amount of speculation about things that we don't know the full facts about (and as an ordinary supporter probably never will). Every statement from anyone is dissected and conspiracy theories abound - I never went too near the message boards because of some of the crap posted on them, but you can almost guarantee any post about anythings ends up being a blue v red argument these days.

You know who I feel for. Good club people. People who have to front up to some of this stuff. People like Barrie McAuliffe, Cardiff City Media Manager who's remained diplomatic and professional despite a barrage of difficult questions, and frankly, crap from some people. People who obviously have personal opinions one way or the other but who are constrained in what they can say.

Me? I'm caught between the devil and the deep blue sea (if you'll forgive the pun). I'm too emotionally attached to the Bluebirds to throw it all away. And I'm certainly not one of those who would rather see us playing in blue in the Conference than in red in the Premiership. I don't want to see us in red. I certainly don't want to see the name changed to the Cardiff Dragons. But I don't want to give up either.

Sam Hammam could have been accused (and no doubt was) of many things. One thing you couldn't argue though, was the balls he had to engage face to face with fans and have a real discussion with them, even if some of his ideas were a bit off the wall and some of the fans he sat with were a bit self selecting.
It would be nice to think that Vincent Tan could sit down with some fans opposed to his changes. Fans who could offer a sensible and measured discussion, and for him at least have the guts to listen to how some fans really feel, before railroading his way through tradition and history. Or walking away.

Don't hold your breath.

City til I die!

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