It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Cardiff City supporters, on the weekend their team finally gets to contest a top-flight South Wales derby.
Those who walk up to their stadium this afternoon will discover that the images displayed of players wearing both blue and red shirts – a form of recognition of the old home colours which their Malaysian owner, Vincent Tan, considers unlucky and has ditched – have been taken down and replaced with vast murals of Craig Bellamy and Peter Whittingham, both clad in Tan’s red. That really is rubbing fans’ noses in it at the end of a week in which we have learned that Tan last year signed Slovenian striker Etien Velikonja without manager Malky Mackay’s approval and that the 23-year-old Kazakh he has hired as head of recruitment does not have a UK work permit. Mackay, a good man, fishes for some way to kill the “background noise” that this scandalous interference represents, when the Independent on Sunday puts it to him that he must yearn for the stability which his old friend Brendan Rodgers enjoyed at Swansea. “Nothing surprises me,” he says. There is an unmistakeable pain behind his eyes as he speaks.
Their rivals’ fabled way of running a football business makes it even harder for Cardiff to swallow what amounts to Tan’s annexation of their club, in return for a life in the Premier League. Swansea have spent £5m on a training ground to give the players sanctuary until a better £6m facility is built further out of the city. The £15.3m annual profit they published last week was post tax. The usual pre-tax figure would have been more flattering but Swansea just don’t need to dress things up. In an age of direct action, Cardiff fans should force change, you might say. Protest. Reclaim the club. Don’t let this emperor annexe it. If it were only as simple as that. An unscientific straw poll of fans approached in the shadow of the stadium on Thursday afternoon reveals seven out of 10 would rather stick with Tan than – as we put it to them – start again, debt-free in League One.
A story about sealed envelopes reveals why those who rail against the man may find him hard to shake off. It dates from the recent occasion when representatives of around 50 charities in Cardiff were invited by Tan to a reception at the club’s stadium and asked, one by one, to step forward and meet him. Each returned to their seats with the envelope he had pressed into their hands. One woman, whose organisation’s fundraising efforts are as much of a challenge as any other in these hard times, discreetly unsealed the package under the table, while the next representative stepped up. To her astonishment, there was a £50,000 cheque inside.
It was a classic example of Tan’s brand of benevolent dictatorship. “If we stay in the Premier League there’ll be more next year,” he told the throng that day, wielding more of the emotional blackmail which he is so skilled at. Those many Cardiff fans who abhor the idea of an owner coming in, changing their colours and substituting the historic bluebird symbol with a dragon, have been hearing the same from him for weeks. “If too many fans show they are not welcoming then maybe they [should] have a new owner,” Tan said, darkly, this summer.
The abuse faced by those who oppose him reveals that the message has been received and understood. One of the first groups to fight the shift to red – Keep Cardiff Blue – found themselves under siege by pro-Tan fans when they organised a protest meeting at the Municipal Club in Roath on Cardiff’s outskirts. There are a number of versions of the story of how supporters were warned not to hold up blue flags, ranging from, “We’ll break your legs if you do” to “We’ll bury you”. Facing up to Tan is certainly no picnic.
Sian Branson has also learned that. She has emerged as the figurehead of the Bluebirds Unite group who are now leading the fight against the club’s colour change. The vile abuse she has encountered has been delivered via message boards and forums, though she is an implacable fighter, whose group’s petition against Tan’s rebranding of Cardiff already has 14,000 names on it. “We’ve asked the club if we can present it to Vincent Tan,” Branson says. “They said we can leave it at reception.”
The presence of mothers in Branson’s number – like Michelle Lewis and Pamela Simmons – seems to explain how her group has grown from a vehicle of protest to a fully blown community organisation, which was staging a rumbustious Halloween event for vast numbers of local children in Cardiff’s Canton district when the Independent on Sunday met them this week. “It is our community and our club. We will still be here when he has gone,” Branson says. “We are told we are disrupting and ungrateful but we challenge the lazy assumption that without Vincent Tan coming in we would have been in financial trouble as a club. Yes, we certainly would take starting again in League One with the kind of model Swansea have. There is a kind of jealousy about the way they’re running their club.”
That admission takes some saying for a Cardiff fan on a derby weekend but Branson refuses to enter into the tribalism about Swansea which consumes so many of those around her. That is a sea change from the days when the men did the talking and the hating when it came to Cardiff versus Swansea.
There was once a time when the clubs – who actually have only been in the same division in 26 of the past 101 years – could meet each other civilly. A BBC Wales documentary last week chronicled Swansea fans attending Cardiff’s 1927 FA Cup final win over Arsenal and the two groups of supporters standing next to each other in the brief periods (1949-51; 1957-60) when the sides played each other in the League.
It was in 1980, when the clubs played their first League match in 15 years, that everything changed. David Giles, who played for both clubs, recalls being reprimanded for having a friendly word with one of his Swansea mates after climbing down from the Cardiff coach at the Vetch Field. It was the time of the miners’ strike and post-industrialisation, when the identity of thousands of South Wales men was being stripped away and all they had left was football.
There was a precursor of the very kind of envy that Cardiff are feeling today, when Cardiff-born John Toshack was signed in 1978 from Liverpool by Swansea, rather than the capital city club where he had made his name, and as manager took them all the way to the First Division. The suspicion was that Cardiff had the chance to re-sign Toshack but didn’t take it. “The feeling in Cardiff was that it should have been us,” said the former Cardiff hooligan turned author, Tony Rivers. “Cardiff has always perceived itself as Wales’ Number One club and there was a jealousy.”
It was in the late ’80s and ’90s, after Swansea had tumbled all the way back down the leagues, that the sides began meeting each other again, delivering the fixture its reputation as the most vicious derby in British football. There was the 1988 pursuit of Cardiff fans into the sea off Swansea Bay, the vicious sub-plot to the 1991 FA Cup tie and the 1993 tipping point: 1,500 middle-aged Swansea men running amok at Ninian Park, which saw all away fans banned from the fixture for four years.
Swansea retain their own jealousies, too. The most recited grievance of this week has been the one the BBC documentary talked of – about how the people of Cardiff voted against devolution in the referendum of 2000 but ended up with it. The people of Swansea voted for devolution and were awarded the National Swimming Pool for Wales, on Sketty Lane. For many in the second city, there was a deep significance to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, choosing the eve of this derby weekend to visit Cardiff on Friday for discussions on an extension to Wales’ devolved powers. He didn’t make the 38-mile trip west to Swansea.
As evidence of more big-city bias, some Swansea fans have been endlessly re-quoting the one-time Cardiff owner Sam Hammam in the past few days. “If Swansea fans are really Welsh and want to see top-class football in Wales, they should recognise that this Welsh club [Cardiff] is the only one with a cat’s chance in hell of making it,” Hammam said 13 years ago.
Schadenfreude doesn’t begin to express Swansea’s response to this Tan business. The message from the banks of the Tawe rings loud and clear: You’re on your own.
Taken from The Independent