Losing My Religion: Cardiff City prepare to cash in and sell out
The battle lines of football are often drawn between red and blue, cities divided between the two colours. Manchester City and Manchester United. Liverpool and Everton. The Steel City derby. But now one club in one city may be forced to cross that divide in pursuit of the Premier League. Cardiff City supporter Joe Harrison shares what the idea means to him.
There have been a number of incidents this season that have brought the nature of being a football fan into question. Earnest and worried discussions on the discourse of ‘tribalism’ followed the racism cases involving Luis Suarez and John Terry in the Premier League; Blackburn fans’ consistently vocal opposition towards their owners and managers has drawn sympathy and criticism in equal measure; while West Ham fans were accused of talking “bollocks” by their team’s manager and chanted deriding the side’s style of play. Now the priorities of Cardiff City fans are being brought into question, as new proposals look like becoming one of the most divisive and controversial issues in the recent history of a club known for its off-field turbulence.
On Monday, Cardiff were outclassed, losing 5-0 on aggregate to West Ham in the Championship play-offs. Shortly after the final whistle was blown in East London, a post on a fans’ messageboard claimed that the club’s Malaysian owners, headed up (and supposedly funded) by Vincent Tan, were planning a significant ‘rebranding’ of the club.
The changes this would mean were outlined as changing the home kit colour to red from the traditional blue, changing the colour of the stadium in the same fashion and replacing the Bluebird as the Club’s emblem with a dragon, as well as extensive investment in areas such as the Club’s training facilities. Now obviously, the first rule for any football fan following their team on the internet is “don’t believe everything you read on a messageboard”, so initially there was not too much panic at this anonymous post.
However, as the evening progressed, more and more fans seemed convinced that the story had substance to it, and worrying, these were not fans who pride themselves on being ‘in the know’ during transfer windows by offering detailed (and wrong) descriptions of medicals currently being had by prospective signings. There was no swift denial from the club and the following morning rumours continued to spread. They were then picked up and discussed on Radio Wales, before finding its way onto the BBC Sport website.
Finally, the story was reported on WalesOnline, saying that they had learnt that the proposals previously rumoured were indeed being considered, apart from changes to the Stadium and the Club’s name, complete with a club statement incredibly full of management jargon yet pathetically short on substance – ‘we’re having a think and will let you know’, seemed the general message. A swift meeting was called with a number of fans representing supporters’ groups and messageboards, an account of which can be found here.
In summary; the kit & emblem change will be part of a restructuring supposedly including a near £100m of investment, comprising the paying off of historical debts (£24m is still owned by a company represented by former owner Sam Hammam), increasing the stadium capacity by around 10,000 to 35,000 and investing in facilities and the first team squad.
Some key points here: the fans’ representatives were told that the kit change was not negotiable and would be going through whether or not the intended investment and debt agreements came to fruition. It is also open to question where the money from this investment comes from, there is a significant and logical fear that it will not be from Vincent Tan’s pocket (even financially disastrous football clubs tend not to be run that way that will cost owners money – ask Rangers), so the club could simply be paying off some debts by accruing others.
Unsurprisingly, this quickly saw a range of different opinions on the matter, both from Cardiff fans and those of other teams as the news became more widespread. It’s worth clarifying, of course, that there is no-one (or at least very few non-Swansea fans) who actually want this change to take place. The difference is between those fans who would tolerate those changes, and those who would not. The argument for those less averse is relatively simple – ultimately, that it’s a price worth paying for the mooted investment. Many also argue that the club’s badge has changed before and that the most crucial factor is the Club’s name, and as long as that remains unchanged the swapping to red shirts is acceptable, if not eagerly wanted. A significant percentage of neutral fans will probably think along similar lines; asking the hypothetical ‘how would you feel if it were £100m?’.
For many though, myself included, the reaction has been one of horror and outrage. As the revelations of the club’s plans have emerged, the attitude of the club’s owners has been increasingly distasteful. There is no debate, no negotiation: they are dictating their plans with the message that without their money, the club would be in huge financial trouble, so fans have to accept their changes. Make no bones about it – this is emotional blackmail, pure and simple and the owners are flexing their muscles (this reflects the perils of the British model of club ownership – an article in itself!).
There is also a significant question as to whether this ‘rebranding’ offers any huge potential benefits from a financial perspective. Even ignoring the loss of earnings due to localised protests (these plans were clearly not developed with those local fans in mind), will a colour change make that much of a difference to our profile in the Asian market? It is questionable to say the least – certainly, the impact of a simple emblem change would pale into insignificance compared to the vastly increased exposure brought with promotion would.
The most powerful argument against this though is a deeply emotional one. Some will have you believe that being a fan of a football league team makes you somehow a ‘better’ fan, following ‘real’ football. I do not subscribe to this view, being a fan is an entirely subjective and personal experience, and no one way is objectively better than any other. However, there is clearly something slightly different to following a team who are not one of those famous throughout the world. If it was quite simply down to a love of football and just wishing to see the best football possible, no-one would support the likes of Cardiff, we’d all be following one of about 8 teams destined to fight it out in the Champions’ League 9 years out of 10.
When I began following Cardiff City, it was not because they were good. In fact, they were the exact opposite (finishing 21st in what is now League 2). I did not continue to support them either because they were good or in the hope that they would be. Obviously, I always hope they will improve, but it is not the motivation behind my support. For better or for worse, as the incidents listed above show, identity is a massive part of being a football fan.
Being proud of your football team is in many ways a ridiculous and illogical sentiment – barring helping create a good or bad atmosphere at matches and the relatively minor individual financial contribution any match-going or merchandise-buying fan makes, we have no real input into the team’s results or financial status. And yet it is an emotion that burns fiercely all the same, both in the good times and the bad. Fans may not own the club, but they intrinsically feel it is theirs. The use of pronouns – ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘us’ etc. may be irritating, may even be a little bit silly, but it is very hard to avoid and reflects the deep-seated emotional attachments that develop.
Fans of all clubs relish the things that make them them. From the famous example of You’ll Never Walk Alone to Cardiff City’s own ayatollah, supporters from every club will know their own little rituals and traditions and cling to them. And this is what makes the proposed changes so hard to stomach. Out of context, a team playing in one colour rather than another and swapping a small image of one animal for a different one are not seismic changes. But that would not be us. We are the Bluebirds. We play in blue. That is a vital part of who we are.
Some fans will happily put up with almost anything in the hope of achieving Premier League football, particularly after recent years’ disappointments and they are entitled to their opinion. But I am not one of them. If Premier League football is the be all and end all, I would simply support a Premier League team. But I don’t. I support Cardiff City. And Cardiff City play in blue.
A century’s history may not matter to some, but it matters to me. It is all part of the club’s identity and therefore it is all part of the identity I find in following the club. Cardiff City are threatening to sell their history, sell their soul, sell their identity, all in the hope of a little extra money and perhaps promotion to a higher league. I for one would rather see us relegated in blue than victorious in red, because without our identity, who are we?