Cardiff City are back in the top flight for the first time over half a century. But their promotion-winning season began in ignominy, with fans warring over a change in the club's colours, instigated by the Malaysian owners. FFT was present in August as Malky Mackay's team kicked off their campaign on a damp Friday night: the first match in the 2012-13 Football League season. But first, we must set the scene.
May 7, 2012: 6.30pm. Ten minutes after Cardiff City have finished being roundly spanked by West Ham in the Championship play-offs, losing 5-0 on aggregate, an online story drops the bomb. From next season the Bluebirds are to rebrand as the Red Dragons, changing their famous blue strip of 105 years to Ã¢ÂÂ¨red in an attempt to tap into a lucrative, apparently colour-conscious Asian market.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs dismissed as a prank; a wind-up; Ã¢ÂÂ¨a Swansea fan mocking his teamÃ¢ÂÂs rivals with vicious ingenuity, preying on the natural unpredictability that comes from foreign ownership Ã¢ÂÂ in this case, Malaysian owner Vincent Tan and chairman Dato Chan Tien Ghee, aka Ã¢ÂÂTGÃ¢ÂÂ. Ã¢ÂÂAs if this could happen,Ã¢ÂÂ most people agree. Ã¢ÂÂCardiff are the Bluebirds; how could we wear red?Ã¢ÂÂ
Little over three months later, with FFT present, the unthinkable is happening. Cardiff are lining up for their first league game of the season, at home to promoted Huddersfield, wearing red shirts. The clubÃ¢ÂÂs badge has been changed to show a red dragon, accompanied by an entirely new slogan. Around the stadium, there is Ã¢ÂÂ¨a heady mix of blue and red Cardiff Ã¢ÂÂ¨shirts. Just what the hell happened?
Ã¢ÂÂIT WAS A REASONABLY EASY DECISION TO MAKEÃ¢ÂÂ
Money happened. While promotion to the Premier League allows teams Ã¢ÂÂ¨to swim in golden coins like Scrooge McDuck, and even promotion followed by relegation results in Ã¢ÂÂ¨a handy parachute payment (which helped the three demoted teams to rise straight back into the Championship play-offs last season), missing out altogether can be costly. Losing in the play-offs three years in a row? Financially as well as emotionally, that hurts.
Cardiff, it was revealed in the summer, are losing ÃÂ£1 million every month. Every. Single. Month. Bonnie and Clyde had a better relationship with the bank. Vincent Tan, having already paid off ÃÂ£40m of debt, gave the club a choice that was seemingly as simple as: red or dead?
Ã¢ÂÂHe was wedded to the idea,Ã¢ÂÂ Cardiff chief executive Alan Whiteley tells FFT. Ã¢ÂÂI donÃ¢ÂÂt think heÃ¢ÂÂd have walked away from the club, but he would have scaled down the level of investment considerably. We didnÃ¢ÂÂt want to give him any chance to walk away.
Ã¢ÂÂCardiff is the capital of Wales, red is the national colour of Wales and the dragon is the national symbol of Wales. A dragon is seen as a very strong symbol in the Asian market, as is the colour red. IÃ¢ÂÂm not saying emotively itÃ¢ÂÂs easy for people to get their heads around it, but it was a decision that, commercially speaking, was reasonably easy to make.Ã¢ÂÂ
For some Cardiff supporters, there was no debate. As Peter Ribbons, computer programmer and fan since the early 1970s, tells FFT at the Huddersfield curtain-raiser: Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂd rather we were in business playing in something or other than be in PortsmouthÃ¢ÂÂs position.Ã¢ÂÂ But for others, the lack of a real plan and evidence Ã¢ÂÂ not to mention consultation, with the change presented as a fait accompli Ã¢ÂÂ made the decision not so much a no-brainer as something more contestable; a... well, a Ã¢ÂÂbrainerÃ¢ÂÂ.
Ã¢ÂÂA lot of people say, Ã¢ÂÂWhereÃ¢ÂÂs your business plan?Ã¢ÂÂÃ¢ÂÂ Whiteley continues, Ã¢ÂÂbut itÃ¢ÂÂs a marketing strategy that combines various cultures.Ã¢ÂÂ When asked at a supportersÃ¢ÂÂ meeting for proof that red shirts would make Cardiff more appealing in Asia, the chief executive said, Ã¢ÂÂVincent Tan has not put in black and white where he thinks the money will come from; he just believes he can do it.Ã¢ÂÂ Whiteley then responded to a query of whether he thought the plan would work with six words: Ã¢ÂÂI donÃ¢ÂÂt know. IÃ¢ÂÂm not Asian.Ã¢ÂÂ
Furious Cardiff fans in blue, tolerant Cardiff fans in red. As 21,000 enter the Cardiff City Stadium on a rain-soaked and angrily humid Friday night, everything seems set up for war.
Ã¢ÂÂI DONÃ¢ÂÂT SUPPORT THEM Ã¢ÂÂ¨ANY MORE. THEYÃ¢ÂÂRE NOT Ã¢ÂÂ¨THE SAME TEAMÃ¢ÂÂ
But what we see as we enter the ground is Ã¢ÂÂ¨an entente cordiale. Red and blue shirts are worn side-by-side in harmony. There are two different opinions, itÃ¢ÂÂs true, but not adamantly pro- or anti-red; more, Ã¢ÂÂWhatÃ¢ÂÂs the problem?Ã¢ÂÂ and Ã¢ÂÂWell, if we mustÃ¢ÂÂ. Ã¢ÂÂI wasnÃ¢ÂÂt happy, but Ã¢ÂÂ¨you take what comes along,Ã¢ÂÂ says Peter Ribbons. Ã¢ÂÂYou move on,Ã¢ÂÂ affirms Howard Jenkins, a match-going supporter for over 50 years. Says policeman Peter Mulhern: Ã¢ÂÂEveryone IÃ¢ÂÂve spoken to says the same: you donÃ¢ÂÂt support Ã¢ÂÂ¨a colour, you donÃ¢ÂÂt support Ã¢ÂÂ¨a badge, you donÃ¢ÂÂt support a player, manager or chairman Ã¢ÂÂ you support the club.Ã¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ¨ItÃ¢ÂÂs like this everywhere.
Obviously no Cardiff fans were saying back in May, Ã¢ÂÂYou know whatÃ¢ÂÂs holding us back? These damned blue shirtsÃ¢ÂÂ, but the colour change has been accepted as either necessary Ã¢ÂÂ¨or even irrelevant to the club. Ã¢ÂÂWhatever the colour, IÃ¢ÂÂll support them,Ã¢ÂÂ continues Howard. Ã¢ÂÂI watch them play away, and they never play in blue away [until this season, of course]. I remember Cardiff going up to the old First Division in 1960. IÃ¢ÂÂm wearing red, but IÃ¢ÂÂve still got all that history.Ã¢ÂÂ
As the Sky cameras scan the ground for signs of animosity, itÃ¢ÂÂs clear that theyÃ¢ÂÂd have more luck finding a punch-up at a nunnery. Not only have most fans accepted the change with varying degrees of happiness (indeed, shirt sales are up, though this could be attributed to the signing of Craig Bellamy), but it seems the most disillusioned have stayed away, with almost 100 season tickets being refunded.
Somewhat ironically, disenchanted fan Ben Dudley sold his support on eBay. Ã¢ÂÂIt was a silly thing, really Ã¢ÂÂ I thought IÃ¢ÂÂd get 20 quid,Ã¢ÂÂ he tells FFT. Ã¢ÂÂBut it really took off. The winner got to pick who IÃ¢ÂÂd support, with the money going to Ty Hafan childrenÃ¢ÂÂs hospice and Help For Heroes. There were bids from fans of Besiktas, New York Red Bulls, Rangers, MexicoÃ¢ÂÂs Club America and more. In the end, a Spurs fan paid ÃÂ£845, so IÃ¢ÂÂll be going to as many of their games as I can.
Ã¢ÂÂAs for Cardiff... I feel like I donÃ¢ÂÂt support them any more. TheyÃ¢ÂÂre not the same team. Personally, I donÃ¢ÂÂt want them to get promoted, because if they go up to the Premier League in red, theyÃ¢ÂÂll stay red Ã¢ÂÂ¨forever.Ã¢ÂÂ Would he go back to blue if Cardiff Ã¢ÂÂ¨did the same? Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂd give it a go.Ã¢ÂÂ
Despite the likes of Dudley dodging the Cardiff City Stadium the attendance isnÃ¢ÂÂt bad, especially for a televised match on a Friday Ã¢ÂÂ but it also explains the lack of uprising. The strongest negative feeling is one of discomfort. Perhaps not coincidentally, the atmosphere is more akin to a library than a book-burning.
Ã¢ÂÂONCE FANS WERE INSIDE THEY COULDNÃ¢ÂÂT TAKE ITÃ¢ÂÂ
This lacklustre backdrop to the seasonÃ¢ÂÂs opening day isnÃ¢ÂÂt helped by a dreadful first half. Huddersfield are without ambition; Cardiff, ammunition. In the stands, the TerriersÃ¢ÂÂ 500-odd travelling fans, perhaps inspired by Ã¢ÂÂ¨a Huddersfield Twitter account mocking up Ã¢ÂÂ¨a pre-match playlist including Red Suede Shoes and Red (Da Ba Dee), unite in Ã¢ÂÂYou sold your historyÃ¢ÂÂ and Ã¢ÂÂAre you Wrexham in disguise?Ã¢ÂÂ, while Bluebirds staunchly ignore the giant red elephant Ã¢ÂÂ¨stomping around the room.
Supportive banners reading Ã¢ÂÂKEEP CARDIFF BLUE Ã¢ÂÂ F*CK MODERN FOOTBALLÃ¢ÂÂ have been spotted at matches in Austria, Canada and Indonesia yet in Cardiff, only one, reading Ã¢ÂÂWE BLEED BLUEÃ¢ÂÂ, has made it into the stadium Ã¢ÂÂ and itÃ¢ÂÂs removed by stewards. Its owners leave at half-time. Ã¢ÂÂI know people who left in the first half,Ã¢ÂÂ says Ben. Ã¢ÂÂThey found it hard to walk away from the club but once Ã¢ÂÂ¨they were in the ground they couldnÃ¢ÂÂt take it.Ã¢ÂÂ
But just as no one is complaining about the rebrand, no one is complaining that no one is complaining. In most quarters Ã¢ÂÂ not only the office of Alan Whiteley, who tells FFT after the match that the fan reaction went Ã¢ÂÂas well as we could have hopeduÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ people are glad there is no clash beyond the sight of a red home team playing in a blue stadium.
Cardiff City have thankfully moved on from times marred by violence, even winning Family Club of the Year more than once, and nobody is keen to see a return to the days when hooligan firm the Soul Crew ran amok. The closest FFT sees to any brutality is a typically psychotic South Wales seagull nearly savaging a child for his chips. A peaceful protest by Keep Cardiff Blue is cancelled amid claims of threats towards their safety, but officially it is banned by the club, Ã¢ÂÂ¨who want the Ã¢ÂÂ¨focus to be on football.
Ã¢ÂÂTHE PLAN WAS Ã¢ÂÂ¨NEVER TO STOP Ã¢ÂÂ¨FANS WEARING BLUEÃ¢ÂÂ
With the second half underway, Cardiff fans Ã¢ÂÂ¨in all colours are hoping for a change in fortunes on the pitch. With more chances come more chants; the golf claps and ironic shouts of Ã¢ÂÂCome on you RedsÃ¢ÂÂ are soon replaced by huge cries of Ã¢ÂÂBluebirdsÃ¢ÂÂ and unflattering songs explaining Swansea supportersÃ¢ÂÂ bin-based culinary habits. But Ã¢ÂÂ¨the visitors have upped their game too, Ã¢ÂÂ¨with 21-year-old debutant Sean Scannell Ã¢ÂÂ¨as lively as he is theatrical, both of which Ã¢ÂÂ¨earn him boos from the home crowd.
You feel thereÃ¢ÂÂs more significance than Ã¢ÂÂ¨usual to this opening-day result for Cardiff. Ã¢ÂÂ¨Pre-match jokes of Ã¢ÂÂlucky red shirtsÃ¢ÂÂ are just that Ã¢ÂÂ jokes Ã¢ÂÂ but a win would do no harm in winning over begrudging supporters. And Ã¢ÂÂ¨with 91 minutes on the terrifyingly giant clock, captain Mark Hudson obliges, sliding onto the end of a Joe Mason knockdown to grab Ã¢ÂÂ¨a late winner. Ã¢ÂÂWe are top of the league, say we are top of the league!Ã¢ÂÂ chant Ã¢ÂÂ¨Cardiffians blue and red, and FFT doesnÃ¢ÂÂt have the heart to point out they would Ã¢ÂÂ¨be top anyway with a draw, being alphabetically ahead of Huddersfield.
Joy unbounded, fears unfounded. Instead of protests against the visiting Vincent Tan, who is in fact welcomed and responds by doing the Ayatollah, the only abuse has been towards some poor refereeing, the aforementioned Scannell and Ã¢ÂÂfat bastardÃ¢ÂÂ Anthony Gerrard. Sold by Cardiff having never featured after his penalty miss condemned Cardiff to defeat in the League Cup Final, he makes his Terriers debut in injury time and is booked for an ugly foul (Ã¢ÂÂDo you think football is a tickling contest?Ã¢ÂÂ heÃ¢ÂÂll later tweet).
As fans flood out of the stadium, youÃ¢ÂÂd be forgiven for thinking the home support are simply wearing home and away shirts, such is the accord. Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂm disappointed,Ã¢ÂÂ says one blue absentee. Ã¢ÂÂI thought thereÃ¢ÂÂd at least a bit of a fuss. I heard that Sky said [the rebrand] went without a whimper.Ã¢ÂÂ Tragically, the damage has been Ã¢ÂÂ¨done for some now-former fans. Dave Sugarman, aka blogger The Lone Gunman, has missed only two home games since 1975 but says he Ã¢ÂÂwill never feel the same affection to the club againÃ¢ÂÂ and boycotted the match.
But for the club and Alan Whiteley, whose first reaction to hearing about the rebrand was quite literally, Ã¢ÂÂOh God, what have I got myself into?Ã¢ÂÂ, the worst may be behind. There was never any expectation for every fan to be won over, and some, including brothers Simon and Mark Baralos, say they will attend games but never buy a red shirt Ã¢ÂÂ but the plan, weÃ¢ÂÂre told, was never to stop fans wearing blue or chanting Ã¢ÂÂBluebirdsÃ¢ÂÂ.
So what do we learn? That fans put up with anything? No Ã¢ÂÂ AFC Wimbledon have shown that not to be true (though the original clubÃ¢ÂÂs relocation made the situation more extreme than CardiffÃ¢ÂÂs) and there are early discussions taking place about a Cardiff splinter club being formed if there is enough interest. It seems that although some naturally disagree, for many a football club is more than a colour Ã¢ÂÂ¨or a hastily rejigged badge with a bluebird apologetically added at the bottom. And perhaps the sight of fans happily mingling in old blue and new red kits is encouraging.
Football has changed. For all the passion, pride and partisanship, the biggest Ã¢ÂÂPÃ¢ÂÂ of all for modern fans may well be pragmatism. We canÃ¢ÂÂt know now what Cardiff fans will be saying in 50 yearsÃ¢ÂÂ time, but their club does at least have a better chance of surviving that long. Only time will tell if pub chats will open, Ã¢ÂÂRemember that one mad season we played in red?Ã¢ÂÂ or Ã¢ÂÂI canÃ¢ÂÂt believe we ever wore blue.Ã¢ÂÂ