FFT in Cardiff: when the fans first saw red

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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 
red in an attempt to tap into a lucrative, apparently colour-conscious Asian market.

It’s dismissed as a prank; a wind-up; 
a Swansea fan mocking his team’s rivals with vicious ingenuity, preying on the natural unpredictability that comes from foreign ownership – in this case, Malaysian owner Vincent Tan and chairman Dato Chan Tien Ghee, aka ‘TG’. “As if this could happen,” most people agree. “Cardiff are the Bluebirds; how could we wear red?”

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 club’s badge has been changed to show a red dragon, accompanied by an entirely new slogan. Around the stadium, there is 
a heady mix of blue and red Cardiff 
shirts. Just what the hell happened?


Money happened. While promotion to the Premier League allows teams 
to swim in golden coins like Scrooge McDuck, and even promotion followed by relegation results in 
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 £1 million every month. Every. Single. Month. Bonnie and Clyde had a better relationship with the bank. Vincent Tan, having already paid off £40m of debt, gave the club a choice that was seemingly as simple as: red or dead?

“He was wedded to the idea,” Cardiff chief executive Alan Whiteley tells FFT. “I don’t think he’d have walked away from the club, but he would have scaled down the level of investment considerably. We didn’t want to give him any chance to walk away.

“Cardiff 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. I’m not saying emotively it’s easy for people to get their heads around it, but it was a decision that, commercially speaking, was reasonably easy to make.”

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: “I’d rather we were in business playing in something or other than be in Portsmouth’s position.” But for others, the lack of a real plan and evidence – not to mention consultation, with the change presented as a fait accompli – made the decision not so much a no-brainer as something more contestable; a... well, a ‘brainer’.

“A lot of people say, ‘Where’s your business plan?’” Whiteley continues, “but it’s a marketing strategy that combines various cultures.” When asked at a supporters’ meeting for proof that red shirts would make Cardiff more appealing in Asia, the chief executive said, “Vincent Tan has not put in black and white where he thinks the money will come from; he just believes he can do it.” Whiteley then responded to a query of whether he thought the plan would work with six words: “I don’t know. I’m not Asian.”

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.


But what we see as we enter the ground is 
an entente cordiale. Red and blue shirts are worn side-by-side in harmony. There are two different opinions, it’s true, but not adamantly pro- or anti-red; more, ‘What’s the problem?’ and ‘Well, if we must’. “I wasn’t happy, but 
you take what comes along,” says Peter Ribbons. “You move on,” affirms Howard Jenkins, a match-going supporter for over 50 years. Says policeman Peter Mulhern: “Everyone I’ve spoken to says the same: you don’t support 
a colour, you don’t support 
a badge, you don’t support a player, manager or chairman – you support the club.” 
It’s like this everywhere.

Obviously no Cardiff fans were saying back in May, “You know what’s holding us back? These damned blue shirts”, but the colour change has been accepted as either necessary 
or even irrelevant to the club. “Whatever the colour, I’ll support them,” continues Howard. “I 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. I’m wearing red, but I’ve still got all that history.”

As the Sky cameras scan the ground for signs of animosity, it’s clear that they’d 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. “It was a silly thing, really – I thought I’d get 20 quid,” he tells FFT. “But it really took off. The winner got to pick who I’d support, with the money going to Ty Hafan children’s hospice and Help For Heroes. There were bids from fans of Besiktas, New York Red Bulls, Rangers, Mexico’s Club America and more. In the end, a Spurs fan paid £845, so I’ll be going to as many of their games as I can.

“As for Cardiff... I feel like I don’t support them any more. They’re not the same team. Personally, I don’t want them to get promoted, because if they go up to the Premier League in red, they’ll stay red 
forever.” Would he go back to blue if Cardiff 
did the same? “I’d give it a go.”

Despite the likes of Dudley dodging the Cardiff City Stadium the attendance isn’t bad, especially for a televised match on a Friday – 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.


This lacklustre backdrop to the season’s opening day isn’t helped by a dreadful first half. Huddersfield are without ambition; Cardiff, ammunition. In the stands, the Terriers’ 500-odd travelling fans, perhaps inspired by 
a Huddersfield Twitter account mocking up 
a pre-match playlist including Red Suede Shoes and Red (Da Ba Dee), unite in “You sold your history” and “Are you Wrexham in disguise?”, while Bluebirds staunchly ignore the giant red elephant 
stomping around the room.

Supportive banners reading ‘KEEP CARDIFF BLUE – F*CK MODERN FOOTBALL’ have been spotted at matches in Austria, Canada and Indonesia yet in Cardiff, only one, reading ‘WE BLEED BLUE’, has made it into the stadium – and it’s removed by stewards. Its owners leave at half-time. “I know people who left in the first half,” says Ben. “They found it hard to walk away from the club but once 
they were in the ground they couldn’t take it.”

But just as no one is complaining about the rebrand, no one is complaining that no one is complaining. In most quarters – not only the office of Alan Whiteley, who tells FFT after the match that the fan reaction went “as well as we could have hopedu” – 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, 
who want the 
focus to be on football.


With the second half underway, Cardiff fans 
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 “Come on you Reds” are soon replaced by huge cries of “Bluebirds” and unflattering songs explaining Swansea supporters’ bin-based culinary habits. But 
the visitors have upped their game too, 
with 21-year-old debutant Sean Scannell 
as lively as he is theatrical, both of which 
earn him boos from the home crowd.

You feel there’s more significance than 
usual to this opening-day result for Cardiff. 
Pre-match jokes of ‘lucky red shirts’ are just that – jokes – but a win would do no harm in winning over begrudging supporters. And 
with 91 minutes on the terrifyingly giant clock, captain Mark Hudson obliges, sliding onto the end of a Joe Mason knockdown to grab 
a late winner. “We are top of the league, say we are top of the league!” chant 
Cardiffians blue and red, and FFT doesn’t have the heart to point out they would 
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 “fat bastard” 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 (“Do you think football is a tickling contest?” he’ll later tweet).

As fans flood out of the stadium, you’d be forgiven for thinking the home support are simply wearing home and away shirts, such is the accord. “I’m disappointed,” says one blue absentee. “I thought there’d at least a bit of a fuss. I heard that Sky said [the rebrand] went without a whimper.” Tragically, the damage has been 
done for some now-former fans. Dave Sugarman, aka blogger The Lone Gunman, has missed only two home games since 1975 but says he “will never feel the same affection to the club again” and boycotted the match.

But for the club and Alan Whiteley, whose first reaction to hearing about the rebrand was quite literally, “Oh God, what have I got myself into?”, 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 – but the plan, we’re told, was never to stop fans wearing blue or chanting “Bluebirds”.

So what do we learn? That fans put up with anything? No – AFC Wimbledon have shown that not to be true (though the original club’s relocation made the situation more extreme than Cardiff’s) 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 
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 ‘P’ of all for modern fans may well be pragmatism. We can’t know now what Cardiff fans will be saying in 50 years’ time, but their club does at least have a better chance of surviving that long. Only time will tell if pub chats will open, “Remember that one mad season we played in red?” or “I can’t believe we ever wore blue.”

Words: Huw Davies. From the October 2012 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!