Vincent Tan back in favour
Things change quickly in football. At the start of the season, it is safe to say that Vincent Tan was not exactly popular or respected by the vast majority of fans in the United Kingdom. With recent revelations, the Malaysian may not have quite gone from zero to hero, but there is at least a growing sense of respect and understanding coming from the excitable English football media.
I attended Cardiff's first game of the season, a trip to Blackburn Rovers for an English championship clash on a cool Friday evening. The team were in red but the fans were in blue, still annoyed at Tan's decision to change the team's colours. Interestingly, they are more annoyed now, after relegation to the Championship, than they were a year ago when they had a first ever season in the English Premier League to look forward to.
At many clubs, the home fans would have teased the Welsh supporters about such goings-on, but Blackburn's followers are in no position to do so. Their club belongs to a group of Indian poultry pushers. Venky's may have improved of late but are still used around the world as a byword of incompetence and delusion. For Rovers fans, appointing Shebby Singh as the global director of football was a prime example and the former Malaysian international and broadcaster, who actually started quite brightly in his position at Ewood Park, was soon revealed to be hopelessly out of his depth.
Tan was not seen as being out of his depth but was perceived, at best, as an eccentric foreign owner with little understanding and even less appreciation of English football culture. Getting rid of Malky Mackay, a young and well-liked British manager was just another example of a man who was ridiculed for looking like a Bond villain, wearing a football shirt over a shirt and tie, trousers that were set too high, leather gloves and tinted sunglasses.
If he kept his involvement simply as a provider of funds and guarantor of debts, it would have been very different. Do that and you will – mostly – be judged on results. But you don't even need hindsight to know that changing the colour of the shirt was a big mistake in public relation terms, especially for a club nicknamed the Bluebirds. Whatever benefit it may attract in Asia – and this is highly debatable – is more than offset by the fact it upset the Cardiff fans and immediately put an already suspicious media against him. Take into account that, rightly or wrongly, the English football media sets the international agenda, it was a global own goal.
That decision set the narrative for Tan's time. Regardless of the fact he bankrolled Cardiff's push for promotion, it was never going to be the headline. He was a crazy foreigner who didn't know what he was doing.
English football wants to have it both ways. The Premier League is hugely proud of its worldwide reach and markets itself intensely in Asia, the biggest market in the world. This push has been successful, and interest in English football is global. As such, it was always going to attract the interest of the rich and powerful who, for business, prestige or other reasons want to get involved, which is relatively easy, if you have the money, to take control of a club in the English leagues. Once that happened, it was then inevitable that these international owners were always going to operate in a different way to the traditional English owner.
The Premier League may be global in outlook but insular, xenophobic and even racist attitudes are still common. English football has made great strides in recent years in combating racism and can be a little self-congratulatory about its success yet much remains to be done.
Yet Tan is a businessman who has made lots of money in the world's largest continent. He is not stupid and surely knew that dealing with the media, one very different from the Malaysian version, would be tough.
In interviews, he has said the English media is racist and he has a point. It certainly can be xenophobic and patronising towards foreigners especially from parts of the world not regarded as well-versed in football, such as Malaysia. If it had been a British owner firing a foreign coach, the coverage would have been very different but here was a crazy foreigner firing a solid and popular British coach, a real football man.
The text messages between Mackay and Iain Moody (friend and the head of recruitment at Cardiff fired by Tan and replaced by his young friend Alisher Apsalyamov, a 23 year-old from Kazahkstan who was reportedly a friend of Tan's son – a decision cited as a further example of Tan's stupidity or ignorance) have been almost universally condemned and rightly so. Malkay has apologised but even that may not be enough for him to work again.
There should be a few people apologising to Tan. That may not happen but at least now, while he may not be seen as the good guy, he is no longer the bad guy. Things change quickly in football.
John Duerden is the Asia football correspondent for BBC Radio, Guardian and ESPN. Based in South Korea and Malaysia, John also writes for the New York Times, AP, Daily Telegraph, One World Sports and various Asia media.