Hooray for the Cardiff Dragons
Selling your soul down the River Taff
One hundred million pounds. Apparently that is the price of a football club’s history, all 104 years of it, according to Vincent Tan, the Malaysian owner of Cardiff City.
Tan, along with Chan Tien Ghee, bought the club in May 2010 from a consortium led by one Peter Ridsdale, who had taken the club to the point of receiving a winding up order from HMRC (Peter Ridsdale? Taking a club into financial trouble? Well I never…). The chairman of the Berjaya Group, Tan is worth approximately $1.25 billion, some of which has already been handed to Cardiff. The changes to the club that the Malaysians have made have not been particularly noticeable so far, the most major feature being the change of shirt sponsor to Malaysia (yes, the whole of the country – fancy that). But now Tan wants to go one step further.
The proposal that has been tabled today includes a £100 million playing budget and investment in expanding the Cardiff City Stadium and improving training facilities. But this doesn’t come free. In exchange for these goodies, Cardiff City will lose their identity. The Bluebirds will become the Dragons – blue will become red.
Cardiff City have played in blue since they became Cardiff City in 1908 – previously they had been known as Riverside FC and played in amber and brown. It is while wearing blue that Cardiff won the FA Cup in 1927, becoming the only Welsh side to do so. This isn’t a club that has occasionally changed colours during its history – to all intents and purposes, they have always been blue.
So why the switch? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, Tan is said to be superstitious: like many in the Far East, he believes red to be a lucky colour. Or, to put it another way, he’s saying he wants to change to red because he fancies having a team that plays in red. On a broader scale, he feels that a lot of people share this superstition, and thus more Malaysians would buy red shirts than blue shirts, as (allegedly) demonstrated by the popularity of Liverpool and Manchester United in the Far East (and not at all due to the fact that those two clubs are the most successful in English football).
Plus there is the Welsh connection. The Welsh national football and rugby teams play in red. A socking great dragon is on the Welsh flag. It seems obvious to link that to Wales’ foremost club, as the Malaysians will probably understand that better than wonder why there is a fictitious bird on each shirt (hey, this is his argument, not mine – I have no idea if the Malaysians are aware of the existence of Wales).
Essentially, Tan reckons the club is far more marketable playing in red shirts with a red dragon in a red stadium than playing in blue shirts with a bluebird in a blue stadium. His investment is therefore based on the assumption that this will work and more people will be interested.
There are so many things wrong with this. For a start, there is absolutely no guarantee that a £100 million playing budget will bring the club success. Leicester had an enormous budget courtesy of their Thai owners this season. They employed Sven (of Sven fame) as manager, and signed well-known figures such as Paul Konchesky, Darius Vassell and Kasper Schmeichel in order to try and get them into the Premier League. It didn’t work. Throwing money at the Championship does not work – it is far too competitive.
It’s not as if £100 million is a massive budget either. Talk of Champions League football as a result of this investment is totally misguided – Manchester City’s budget was over £1 billion this year, while Chelsea spent £50 million on Fernando Torres alone and will still finish outside the top 4, so logic suggests an overall budget of £100 million will be lucky to guarantee you Premier League safety. Obviously with television money it may not be that small, but to talk of it as a figure that will bring you European glory shows naivety of Venkian proportions.
So what happens if they don’t get this promised success? Not only will the fans in South Wales be annoyed (I mean the ones that haven’t already been alienated by the colour change and decided to stay at home instead) and the newly expanded and very red Cardiff City Stadium be half-empty, but the Malaysians will not be interested by a team stuck in the second tier – they are not idiots. Formula 1 once promoted Alex Yoong, the first Malaysian driver, to try and sell more tickets for the country’s race – when everyone realised how abysmal he was, trundling around in last place way off the pace, the fans decided not to turn up at the race, and soon he disappeared from the scene.
With the failure to achieve success, the club would be saddled with over £100 million of debt. Now Cardiff fans are quite used to large debts, but this would be monumental. Luton, Portsmouth, Plymouth and, to an extent, Blackburn have all proven that big clubs can suffer in situations like this – evidently the lessons learned from these sagas have not reached Kuala Lumpur yet.
But aside from the economics of it, it’s still a terrible idea, because it’s totally against what a football club is supposed to stand for. A football club represents the community it is based in. Cardiff City represents Cardiff and, by extension, the South Wales Valleys surrounding the capital. It’s a massive part of many people’s lives. This is a football club, not a football team – it is meant to be run in the interests of the fans, not on the whims of a distant foreign owner who is looking to make money out of his latest venture.
By choosing to change the century-old identity of a football club out of pure self-interest, Tan is showing enormous contempt for the club’s sizeable fanbase. Cardiff have had their fair share of awful owners – Hammam and Ridsdale in particular – but seriously proposing a fundamental change to the club’s identity in order to tap into foreign markets goes far beyond anything those two ever did (even though Hammam did once briefly propose rebranding the club as ‘the Cardiff Celts’). And where will this end – OK, just the colour change for now, but how long until the name change?
In 1998, Manchester United controversially removed the words ‘Football Club’ from their club crest. Although on the surface it didn’t appear much, it was symbolically significant, a sign that the club was increasingly being run as a franchise in order to make money, instead of representing the people of Manchester that it was founded for. The Cardiff City situation is much the same, but on a much larger scale. It is a club that risks losing its identity and gaining a heavy burden of debt in exchange for potentially reaching the Premier League and attracting new investment from the other side of the world – a classic Faustian pact. And the most troubling thing is this may not be the last time we hear of a scenario like this.
Meanwhile, if there are fans in South Wales that are desperate for Premier League football and don’t care about the history and identity of their club, there’s one just up the M4 you can support…
Follow James Bennett on Twitter here.