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The day the bluebirds died.

On the 6th June 2012, the football club I loved announced it was completely ‘rebranding’ itself in an attempt to appeal to the Asian market. This followed many weeks of speculation about such a change, with the news initially breaking just minutes after the full time whistle had blown on the final game of the 2011/12 season. After overwhelming initial opposition to the changes, the club released a statement saying that they had listened to the wishes of the fans, and the club would play in blue for the upcoming season, with a traditional bluebird badge.

We will not proceed with the proposed change of colour and logo, and the team will continue to play in blue at home for the coming season with the current badge – Cardiff City statement – 10th May 2012

They lied.

The night before the news of the confirmation of the rebrand, strong rumours suggested that an announcement from the club would be made, giving me some time to think about what I would do should my worst fears be confirmed. The decision to walk away from the club would not be an easy one.  I’d held a season ticket since the age of 14, and made it to at least 20 away games every season since that time. Cardiff City was undeniably a huge part of my life.

Despite this, I knew that I would be unable to watch Cardiff throw away their history to such a degree. To me, a football club is so much more than just the players who happen to pull on the shirt at any one time. If you don’t believe in the identity of your club and simply enjoy success, everyone in the world might as well support Barcelona.

Whether you support Bayern Munich or Barry Town, Real Madrid or Rotherham, you should always be proud of your club and what it stands for. As the rebrand was confirmed, the only overwhelming emotions I felt about Cardiff City were shame and anger. Shame that the club I loved had sold their soul so spectacularly, and anger that the owners were going to get away with it.

I decided straight away that I would be boycotting the club until sense was restored and they played in a blue home kit with a bluebird on the badge. Even at this stage, in my heart I never truly expected Cardiff to play a game in red. Surely enough of the fanbase would feel the same way as me that the pressure on the club would force them into reconsidering. An hour after the rebrand was announced I headed to Cardiff City stadium, making my own protest by tying my ‘Bluebirds’ scarf to the Ninian Park gates and paying tribute to the bluebird with a blue smokebomb.

While there was some desire from fans to protest, the Keep Cardiff Blue group which formed was met with strong opposition and was threatened into submission before any kind of protest could take place. A protest meeting at a local social club was invaded by a group of former hooligans who made dire threats against anybody who protested, including the immortal line “If you bring a blue banner to a game, I’ll bury you.”

To well and truly ensure that the red revolution would pass off without a hitch, the club banned all protesters from Cardiff City Stadium or the surrounding area before the opening game of the season at home to Huddersfield. By this stage, the fanbase had been completely divided, with the statement released by Dato Chan scaring many people into accepting or even embracing the rebrand. The majority of fans were divided up into the following categories:

  • Completely against the rebrand – Full boycott
  • Against the rebrand but continued to attend games
  • So called ‘Reluctant reds’ – Acceptance of the rebrand for what they saw as the benefit of the club
  • Fans who actively embraced the rebrand

With the fans willing to accept the rebrand far outnumbering those who wanted to protest by at least 50 to 1, it seemed there was very little point in continuing to protest against the changes. I instead stepped away from the club completely, to the stage where I have not even seen Cardiff City play on Sky Sports or the Football League Show this season. The only glimpses I had of the stadium was through social media, and with the majority of my friends feeling the same way as me about the rebrand, even this was very rare. In the images I did see, the majority of fans were reassuringly wearing blue, or at least any colour other than red.

As the months went on and Cardiff won more and more games, the dissenting voices against the rebrand continued to dwindle. “Who cares about history, we’re top of the league” and “it’s only a colour” were phrases seen in various places across the internet.

It didn’t matter to me if Cardiff were top of the Championship, bottom of League Two or winning the Champions League, I could still never watch them in red. This meant I was never tempted to break the boycott, however in my heart at this stage I was still confident that Cardiff City would one day be back in blue with a bluebird on their shirts. It was not until the 19th February 2013 that this changed for good.

It was announced that the club would be presenting every fan who attended the home fixture against Brighton and Hove Albion with a free red scarf. This ‘generous gift’ (or cynical marketing ploy) was met with wide outrage by many Cardiff City fans, with many far angrier than when the rebrand had initially happened. It seemed for a lot of supporters it was one thing for the players to be made to wear red, but forcing it down the throats of the fans was quite another thing.

There was much talk of protests against these scarves, with some fans planning to throw them on the pitch, while others vowed to reject the scarf and wear as much blue as possible. For the first time in several months, I felt like I could identify with the majority of Cardiff City fans. It was coming a lot later than I expected, but the ‘fire and passion’ from fans to protest was finally there.  Posters for ‘Blue Tuesday’ were distributed, while social media was abuzz with promises to rebel against the scarves.

For the first time all season I was excited about a Cardiff City game. The garish scarves (which didn’t even include the correct name of the club and featured a red bluebird) would surely be rejected en masse, and the fans of Cardiff City would show pride in their heritage and tradition. The door to a return to blue looked more open than ever.

I kept Twitter open to monitor the protests that would take place against the attempted execution of the bluebird and the rise of the dragon, however it soon became clear that this was not the case. The much talked about protests failed to emerge, and instead the stadium was a sea of red. 90% of fans within the ground were  proudly showing their fire and passion for the Vincent Tan revolution. The images rolling in of the stadium genuinely looked more like Anfield than Cardiff City Stadium, and it was clear that the Cardiff City I had once loved so dearly was dead.

A sea of red at Cardiff City Stadium. Picture – Jon Candy

I can only compare the situation to Winston Smith’s realisation at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, betraying Julia and learning to love Big Brother. The vast majority of Cardiff City fans inside the stadium had shown that far from being ‘reluctant reds’, they had come to love the new club founded by Vincent Tan in 2012. The Malaysian version of Big Brother was watching on from the director’s box, and as he looked around the stadium at a sea of red, it was clear he had won.

Vincent Tan surveys his final victory over the bluebirds. Picture – Jon Candy 

Who knows what will happen next to the club I used to know, with further changes seeing inevitable. From red seats at the stadium to a name change, nothing seems impossible. The bluebird was sacrificed on that cold Tuesday night in February, ending any façade of the rebrand being a temporary measure. For a number of fans, this was the final straw. For countless more, it was just another game. I have no ill feeling whatsoever towards those who continue to support the club, but as they wave their red scarves when Cardiff are inevitably promoted at the end of the season, a part of them will surely have to consider whether the price they have paid for glory was really worth it. Brighton won the game 2 – 0, but it was far more than just three points lost for the home side at Cardiff City Stadium. Fans filed into the night past the statue of Fred Keenor, a stark reminder of the clubs history so wilfully cast aside in the pursuit of success.

To slightly adapt my favourite chant during my time following the club, this truly was the day they took my Cardiff away.

Cardiff City Football Club, the Bluebirds. Born 1910, died 2013.

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The Championship crisis

The Championship – What’s gone wrong?

It was not so long ago that many pundits were calling the Championship one of the most exciting leagues in Europe. Good attendances, competitive football and highly unpredictable results. However, as the ridiculous sums of money in the Premier League grow higher and higher, the desperation to reach the top flight of English football is putting the Championship into an increasingly ugly state.

At points of the 2012/13 season it appears as if the people in charge of teams in the second tier are staging a competition to see who can run their club the worst.  From a chairman more impatient than Roman Abramovich and a hundred years of history being thrown away in the pursuit of glory, the Championship is heading down a road which could seriously damage English football forever.

While every club in the Championship dreams of making a push for promotion and getting themselves on Match Of The Day, the following four are chasing the dream harder than most:

Nottingham Forest

Being proud of your history is important for any football club. Without heritage, tradition and pride, football is nothing more than rich people kicking a ball around a field for an hour and a half. While every fan should be proud of their past, Nottingham Forest have more reason than most. Two European Cups, winners of the top flight, FA Cup winners on two occasions and four League Cups, Forest have a history which would be the envy of most Premier League clubs.

The majority of these successes came under the leadership of the legendary Brian Clough, a manager so unique that he is beloved by fans of Forest and Derby County, a similar feat to winning man of the year in Israel and Palestine. The man is so respected that whenever the two great rivals meet, they play for the Brian Clough trophy.

Clough managed the club for 18 years, winning everything there was to win as he took control of 907 matches.

By contrast, since Fawaz Al-Hawasi took control of the club on the 10th July 2012, the club has had a grand total of four managers. At the current rate at which Nottingham Forest are disposing of managers, they would go through 108 in the same period of time that Clough lead the club so magnificently.

Al Hawasi

The initial excitement when the Al-Hawasi family took over has long since faded for the majority of Nottingham Forest fans I come into contact with, as manager after manager is given the chop as the team continues to underperform, closer to the relegation zone than contending for promotion. The damage done to Nottingham Forest is far more than just a disappointing season however. Forest are arguably the biggest club in the second tier, with only Leeds United offering a valid argument for being of a greater stature. The chance to manage the Tricky Trees is a chance that any Football League manager would have jumped at until recently.

All that has changed, as the average tenure of a Nottingham Forest manager became around the same length as a Katie Price marriage. Al-Hawasi sacked Steve Cotterill two days after taking over at the club, talking of bringing in an “iconic manager”, before hiring Sean O’Driscoll. The former Doncaster Rovers manager was in charge for 26 games, losing just 7 and putting the club in serious contention for the playoffs. Nottingham Forest fans taunted Leeds manager Neil Warnock with “you’re getting sacked in the morning” after the Reds beat his side 4 – 2, however it was O’Driscoll who lost his job mere hours after the full time whistle.

Alex McLeish was the next man into the City Ground hot seat, a big name manager even if he’s unlikely to ever win any popularity awards in the city of Birmingham. The 26 games given to O’Driscoll looked like a lifetime compared to the Glaswegians reign, leaving the club by ‘mutual consent’ after just seven matches in charge.

Like a desperate drunk running out of options for a place to stay for the night, the only place left to turn for Forest was their ex. Billy Davies was the man in charge of Forest from 2008 – 2011, following in the footsteps of Clough by leaving Derby for their great rivals. He had departed the club almost two years earlier following successive playoff defeats and had not held another managerial job during that time. Davies was highly popular at Forest in his first stint, and in usual circumstances his return would have been met with tickertape parades and supporters openly weeping with joy in the streets.  Instead, there is a fear around the City Ground that the legacy of Davies will be spoiled if he fails to win every game 5 – 0 and becomes yet another name on the list of Al-Hawasi’s casualties.

Cardiff City

The rebranding of Cardiff City was the worst act of betrayal against a Football League club since the murder of Wimbledon by MK Dons, outraging football fans across the world. Everywhere in the world it seems, apart from in Cardiff.

While several hundred fans were furious, many thousands more accepted whatever the Malaysian owners threw at them in pursuit of a place in the Premier League. The Keep Cardiff Blue protest group was threatened with assault and even death if they protested at the ground, while my own personal protest resulted in my levels of abuse on social media matching that of Justin Bieber and a wide range of comments about how I should “watch my back”, mainly from 14 year old boys.

Much has been written on the subject of Cardiff City this season, but for those unaware of the timeline of events, a brief summary follows:

  • Cardiff City are defeated 5 – 0 in the Playoffs by West Ham at the end of the 2011/12 season.
  • Following this defeat, news breaks anonymously on the internet that the owners plan to change the bluebird to a dragon, changing the colour of the shirts from blue to red. In return the club would become debt free, a new training complex would be build and the stadium would be expanded.
  • The playoff defeat forgotten, fans react angrily to the proposed changes
  • Cardiff City issue a statement stating that the rebrand will not take place, and they will instead “search for alternative investment opportunities”.
  • The brainwashing of fans into believing “red or dead” begins, led by a number of ex-hooligans close to former Chairman Sam Hammam.
  • The club goes back on their word, changing the kit colour from blue to red, releasing a grotesque new badge.
  • Keep Cardiff Blue forms, and is promptly squashed when the initial meeting is met by threats of violence from fellow fans. Protestors are told “If you bring a blue banner, you will be buried.”
  • The clubs debt increases, while no plans relating to either the training complex or stadium expansion have emerged. However, heavy spending on transfers and wages see Cardiff City storm to near-certain promotion.

While many fans boycotted, many more continued to attend matches, either adopting the term ‘reluctant reds’ or even accepting the rebrand completely. With the team doing well on the pitch, those opposed to the changes became a silent minority. Despite a lack of vocal opposition, most fans did not completely give in to the whims of their Malaysian overlords, with blue the predominant colour in the stands.

Clearly this lack of “embracing the fusion of Welsh and Malaysian cultures” had to be rectified somehow to keep Vincent Tan happy, and sure enough a plan to force the rebrand down the throats of Cardiff fans was announced in the past week. Anyone who attended the fixture against Brighton and Hove Albion would receive the ‘generous gift’ of a free Cardiff City scarf, which was definitely to keep fans warm and in no way a cynical marketing ploy. Just to make sure as many people as possible accepted the ‘generosity’, the additional bribe of a free season ticket was offered to fans pictured holding a red scarf.

whatthefuckinghellisthat

As a final insult, the scarf (pictured below) calls the club by the wrong name, with a red bluebird to add further salt to the wounds. The official club spokesman used social media to make a big show of ringing Sky Sports last season to complain about the club being billed as ‘Cardiff’ rather than ‘Cardiff City’ in the build-up to the Carling Cup final, however they apparently have no such problems doing the same thing this year.

Who knows how far the rebranding of the club will continue and if they will ever play in blue again, but one thing is certain. At a time which should be one of the most exciting in the history of the club, the unity of the fanbase has been irrevocably damaged. Cardiff City will never be the same again, and not just because of the kit colour.

Leeds United

If there is one club that demonstrates the danger of ‘chasing the dream’ in the Premier League, Leeds United would be right up there with Portsmouth. From the Champions League to League One, overspending and unbelievably poor leadership saw Leeds move from a genuinely massive club to a national joke.

To say Ken Bates was unpopular in Leeds doesn’t really do it justice, with the former Chelsea owner doing everything in his power to alienate and drive away supporters. With this in mind, rumours of a takeover before the season began were met with an extremely positive reaction from Leeds supporters, with talk of big money to be invested to get Leeds back to where they belong.

As much as the football community loves to hate Leeds, they are a massive club who would add more excitement to the Premier League than many of the teams currently making up the division. Singing “We all hate Leeds scum” is a fashion statement for many football fans, declaring their hatred of the Yorkshire club simply because they’ve heard that’s what people do. Despite this, Leeds are a club I have a great deal of respect for. Living in the city for three years I soon discovered that if you live in Leeds, glory hunting isn’t an option. You support Leeds United, and that’s just the way it goes.

The men behind the takeover claimed to share this passion for Leeds United, and were initially welcomed as heroes when the takeover finally went ahead after many months of delay and uncertainty. Figures were thrown around of an investment of around £80m, with Neil Warnock to be given the funds he needed to make a serious push for promotion.

Instead of a flurry of new signings and building a squad that could truly compete, they sold Luciano Becchio, signing Alan Tate and Steve Morrison, a situation similar to being promised a visit to the Ritz for Valentine’s Day and going down the chippy instead. While the new owners would have to sacrifice Tony Yeboah at half time while stamping on Yorkshire puddings to make themselves less popular than Bates, there seems to be a growing fear that the investment group don’t particularly know what they’re doing.

Leeds fans have marched on together through a lot worse than being just outside the playoff places in the Championship, but the early indications are that the bright new dawn at Leeds United may not be so bright after all.

Watford

The story at Watford is a very different one to those above, as the owners appear to be doing an excellent job and giving the side a good chance of promotion. This is not a story of damaging owners, but instead one of the incredible risks sides take for a shot at the money of the Premier League.

Raffaele Riva, Gino Pozzo and Gianfranco Zola are the main men at Watford FC these days, as strong an Italian connection you can get without half time pizzas and extravagant hand gestures. The really interesting changes however have been on the pitch, with Watford making 14 loan signings this season, 10 of them from Udinese. Currently the strategy is working, with the Glory Horns well in contention for one of the automatic promotion spaces.

The problem comes if the Watford Azzurri promotion campaign is unsuccessful and their Italian stallions return to their parent clubs. Watford will be left with a threadbare squad and increased expectations from the fans after the excellent way they have performed this time out, putting pressure on the club to spend big.

There is also the issue about just how much loan players care for the clubs they represent, especially towards the end of the season. In theory the Cardiff City squad which contained Craig Bellamy, Michael Chopra, Jay Bothroyd, Peter Whittingham and Chris Burke should have stormed to promotion, but poor loan performances saw the unity of the squad collapse as they meekly failed in the playoffs against Reading. Meanwhile, Swansea City were promoted without the star names, relying on just one loan player who was able to make a real difference.

Whether Watford will go the same way as that failed squad remains to be seen, but building an entire team around loan signings is a worrying trend for the future competitiveness of the Championship. With financial fair play coming in to place to prevent so called ‘financial doping’, squads full of loan players could be the next trend for instant success.

The lower reaches of the Spanish leagues contain reserve sides for the top La Liga teams. If British clubs go down the route of loaning vast numbers of players from abroad to avoid loan regulations, the Football League could essentially become another version of Serie B. I don’t blame Watford for what they are doing, the ridiculous financial incentives of the Premier League mean that it is inevitable clubs will do anything they can to get their hands on the top flight pot of gold. As with the Cardiff City rebranding and the Nottingham Forest manager massacre, the problem is how many clubs will follow in their footsteps if their plans are successful.

The Premier League hangover

With owners prepared to take such risks and fans prepared to make such sacrifices to their clubs, you would think that getting into the Premier League would result in guaranteed success and stability for a club. You only have to study the current Championship table to discover that this is far from the truth.

Wolves, Bolton and Birmingham City spent many years in the top flight between them, yet it is relegation to League One that is on their mind this season. Birmingham’s overseas investors did oversee a League Cup victory and a brave Europa League run, but relegation followed and the club has been left in limbo by Carson Yeung’s court case and the uncertainty over who is actually making the decisions at the top level of the club.

Blackburn Rovers are performing slightly better in the table, but this does not mean the club is being managed any better. The Venkys have become synonymous with bad leadership, as they talked about signing Ronaldinho and bringing back the glory days, but hired the dismal Steve Kean and were relegated instead.

While the Premier League continues to fool people into thinking it’s the strongest competition in the world and offer such financial incentives for those who battle their way into it, the Championship will continue to show as much dignity as a kebab shop at 3am after a Saturday night out. It’s clear to see that football in England cannot go on the way it is, however it will be the Championship and the Football League that suffers worst when the ivory towers come crashing down.