Friday, 17 August 2012

It's More than Just a Colour

This evening, Cardiff City will kick off their 2012/13 Championship campaign against newly-promoted Huddersfield Town. It will be the first Bluebirds home game that I have missed in all competitions since December 1994 and only the third since March 1975.
In recent months, I have lost count of the number of people who have expressed their surprise that I am prepared to give up on a lifetime of supporting Cardiff over the colour of their new shirts. I have expected those kinds of comments from people who aren’t football fans themselves, but I’ve been genuinely surprised to hear the same sort of things being said by other City supporters, both in person and the on the internet message boards.
For me, this is about much more than just a colour. For those who are interested and unable to work them out for themselves, the reasons that I am turning my back on the Bluebirds after 37 years as a season ticket holder are as follows: 
The Principle
Until the recent changes were implemented, blue had been Cardiff City’s primary colour ever since the football club became professional in 1910. In my opinion, the board’s decision to completely bypass the fanbase and simply flush away more than a century of tradition without any kind of consultation was not only nonsensical but also hugely disrespectful to the generations of Bluebirds supporters who have followed the club throughout its long and troubled history.
Nobody would expect the fans to be consulted on any of the day-to-day decisions the club’s officials have to make during the normal course of its business, but what we are talking about here is a different situation altogether. This re-branding exercise was not a standard business decision by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it was a radical transformation of the club’s identity and one which appears to have no commercial justification whatsoever. The change to red shirts and a dragon emblem was guaranteed to prove hugely divisive and for many supporters it has altered the very fabric of the club. The Bluebirds hierarchy were fully aware that would be the case but nevertheless they didn’t deem it appropriate to canvass the opinions of their core customers before embarking upon such a drastic course of action. Sadly, the fact of the matter is that the personal preferences of a wealthy Malaysian businessman who apparently watched his first game of professional football in May 2010 are now considered significantly more important than those of many thousands of lifelong Cardiff City fans.
All of the evidence suggests that these changes are being implemented simply because the club’s major shareholder has demanded them. Indeed, Chief Executive Alan Whiteley has freely admitted that there is no actual business plan attached to the re-branding, while Chairman Dato Chan Tien Ghee failed to volunteer any kind of justification for it during yesterday’s general meeting of shareholders. Despite vague hints about worldwide marketing strategies and commercial activities in the Far East, club officials have thus far offered no suggestions as to what tangible benefits the exercise is supposed to bring apart from the continued support of Tan Sri Vincent Tan. Meanwhile, a number of experts in the field of marketing have publicly dismissed the notion that the Bluebirds will reap any financial rewards by playing in a red kit as opposed to a blue one. This act of corporate vandalism appears to be little more than a rich man’s whim and is one which has fractured the club’s fanbase for no discernible reason.
A short while after the changes were confirmed, the club announced it was initiating a supporter consultation process which will involve “looking at key areas of future brand development within existing parameters,” such as the kit and the crest. If ever there was a textbook example of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, then this must be it. In my opinion, the club’s owners have treated its fans with contempt in recent months and this damage limitation exercise by local officials is little more than lip service. Alan Whiteley and his staff undoubtedly have honourable intentions and are trying make the best of a bad situation, but the fans have already been told the team will play in red and have a dragon as its emblem in 2013/14, so any consultation is likely to be severely limited.
Of course, the Bluebirds hierarchy are under no obligation to consult with the fanbase on any issue. By the same token, the supporters are under no obligation to endorse the way in which the current regime is conducting its business. No doubt the vast majority of fans will carry on supporting the club regardless of recent events, but for some of us there is a principle at stake here. Cardiff City’s Malaysian owners have clearly demonstrated they are content to ignore the supporters and trample on the club’s traditions. Consequently, they will not be getting another penny from me.
The Cardiff City ‘Brand’
In his one and only public statement regarding the football club he has effectively owned for two years, Tan Sri Vincent Tan said: “I have the greatest respect for the Welsh national symbol of the red dragon. I believe it to be a symbol of great strength and I was surprised it had such little coverage on the club’s badge. It was for this reason that I suggested the improved focus of the Welsh dragon, and this despite suggestions by a Welsh designer to use a more modern version of the dragon instead.”
As far as I’m concerned, Tan’s comments serve only to demonstrate how out of touch he is with the supporters of the club he controls. Maybe his advisors should have informed him that those of us who live in the Welsh capital already have a football team who play in red and wear a dragon on their chests. They are called Wales and they represent us in international competitions. Although Cardiff City Football Club has often acknowledged its Welsh heritage, the simple fact of the matter is that the Bluebirds do not represent the people of Wales. They represent the people of Cardiff and its surrounding areas, while the red dragon is the emblem of our country and not our club.
Using Tan’s twisted logic, teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham should be playing in white and wearing three lions on their shirts simply because they are based in the capital city of England, but of course they don’t. Those clubs evidently have considerably more pride in their individual identities than Cardiff City does at present.
Tan continued: “I have been told that the Welsh dragon was in fact on the club’s badge when it last won the FA Cup in 1927.” He is indeed correct, although he conveniently failed to mention the crest worn by Keenor and Co at Wembley in both 1925 and 1927 also contained a seahorse and a goat. Perhaps the club should resurrect the latter instead of the dragon and replace the motto ‘Fire and Passion’ with ‘Climb Every Mountain’. It would seem more appropriate under the circumstances.
As soon as it was decided that Cardiff City would play in red this season, one would have assumed that City’s officials would have attempted to ensure the new strip was as stylish as possible, especially as the owner apparently wanted an image that would “give the club a new focus and dynamism.” A radical change of colours was always going to be contentious, but the blow could have been softened for many supporters if the new kit had looked attractive.
When the re-branding plans were initially leaked, fans on the message boards quickly produced several shirt designs that involved a striking fusion of red and blue. So, what did the club itself manage to come up with? Well, the home strip for 2012/13 can best be described as a counterfeit Manchester United kit which appears to have originated from the budget section of the Puma catalogue. A cheap and nasty red and black affair, it looks about as dynamic as a doornail. There will be sides playing in the lower divisions of the Cardiff parks leagues this season who will have better-looking kits than the Bluebirds.
To further compound matters, the away strip is blue, white and yellow, while a black and gold third kit is apparently in the pipeline. God knows who dreamed up this car-crash colour scheme, but it goes to prove that the decision-makers at the Cardiff City Stadium can occasionally be clueless where such matters are concerned.
I have already outlined my feelings about the new ‘beer mat’ badge in a previous entry, but the appearance of it in recent weeks in prominent positions on the side of the stadium has further underlined what an ill-conceived mess this exercise has been. I witnessed the new stadium branding for myself yesterday and it’s a real pig’s breakfast, although I’ll concede the pictures of the players on display outside the main entrance do seem rather apt. After all, what could be more symbolic of what is fast becoming a Mickey Mouse club than a couple of huge cartoon footballers?
In keeping with everything else in recent months, last weekend’s free event at the Cardiff City Stadium bordered on the bizarre. As far as I can ascertain, a ceremony was held to mark the re-opening of a stadium that had never closed, while celebrations were staged to commemorate the club’s sole ownership of a ground that it has always owned solely. Those who attended this event were apparently treated to dancing oriental dragons, a hog roast and a fireworks display. It seems that in this bold new era of fire and passion, the club literally has money to burn.    
During the last few months, Bluebirds officials have made numerous references to what they describe as the Cardiff City ‘brand’. For example, Alan Whiteley recently stated: “The changes to the home kit and badge are designed to help the club develop its brand and allow it to appeal to as wide an audience as possible,” while Chairman Dato’ Chan Tien Ghee described the exercise as “a springboard for the successful commercialisation and promotion of the club and its brand.”
The truth of the matter is that these gentlemen are talking about developing and promoting an entirely new ‘brand’ which Tan Sri Vincent Tan and his associates have recently created. Rewind to April and the idea of Cardiff City playing in a red and black home kit with a dragon for an emblem would have seemed utterly ridiculous to every Bluebirds fan. Plenty of us still feel that way, but it appears the majority of supporters have been either coerced or manipulated into believing this so-called ‘brand’ is not only acceptable but in some cases even appealing.
Many City fans may be willing to embrace the notion that the traditional identity of the football club they support is nothing more than a marketing tool for a Malaysian businessman to mess around with, but I find it abhorrent. The plastic monstrosity which the current regime has created bears little resemblance to the club I have supported for the last 37 years and I feel no affinity towards it.
Emperor Tan and his Minions
When Tan Sri Vincent Tan’s name was first connected with Cardiff City, I was both intrigued and excited. He was obviously a very wealthy man and his representative, Dato’ Chan Tien Ghee, seemed honourable, knowledgeable and genuinely respectful of the club, its supporters and its traditions.
TG was hugely impressive when he spoke to the shareholders during a General Meeting at the Cardiff City Stadium in May 2010 on the day that he officially became the new Bluebirds chairman. He said he felt “deeply privileged” to serve a club he described as “a Welsh institution that is now representing two nations.” He claimed the club was committed to another promotion challenge but added that the fans must not forget Cardiff City needs to be operating within sensible financial guidelines.
He was similarly impressive when he spent an evening with members of the Supporters’ Trust at the stadium in November 2010, and was once again in good form when he addressed the shareholders in July 2011 during his second General Meeting. On that occasion, the Chairman stated his belief that Cardiff City is an institution rather than a business and one which must be maintained for future generations to enjoy. He described the club as “a sturdy ship that has been in existence for more than 100 years,” and said he was determined it would be here for another 100 years.
TG suggested that football is like no other business and admitted that he and his Malaysian colleagues had been on a steep learning curve since they first got involved in the club. He assured the shareholders that the board was doing everything possible to cut out unnecessary spending and talked of building firm foundations for the future while remaining competitive at the top of the Championship.
Although the record financial losses revealed by the publication of the 2010/11 accounts in March 2012 started the alarm bells ringing, I nevertheless retained a great deal of respect for the Chairman up until the point where the news of the re-branding plans broke. Since then, the quotes attributed to him on the club’s official website have been extremely disappointing, while his performance at yesterday’s General Meeting, although charming and disarming, was far less impressive than his previous appearances in front of the shareholders. To say he has gone down in my estimations would be something of an understatement.
Having said that, I would love to know what TG really thinks about this re-branding episode. Although it’s just a hunch, I have a feeling that, much like the local club officials, he has merely been spinning the company line and his personal viewpoint is somewhat different to the one outlined in his public statements. I believe this ridiculous exercise is essentially the work of just one man, namely Tan Sri Vincent Tan.
According to the current Chief Executive, Tan only stepped up his involvement in the running of the club around seven months ago. Before then, he had been something of a silent partner, although the writing was clearly on the wall in June of last year when it was announced the Bluebirds would have Malaysia plastered across the front of their shirts for the 2011/12 campaign. 
At the time, former Chief Executive Gethin Jenkins stated: “The club had some very attractive shirt sponsorship options to link up with a number of commercial partners and brands in the UK and abroad, but after speaking with our investors and knowing the commitment from Vincent Tan and TG, we knew that the best way to highlight our affinity with Malaysia was to wear the message with pride on our kits.”
Tan allegedly paid the club £350,000 for the privilege of having his country’s name emblazoned across the team’s shirts. Coincidentally, £350,000 is the figure the club accrued in annual interest on the £5 million debt that Tan failed to convert into equity following the July 2011 General Meeting (see my blog entry from 20 June for details).
The Malaysia sponsorship deal, which will continue in 2012/13, is a weird one to put it mildly. I suppose it could be argued that it is an attempt by the club to promote itself in the Far East, but I have little doubt that Tan’s primary intention is simply to curry personal favour with Malaysia’s political and business leaders and thereby increase his standing within his homeland.
On the handful of occasions that he has attended Bluebirds matches, Tan has invariably had a group of Malaysian dignitaries in tow. He clearly views Cardiff City as a status symbol and I suspect he will continue to use it to promote himself within the Far East during the coming months. As for his long-term intentions with regard to the Bluebirds, I wouldn’t care to speculate about those, although the evidence of what has happened so far in 2012 would suggest that pretty much anything is possible given the fact that the re-branding exercise apparently came out of the blue, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Of course, although Tan Sri Vincent Tan is the major shareholder and clearly has a huge influence behind the scenes, he is by no means the only decision-maker at Cardiff City. Indeed, the club currently has the largest board of directors in its entire history. Although the backgrounds of the five local directors have been fairly well-documented, very little is known about Malaysia-based directors Derek Chee Seng Sing, Len Win Kong, Meng Kwong Lim and Danni Rais other than the fact that they are all employees of Tan’s Berjaya Group and were appointed to the Bluebirds board by him. Meanwhile, Cypriot-born investment banker Mehmet Dalman is another director who was introduced to the board by Tan, although he is based in the UK. The role of these five gentlemen in terms of their involvement with the club remains a mystery.
As I have already outlined, when they took control of Cardiff City Football Club during 2010, the spokesman for the new Malaysian regime talked of cutting out unnecessary spending, operating within sensible financial guidelines and building firm foundations for the future. It all sounded very encouraging, but the reality has been record financial losses and additional debts totalling more than £35 million which have been accumulated within the space of just two years. Nevertheless, everyone at the club seems very relaxed about the situation simply because the largest shareholder is an extremely rich man.
Tan Sri Vincent Tan’s solutions to these ongoing problems are apparently what he describes in his statement as “making real-world business decisions” and “exploring international markets” in order to prepare for the club’s “next evolutionary phase”. In layman’s terms, that seems to equate to playing in red as opposed to blue and replacing the traditional Bluebird with a Welsh dragon while trying to attract the attention of millions of television viewers on the other side of the globe.
Many Cardiff City fans are apparently happy to accept Tan’s so-called vision and put their trust in him simply because he is a successful business mogul who has made a fortune in the Far East. I, on the other hand, firmly believe that the re-branding exercise is a complete waste of the club’s time and money and, while I don’t believe he has any evil intentions, I wouldn’t trust Tan as far as I could throw him.  
The Supporters
The aspect of this summer’s fiasco which has disappointed me the most has been the reactions of the club’s supporters, or at least a considerable percentage of them. I can fully understand the feelings of fans who are reluctantly putting up with these changes as they fear for the club’s future without Tan Sri Vincent Tan’s backing. I can also empathise with those who are opposed to the re-branding but will continue to support the team as they feel unable to give up doing so. Nevertheless, I have found the levels of shoulder-shrugging apathy, bootlicking servility and mind-numbing stupidity displayed by large numbers of Bluebirds fans in recent months to be not only staggering but also nauseating. Meanwhile, the threats of violence that were issued against those who simply wished to peacefully protest about the systematic destruction of their club’s traditional identity were truly sickening.
I used to be very proud to count myself as a Cardiff City supporter, but such feelings have rapidly diminished since the re-branding reared its ugly head. I’m finding I can no longer relate to people I previously had a good deal of respect for, while there are others I now hold in genuine contempt, and I’ve no doubt there are those who feel exactly the same way about me. Regardless of their reasoning, I simply cannot identify with any Bluebirds fan who has welcomed what has happened to their club in recent months and I have no desire whatsoever to either sit or travel alongside such people.
If a sizeable percentage of the fanbase had voiced opposition to these changes, then I have little doubt I would have been there this evening supporting the team regardless of what colours they are playing in. However, as far as I’m concerned, the way in which the club’s true identity has been tamely surrendered with barely a whimper from its fans has been very difficult to stomach.
Ultimately, I believe the supporters who have either meekly accepted these changes or actively embraced them will get the club they deserve, although I very much doubt it will be the one they currently envisage.
Blue really is the Colour
Whenever I think of Cardiff City’s greatest goals or most significant victories, and even their most desperate defeats, I picture the players and supporters wearing blue, which is hardly surprising considering the fact that blue has been the club’s primary colour for more than a century.
Whether it be Fred Keenor lifting the FA Cup at Wembley, Brian Clark scoring the winner against Real Madrid, Nathan Blake knocking Manchester City out the Cup at Ninian Park, Scott Young doing likewise to Leeds United, Andy Campbell’s play-off final winner at the Millennium Stadium, Ben Turner’s equaliser against Liverpool in the Carling Cup final or Mark Hudson scoring from his own half against Derby last season, I see blue.
Although the side has worn just about every colour of the rainbow away from home, whenever I envisage the greatest triumphs and despairs during my 37 years as a Cardiff supporter, I see the Bluebirds in blue. I certainly don’t see them in red. For me, the teams I immediately identify with red are Wales and Bristol City, not Cardiff City.
I guess I’m the same as almost all of the football fans in the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether they actually support the club or not, if a British football supporter thinks of Cardiff City, he or she will invariably think of blue. But none of that matters anymore, because a wealthy man from Malaysia prefers red, and he seems to believe that millions of other people from his continent prefer red too. The fact that those people have never watched or supported Cardiff City in their lives and don’t even know of the club’s existence is neither here nor there. Red is apparently considered a lucky colour in the Far East, so red it is.
Tan Sri Vincent Tan has managed to do something that no other Bluebirds owner or chairman has done during the last 37 years. He has cured me of my Cardiff City addiction. In terms of consultation, communication, implementation and justification, his pointless re-branding exercise has been a nightmare and it has proved a personal watershed for me. Although I may return to support the club at some point in the future, I know that I will never feel the same loyalty or affection towards it again and I very much doubt that I will ever buy another season ticket. Sadly, it feels as if the spell has finally been broken. Supporting the Bluebirds has always been an emotional rollercoaster, but the ride is rapidly moving in a direction that I don’t wish to travel, so I’m getting off.