I have almost enjoyed reading the Wasting Mule’s coverage this week of Cardiff’s promotion to the Premier League. It has been relatively restrained, almost balanced. There has been no ‘Bigger than Barcelona’ nonsense, and no insulting attempts to suggest that all Welsh people should support the club. Maybe that all belongs to the era of previous owner Sam Hammam and the excitable Paul Abbandonato acting as his amanuensis. I hope so. Here are my thoughts on Cardiff’s achievement and prospects.
Let me start by saying – and there is no way of avoiding this – that the quality of the teams in the Championship this year, and consequently the standard of the football played, has been pretty poor. Every time Cardiff faltered the chasing pack went into collective foot-shooting mode. But they proved capable of screwing up even without Cardiff getting them in a tizzy. Last night, for example, Hull had the chance, at home to bottom club Bristol City, of securing second place and automatic promotion, but could only eke out an embarrassing 0 – 0 draw. This lack of quality in the Championship this season will not prepare Cardiff well for the much more testing Premier League next season.
Inevitably, there have been comparisons with Swansea. One theory propounded by more than one I’ve read is that Cardiff are guaranteed more success than the Swans because Cardiff is bigger, or has a bigger ‘catchment area’. Rhodri Morgan, in his Wasting Mule column today,* seemed to be arguing that Cardiff will be successful because of “the chimney pots issue”! Then he went on to say, “Provided Cardiff establishes itself in the top tier, that status will be enormously helpful in attracting conferences and tourists to Cardiff, in competition with Edinburgh, Dublin, Bristol and top European cities”. (Barcelona?)
Though if that linkage of Premiership status and international recognition were true, then when can we expect to see the G8 meeting in Sunderland, or the Bilderbergers gathering (behind closed doors, of course) in Stoke-on-Trent? The truth is that sporting success and economic prosperity have little influence on each other. Just think East Germany. And if that’s not enough to convince you then remind yourself that during the time Liverpool FC was the most successful club in Europe the city was in permanent and almost terminal economic decline. On the other side of the coin, Munich and Milan would be prosperous cities even without successful football clubs.
If comparisons favourable to Cardiff have been made in terms of size and catchment areas, one aspect of the game the ‘Welsh’ media has been somewhat more reluctant to explore is the financial models of the two clubs. After nearly going out of business a decade ago, the Swans were rescued by a consortium of local businessmen determined to run the club responsibly. The fans also have a big share in the club’s ownership, and a director on the Board. Last month the club posted a profit of £15.9m for the second half of 2012. (And this figure does not include the potential sale value of the players.) Swansea City Football Club is therefore locally owned, responsibly run, does not pay outlandish transfer fees or exorbitant wages, makes modest profits, and does not owe a penny to anyone. By comparison, Cardiff is owned by Vincent Tan, a Malaysian businessman no one had heard of a couple of years ago (and had probably not heard of Cardiff), and is said to still owe tens of millions of pounds to various creditors, including Sam Hammam. According to a reader’s letter in today’s WM, the figure is £83.1m.
Whatever the true figure, Vincent Tan has promised Malky Mackay £25m for new players in the close season. Which sounds good . . . until you remember that Queens Park Rangers have spent much more than that on players this season, and they are bottom of the Premier League tonight, virtually guaranteed to be relegated. Let’s now go beyond finances to look at other aspects of the two clubs.
Swansea have consistently been praised for their continental, possession style, of play. But this didn’t happen overnight. The club’s owners not only decided on a new financial model but also a different style of playing the game. What you see today began with the managership of Roberto Martinez, continued under Paulo Sousa, then Brendan Rogers, and now Michael Laudrup. A multilingual Spaniard, A multilingual Portuguese, an Irishman who speaks fluent Spanish, and a Dane who was one of the greatest players of his generation, speaks Italian and Spanish, and is a great ‘pull’ for players who might not otherwise come to Swansea. By comparison, and with the best will in the world, I don’t think Cardiff have the continental contacts to land a player like Michu for £2m. And excellent manager though he might be, Malky Mackay is unknown on the continent, and therefore has no reputation to trade on.
Aside from comparisons of Swansea and Cardiff, there is another issue worth considering. There have been background rumblings about Swansea’s ‘right’, as a Welsh club, to be in the English Premiership; and this can only increase now that there are two Welsh clubs there. The noises won’t come from Manchester United or Chelsea, but from those ‘big’ clubs that have known better days, but now find themselves in the Championship, or even lower. And with English particularism on the rise, perhaps we can anticipate Nigel Farage chasing votes by banging the ‘Welsh Out!’ drum in cities such as Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. A bit far-fetched, maybe; but I still predict that those who objected to the presence of one Welsh club in the Premier League can only become more vocal now there are two. And maybe they’ll attract new voices. If so, then this could have unforeseeable consequences.
I wish Cardiff City well, and I’m looking forward to the Swans’ games against them next season, but I urge the Cardiff fans not to get carried away. Enjoy the promotion success by all means, but also remember that reaching the Premier League can be the easy bit . . . it’s staying there that’s usually the problem. Just ask Blackpool, QPR, or half the teams you’re leaving behind in the Championship. Now for the really serious bit. As a Swans fan I know that whatever else might befall the club, it’s in safe hands and almost guaranteed to stay solvent. But if I was a Cardiff fan, my biggest worry would be, what would happen if Vincent Tan went bankrupt or just decided to walk away?
* The print version was somewhat less restrained, and headed: ‘Bluebirds’ boost could transform our capital into a roaring Celtic Tiger’. (That’s more like it! Move over Barcelona!)