Nov 1, 2013, 8:55 AM EDT
In Part I, we looked at the intense rivalry that sometimes spills over to violence, the industries driving South Wales and how this particular region is enjoying it’s spell as a burgeoning soccer Mecca.
Now it’s time for a taste of the atmosphere building for Sunday’s derby.
CARDIFF – CAPITAL REVIVAL
On a sunny morning driving over the Severn Crossing, Wales’ green rolling hills were in full view of my windscreen, finishing up the two-hour drive to the capital, Cardiff, from the London area. Over the years I’d been to ogle at the old Cardiff Arms arena, watch an FA Cup final at the Millennium Stadium, see Oasis in one of their final concerts and many other brief excursions have taken me to or through the crown jewel of Wales, which has a population of 340,000.
Every time I arrived in the city, located just 20 miles over the Severn Bridge that links England with Wales, something hits me. Firstly, the road signs are all in Welsh, secondly there are rugby balls and other rugby paraphernalia popping up everywhere and, once again, the road signs are in Welsh. It’s striking no matter how many times one makes that trip across the border from England to Wales.
Anyway, back to the soccer…
First stop, a meeting with a chap who is the Chairman of the Cardiff City’s Supporters Trust, Tim Hartley. In a sophisticated hotel near the Eastgate of the City Center, we sit at a table overlooking the court houses and main road leading into the city. For a quick taste on the South Wales region, my man Tim had all the info.
For many years the main industries have stemmed from the valleys just outside the capital as mining, steelworks, ironworks and other similar industries ruled the roost as the UK’s industrial revolution helped fuel the world. Today, those mines are all but gone with very few still in operational use.
Both Swansea City and Cardiff have strong links with the industries that their region is known for, with Swansea’s current Liberty Stadium situated right in front of an old copper works factory, which in the past made the whole area look like something emanating from the deepest depths of Mordor on a cold winter’s day when only the glow of the factory flame and sparks from the copper casts lit up the gray South Wales skyline.
As for Cardiff, the entire valleys region feed down towards the capital, as small towns and mining villages embrace the Bluebirds as there team. But now the capital itself is buying into the teams success massively, as the Bluebirds have enjoyed a steady start to their first ever season in the Premier League.
Cardiff City director, Steve Borley, remarked about the wide reach this game will have.
“It’s amazing that on Nov. 3, you have two Welsh teams, who are going to be prime time on the 4 p.m. [GMT] slot beamed across the world to over 220 countries,” Borley says. “I think the Welsh Assembly government are realizing the power of football and what that can do to raise the profile of the country, it will certainly put Wales on the map.”
People in the capital are also taking notice of the burgeoning rivalry in the worlds most watched league.
“Cardiff City fans come from a wider area in Wales,” Hartley explains. “But what’s happened now with the success, the whole city feels excited. My mother is 88, partially sighted, hates sport. She and her hairdresser discuss Cardiff City. Because it is up there, it’s now relevant and it’s now important. People who would otherwise not take interest now take a civic pride in the success of the football team.”
It’s at that point we discuss Swansea’s incredible rise through the leagues and the success Cardiff’s bitter rivals are having. But Hartley isn’t unhappy at the Swans’ rise, he’s envious.
“Theirs is a story everyone wants to emulate,” Hartley says. “Trouble is you have to hit rock bottom to do that.” And that’s what Swansea did.
SWANSEA – THE MODEL CLUB SUCCEEDS
The story of how Swansea City rose to the upper echelons of the Barclays Premier League is about as good as it gets.
Down and out in 2001, languishing towards the bottom of England’s fourth and final professional soccer tier, the Swans were going through huge financial struggles. Huge opposition to businessmen Tony Petty buying the club rallied a group of supporters together to try and alter the future of their beloved Swans.
Today the group, the Swansea City Supporters Trust, owns 20 percent of the club and has helped build the foundations for a soaring success story from the very bottom of pro soccer in England to the top 10 of the PL, the Europa League and a first major trophy for the club last season, the League Cup, in the space of the last 12 months. The people of Swansea are in dreamland and I was in town to see what it means to them.
The 40-mile drive from Cardiff to Swansea zips by. Out of Cardiff, the landscape changes dramatically as hills appear and the scenery was just, well, incredibly green. The magnificent Gower Peninsula appears on the left as you enter the industrial town of Port Talbot, then boom, Swansea is upon you before you know it.
My meeting with the trust was due to take place on a chilly evening in a local pub just a stone’s throw away from the Liberty Stadium. But, inevitably, my GPS failed me and I started to wind up and down narrow, hilly roads. I didn’t mind, I soaked in what Swansea had to offer and loved it. This city of just under 250,000 inhabitants was surprising me all the time, and I was about to be knocked sideways.
I entered the Globe Inn pub, a small hole-in-the-wall place halfway up a steep street lined with small terraced houses from the Victorian era. I edged my way inside, wary my gelled hair and scraggly beard may make me stick out like a sore thumb amongst this group of hugely passionate Swansea fans who fought to save their club. That wasn’t the case. Alan Lewis, the trust’s voice to the media and chief organizer, made me feel welcome; within moments I’d been introduced to all of the influential members of the trust, been bought a drink and was chatting away with complete strangers about the resurgence of Swansea.
These were proper football people. I sat down and chatted with fans who got this thing off the ground, the trust directors and current directors and vice chairman of Swansea City FC. This was all conducted in the back of this tiny pub, where a tremendous spread was put on in buffet fashion for all to enjoy, a book about the history of the trust was launched and a Q&A session was held for members of the trust and other intrigued onlookers. Others were watching Arsenal vs. Chelsea on the TV, unperturbed by the friendly, yet sometimes fiery, debate going on around them.
Current vice-chairman of Swansea City, Leigh Dineen, sat down and lounged back in an old wooden chair in the Globe on a cold October evening, as the noise of excited chatter reverberated around the homely confides of the Inn.
Dineen was one of the original members of the supporters’ trust and now has a pivotal role on the day-to-day running of the club. He’s overseen Swansea’s rise from the depths of League Two to the Premier League, European soccer and beyond.
Was this always the goal, for the club to gain global success on and off the pitch?
“I don’t think we ever looked at it like that,” Dineen says. “Unlike other people who take over a club and come along with their five-year plan, we were just there at the time to make sure the club survived. I wouldn’t say we’d be happy to in the same position (fourth tier) … but if we were then at least we’d had 10 more years still in the football league. To get where we are is a dream. It’s not something that we envisaged.”
Huw Cooze, Supporters Director of the trust and one of the nine directors on Swansea’s board, echoes Dineen’s comments and explains a little about how the deal went down and where things stand today. Did he expect it to all go this well?
“Not at all, things were starting to become a lot easier after we got promotion to League One and the new stadium arrived, things were coming together,” Cooze says, scratching his head as he recalled the humble beginnings. “We put up £1 million worth of shares between a consortium of nine business people, we were one of them. And we all grabbed whatever we could afford. The supporters grabbed 20 percent of those shares, it was only $1.5 million share capital. We grabbed $300,000 worth. So, as it stands, we own a fifth of a Premier League club. It’s quite incredibly really.”
From speaking with two directors of the club who help oversee player transfers, sponsorship deals, managerial appointments and all the hugely influential business, I strode around the tiny pub chatting to local fans who had come along for the book launch. They were passionate, friendly people who wanted to chat about ‘the Swans’ and all seemed to have massive smiles on their faces. You could tell they were living the dream and loving the fact that they were so heavily involved.
On the eve of the derby, Swansea announced a $23 million profit. Over the last year, they’re arguably the best run club in the PL and one everyone wants to emulate. Other clubs have tried to follow Swansea’s model, such as Coventry City and, Portsmouth. Members of the trust have been flown all over the world to try and help other soccer clubs in dire situations to sort out the finances, start from scratch and build a sustainable club. But what they kept repeating to me was that ‘there was no magic rule.’
The fans definitely saved the club, and without them there’s no doubt Swansea City may not even be in existence, let alone challenging for the Europa League, the top six of the Premier League and everything else that goes with it.
Some of the other trust members told glorious tales of Swansea players being brandished on the side of double-decker buses in Hong Kong, a link with soccer clubs in Wisconsin, doctors in Spain not knowing where Wales was when treating a patient. But as soon as they heard the name Swansea, the doctor could recite all the Spanish players on the squad, “Michu, Chico Flores, Hernandez, amazing, we love Swansea, come straight through.” Here, there and everywhere Swansea are now a big deal, thanks to soccer.
You could tell by the tone of excitement in their voice, Swans fans are living their dream. What they had always hoped for was playing out in front of them, and the fans, thanks to the groundwork and hard graft they put in to save the club, were an integral part of it all.
“I was a foot soldier,” Cooze says with a glint in his eye as he recalled the rough early days. “Collecting raffles, selling things, doing anything that needed doing. The club was really struggling at that time, so it took a lot of groundwork. Over the years the club stabilized, it was a little bit easier. It was fire fighting for three, four, five years after the 2001 start. Now I sit on the club board and there’s nothing that happens that I’m not involved with. Everything I’m involved in.”
In my limited Welsh — basically none — I’d been taught how to say “Dewch’ mlaen ye Elyrch,“ by lifetime Swans fan Cath Dyer. Translated, “C’mon the Swans,” a chant will be ringing out at the Cardiff City Stadium on Sunday.
After my meeting with the trust in the North of the city, I trekked back towards my hotel in the recently developed Maritime quarter, where next door there was a huge apartment block erected with a bar on the 30th floor. It was easily the largest building in Swansea with a clear view of the area around it at the top. The hills used readily in the copper mining industry hang ominously over Swansea. But the Liberty Stadium, lit up with bright white lights, shows that in the depths of those hills the club is rising to become the largest source of income, hope and pride this city could ever hope for.
Swansea City FC is putting the City of Swansea on the map, globally. While twiddling a glass in my hands and looking over the former copper town now known across the world for “Tiki-Taka” soccer, I asked myself, ‘what other current PL club would have two of its’ directors sat in a pub all night answering questions with fans?’ Probably none. People in Swansea are open, honest and most importantly, the club is at the heart of the community.
COLOR CHANGE CONTROVERSY
As for Cardiff, their fans are feeling very much on the peripheries of the decisions being made at their club in recent times. Contrasting vastly to the situation fans at fierce rivals Swansea enjoy.
Just a year or so ago, Cardiff’s new Malaysian owner Vincent Tan decided to ‘rebrand’ the Bluebirds and change their traditional blue jersey to a bright red one, and changed the badge to display a large red dragon on the crest. Fans were outraged, protests against the board were made, the owner said nothing.
Adding onto that, Tan recently fired Cardiff’s head of recruitment and manager Malky Mackay’s right-hand man Iain Moody to replace him with one of his son’s friends, 23-year-old Alisher Apsalyamov. But on the eve of the derby, it’s been revealed that Kazakh Apsalyamov is having his work visa investigated by the British authorities.
It’s a mess.
But does the removal of the blue jersey, and a massive part of the clubs history in the process, still sit uneasy with fans?
“Cardiff fans will always be grateful to Vincent Tan for investing in the club and delivering Premier League football,” Hartley says. “Most fans, if they do support the shirt color change, they are reluctant reds. It didn’t have to happen to guarantee us success, and I think now we are in the Premier League opinion has hardened against the rebrand. People want to return to blue. At the end of the day this is not Kuala Lumpur FC, this is Cardiff City FC. The most important people are the season ticket punters in and around Cardiff. They should be at the height of importance rather than potential investment overseas.”
Hartley then launched into a heated tirade, which came as quite a surprise from the mild-mannered, well-spoken man who works as a magistrate. He stated that the club has never released any details as to whether shirts are now selling better in Malaysia, and questioned how they possibly could with the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, who all wear red, having mammoth fanbases in that part of the world.
“You have got to look at the roots,” Hartley says. “This is history and tradition. Normal working people investing their money, grandparents, fathers and daughters, families going, what’s football all about if it’s not about the supporters? Because we’ve been in the lower leagues for so long, people feel particularly passionate about it. It’s not like making a choice about whether or not to go to an opera. I can’t choose not to got to my club. I can’t say I don’t like the change of color therefore I will support Swansea City, I can’t say I’ll take a dragon instead of a Bluebird. If I say no to that, what do I do? I’ve got nowhere else to go, this is part of me.”
When wandering around the streets of the capital, one gets the feeling that the people of Cardiff feel a strong affinity to their club, and the fact that the heart and soul of their proud history was ripped away by the Malaysian owner without much afterthought has been too much for some fans too handle. Hartley, who sits neatly dressed in a dark blue sit and a blue Cardiff City FC tie with a Bluebird adorning it, revealed to me that his own son now refuses to watch Cardiff after the switch to Red. So, after all the years of struggling in the lower leagues Cardiff have finally reached the promise land, but many of the fans who were there through thick and thin and the bad times now don’t watch the club succeeding on the biggest stage of all.
“Football is not like any other business, it cannot be bought and sold like a chain of coffee shops,” Hartley said. “I see football clubs, football grounds, rather like listed buildings. You may own it but it has more value to the community than a normal house or a normal business. Therefore it needs protection, as fans we are not customers, we are actual stakeholders.”
Welsh people are known across the United Kingdom as being somewhat brash, forthright and confrontational but above all, hardworking and committed individuals. The countries capital city embodies that spirit and so does its team.
“Malkay Mackay shares our believes in hard work and commitment and giving 100 percent on the field,” Hartley says. “It’s not a team of individuals, it’s a team of pretty good players without any major stars. I would like to think the team reflects the way Cardiff City fans view football because we’ve been scrapping it out in the lower divisions for so long, we appreciate hard work and commitment.”
Back to the shirt debate. Alm also echoes the views of many Cardiff fans.
“I’d change back to blue tomorrow if I was given the choice,” Alm says. “We were given an option of the owner walking away or changing to red, there was a prospect of the club going out of business. A lot of us reluctantly accepted the red for the bigger picture, for the life of the club and for it to move forward and progress. It has been very controversial and too much for some supporters to take. Some no longer come.”
Why are people so upset about it? It’s only the color of the shirt, right? Franchises in the U.S. move from city to city, change names, colors and logos all the time. It’s different in the UK. Trust me.
“The traditions in football in the UK run very deep,” Hartley explained. “I’m not sure this is understood by some of the foreign owners, it’s not just our owner but other owners are now mooting about changing names and what have you.”
Tradition in British soccer is at the forefront of every fans mind, and despite the millions of pounds Tan has pumped into Cardiff, the fans prefer the clubs identity to remain unchanged.
“British people are very traditional,” Alm explains. “We are still in the houses of parliaments, which is hundreds of years old. We’re not leaving there. Society and culture and tradition are cornerstones of the UK. Football is no different. People are steeped in their history in football and we all love our colors and our history, and a color change for most people may not mean much but for football fans in the UK it’s massive.”
RUGBY RULES… ‘NOT ANYMORE BOYO’
If you ask any citizen of the UK what Wales is famous for, I bet the first thing they utter is either “rugby” or “mountains.”
As for the former, not anymore. The beautiful mountains that soar into the sky’s across central Wales and edge slowly down the coastline of South Wales are obviously still around, but what goes on below the glorious hills, sports wise, has changed dramatically over the past few years.
“I was born a mile down the road at St. Davids hospital, equidistant between here and Ninian Park,” Hartley says, looking fondly out of the window and towards Cardiff’s old stadium, past the bustling City Center. “I used to go and see Cardiff’s matches in the 70s but I was more of a rugby man then, which is an interesting dichotomy you have in South Wales between rugby and football.”
Hartley believes over the past few decades the sports have gone in opposite directions, with social and cultural factors seeing the rise of soccer above rugby.
“And we have this age old argument in bars, ‘what is the national sport in Wales?’ When Wales play at rugby the whole nation gets behind them, it’s a big event. But in terms of participation and attendance, football is way, way above rugby across the whole of Wales. How did children across Wales define themselves now? I imagine it would be more through football than rugby, which is a big shift from my day.”
However, as I walked around the ancient streets of Cardiff, up by the famous castle and along St. Davids street, I couldn’t help but see Rugby being rammed down people’s throats in every direction. Most pubs had rugby posters and players in the window, one had the slogan “four nation icons” next to three Welsh nation team players (pictured, left) and a pint of beer. Rugby kits, balls and boots are everywhere around the capitals busy shopping streets.
I saw just one Cardiff City shirt throughout my time wandering in the city center. Rugby is obviously still a huge deal to Welsh people, especially in the capital.
One of the reasons why rugby has always been so popular, was due to men trying to elevate themselves from the working class region of South Wales and into the upper echelons of society through the game. All over the world rugby union is seen as a somewhat elitist sport, but in South Wales it’s always been a working class sport.
“We got rugby rammed down our throats at school,” Hartley says of growing up in the area in the 60s. “You weren’t allowed to play football, you were actively discouraged from playing football. Some elements of that has changed.”
A former rugby teammates of Hartley is a season ticket holder in front of him at Cardiff City, now both of them take their kids along to watch soccer as the converts from what was once Wales’ undying national sport of rugby to soccer continues to increase.
“I love the way we’ve turned the tables on them,” Hartley smiled. “The rugby people, who were all full of their own self-importance, now have to accept that South Wales is 10 percent of the Premier League.”
Swansea’s fans agree that soccer is far exceeding rugby in terms of popularity in Wales.
“I don’t think it’s ever been massive, rugby,” Cooze says. “Internationally rugby is well supported. Club rugby or regional rugby is very poorly supported, we never get problems competing with rugby. The only problem we did have was a lot of people played it on a Saturday, so it affected our fanbase. It’s never really bothered us though, rugby.”
And with the rise of a new sport as top dog in South Wales, both are learning to live with it following rugby’s dominance in the last three decades.
“Football was in the doldrums back then” Alm says. “Both teams were in the bottom leagues, the national teams weren’t doing too well. That’s changed now, football is getting all the plaudits in Wales, rugby is still there and a lot of people still enjoy it. We are learning to live with each other now and sharing the headlines.”
After spending a lot of time in South Wales leading up to the game, headlines across the media have been dominated by the derby.
Everywhere you go people are talking about the game, and all eyes will be on the Cardiff City Stadium on Sunday. How will the game itself go? With Cardiff struggling to score goals and Swansea arguably having the stronger squad after being established in the PL, an away win seems likely. But the passion from the home fans, and knowledge that a win will give their supporters bragging rights until the two sides meet again next February may make the difference to drive the Bluebirds onto victory.
Local players are scattered amongst the two teams, with Craig Bellamy, Ben Davies and Neil Taylor the only three Welshman likely to feature. That shows the global nature of the Premier League as players from across the world will line up as a potential audience of 4.7 billion can tune in to see the South Wales derby in all its glory.
But no matter where the players are from and who is watching across the world, it will be impossible to not be wrapped up in the passion of the Premier League’s newest rivalry when it arrives on Sunday.
The people of Swansea and Cardiff are ready… are you? Aptly, I’ll leave you with how we started things off, in Welsh.
Gadewch y sioe yn dechrau. (Let the show begin)
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