A Wales of Two Cities: South Wales Derby (Part Two)

This weekend the eyes of the world turn to South Wales for the much anticipated clash between rivals Cardiff City and Swansea City on the grand stage of the Premier League. I thought this was as good an opportunity as ever to celebrate the fixture. I originally wrote this article for top football website Outside of the Boot at the start of the 2013/2014 season. Go check out their excellent site here. This article has been slightly edited from the original version.

With Cardiff’s promotion, the Premier League will be witnessing a South Wales derby for the very first time- one of the most fierce rivalries in domestic football.

In the first part I discussed about the history of the derby, how it came about and the hooliganism involved. We’ll now take a detailed look at the differing models followed by the two clubs and their on-field rivalry.

The Swansea Model v The Cardiff Model

Despite the close geographical proximity of the two South Wales clubs, the boardrooms of both clubs are worlds apart. Since the early 80s, Swansea appeared to live in a world of perpetual financial turmoil, however the real Judgement Day for Swansea came on the last day of the 2002/2003 season, as the Swans had to beat Hull City to remain in bottom division of the Football League. Fortunately, the Swans won the game 4-2 and the rest is history.

The press seem to love the “Swansea: from the bottom of the football league to the Premier League” story, but it is worth noting that if Swansea had fallen out of the basement door of League Two the financial meltdown what may have ensued could have cleaned out the club for good. From those dark days, a new sustainable football club model was set up by the Swans with the boardroom housing mainly local business, who, more importantly, were fans of the club. Also in the early 2000s, one of the most important chapters in the Swansea City story unfolded as the club established its own Supporters’ Trust, which would always have a representative on the club’s board. To this day Swansea’s Supporters Trust own 20% of the club

Roberto Martinez has to take a lot of credit for building the foundations of Swansea’s now lauded style of play in the 2007, but perhaps more than the managers themselves, arguably the biggest factor in Swansea’s ascent up the leagues has been the club chairman, Huw Jenkins – a local businessman and Swansea fan. Having confronted and turned around the club’s tortuous financial problems, Jenkins vowed to never let the club become remotely threatened with financial turmoil again. Jenkins triggered Swansea’s ascent through shrewd decisions and some inspired and well-thought out managerial appointments; Jackett, Martinez, Sousa, Rodgers and Laudrup have all played an important part (some more than others) in the modern history of Swansea City. Jenkins has seen Swansea through to the big time. Swansea are a club partly owned by fan, operate very much in the black financially and the team play beautiful, passing football. Maybe the ideal football club setup as Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore once suggested. ‘Perfect’ was the exact word used.

Cardiff are a completely different beast. Swansea have slowly rescued themselves financially and carefully restructured the whole club this past decade. On the other hand, Cardiff have taken high risk gambles that have led to them coming agonisingly close to administration and even winding up orders on a few occasions. All or nothing blow outs on trying to attain the promotion to the Premier League Promised Land have almost backfired dramatically on occasions.

In May 2010, the Cardiff shareholders gave the thumbs up for a Malaysian consortium to takeover the club. Finally the club were able to stave off the repeated calls for debt repayments from HMRC and creditors Langston, the corporation closely linked to former chairman Sam Hammam. The ominous financial clouds over Cardiff City appeared to be clearing and a bright future looked certain. However, the hunt for the Premier League would come at a cost to the club’s traditions.

For the beginning of the 2012/2013 season The Malaysian ‘money man’ behind Cardiff City, Vincent Tan, pushed for the Bluebirds to change their kit colours from blue to red. A colour that would supposedly bear weight in the Asian market as well as a colour associated with luck in that part of the world. Tan tried to push it to the locals as a passionate and patriotic ‘Welsh’ colour. The plans were given the green light along with a new Red Dragon badge, complete with the new cringeworthy motto ‘Fire and Passion’, to replace the old Bluebird badge. Many Cardiff fans were seething at the decision to rebrand their club and many vowed to abandon the club until the ‘blueness’ of Cardiff was restored. A small civil war unfolded amongst certain areas of the Cardiff support as ‘pro-reds’ and ‘anti-reds’ clashed over the rebranding. Despite campaigns such as “Keep Cardiff Blue”, Cardiff continued on and stormed to promotion to the Premier League. As Scott Thomas’ excellent article in the Guardian suggested, although Cardiff’s promotion was a night to rejoice for many, the promotion also meant no turning back from the ‘lucky’ red. Thus many ex-Cardiff fans witnessed the permanent termination of their support for the club.

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Craig Bellamy celebrating his hometown’s promotion to the Premier League – Bellamy played a large role in securing it (www.walesonline.co.uk)

This is not a Swansea fan twisting the knife, as I sincerely feel for the genuine Cardiff fans that have felt that the ‘rebrand’ has meant they’ve had to abandon their club (I’d probably do the same actually). But the running of both clubs are polar opposites. Despite rising ticket prices, Swansea have worked hard to maintain their community feel whilst Cardiff’s Malaysian owners have chased more ambitious, global pursuits and in the process alienated a portion of their once loyal, local support.

South Wales Derby: On the Pitch

It is quite easy for me to say that Swansea are a better team than Cardiff at the moment. I’m sure the vast majority of sensible Cardiff fans would probably concur with that statement. Already the media has began speculating whether Cardiff have the capabilities to survive in the Premier League or not, but I honestly think trying to weigh up the various factors to predict whether a Championship club can cut it in the Premier League is impossible these days. I’m in no doubt that the quality of the Championship has improved dramatically in the last 5 years. This can be proved by the number of promoted teams that are now surviving and even thriving  in the top flight, such as Swansea, Southampton, West Ham and Norwich. The fact Cardiff won the league has to be the sign of a good team. Throw in that nobody really knows how much money Tan is going to throw at Cardiff’s bid for Premier League survival and Wales’ newest Premier League outfit really are an unknown quality in relation to their standing amongst the English (and Welsh) elite.

Cardiff sailed to promotion with one of the meanest defences in the notorious environment of the Championship with club captain Mark Hudson and goalkeeper David Marshall especially excelling. Cardiff are not a team of stars and much of their success has been based on a strong team ethic. It is telling that none of Cardiff’s players were in the running for last season’s Player of the Season awards or even attained double figures in the scoring charts – a true sign that the whole team is fighting for the cause. Whether having a good team ethic is enough for Premier League survival remains to be seen.

Swansea’s Michael Laudrup claims that the introduction of Cardiff to the Premier League will spur the Swans on to further success, as they will not want their rivals to catch them up or upstage them next season. Laudrup even hinted that it was Swansea’s successful first two years in Premier League that egged Cardiff on to promotion in the first place. Undoubtedly, Swansea will have a tough time trying to better or emulate the past 12 months with the club winning their first ever major trophy and achieving a top ten finish, but the character of the club will certainly see them try to, as well as juggling a European tour with the league fixtures; this is a club that has improved on its league position ever year since 2007 after all.

As for the derbies, well on paper there appears to only be one winner as far as the teams currently stand- the Swans. However, on derby day anything goes. Traditionally, Cardiff have always been perceived to be the ‘bigger’ of the two clubs and it is the capital side that lead the way in derby victories with Cardiff winning 43 derbies compared to Swansea’s 35 triumphs over their neighbours. The other 27 meetings ended in draws. However, despite regularly being seen as the underdog in recent history, the last 20 years and 17 fixtures between the clubs have seen Swansea come out on top 9 times compared to Cardiff’s 4 wins. Cardiff though had the honour of winning the last derby game in 2011 thanks to Craig Bellamy’s 25 yard screamer to win the league encounter at the Liberty Stadium 1-0.

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The passion of the derby – Joe Allen celebrates his goal at Ninian Park (www.zimbio.com)

10% of the Premier League is now Welsh – a statistic that can only be good for the health of Welsh football. As good as the Premier League is for the two Welsh clubs, I think it is fair to say that the two Welsh clubs together in the same league will also be good for the Premier League. Without a doubt both derby games will be snapped up by Sky Sports and if the derbies over the past 4 years are anything to go by, the global audience will be in for one hell of a treat. Plenty of goals, great football, passionate fans and players and whole load of incidents have all been on the South Wales derby menu over the past few years. Hopefully, the off-field ‘antics’ will continue to diminish and the football world can enjoy a true footballing show of Welsh passion.

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