Monday, June 06, 2005

Bluebirds taking a dive

Going off-topic for today's posting, I wish to have a grouse at the sordid state of affairs at my beloved Cardiff City FC. For those of you who think that Malcolm Glazer is bad, let me introduce to you two men who have been involved in some of the most upsetting decisions in club management in our game. Step forward Sam Hammam and Peter Ridsdale!

Let's start with Mr Hammam. He bought Wimbledon FC, and presided over them whilst they won the FA Cup against a Liverpool in their pomp. He also presided over them when they were made homeless, schlepped from ground to ground, squatting with local rivals, until eventually bailing out while the going was good by selling them for an enormous sum to some Norwegians who presided over Wimbledon's slide from Premiership to Championship to Division 1, a move 60 miles north to Milton Keynes, and a flirtation with a further relegation this year too.

At around the same time as Mr Hammam was dropping the Dons, Peter Ridsdale was, in his own words, "living the dream" at Leeds. Buying the cream of English footballing talent, racking up staggering debts that were not even dented by a glorious run to the Champions League semi-final, it was all rather risky, although it was great fun to watch a real supporter gambling everything on his team coming through. Then we watched (with glee) as they suffered the ignominy of a loss to, er, Cardiff City, then 2 divisions below them, in a classic FA Cup match riddled with controversy and crowd violence.

Leeds also slid out of the Premiership, sold virtually the entire first team, and narrowly avoided going bust. Ridsdale left under a cloud, and after much kerfuffle, another love/hate character, Ken Bates, arrived with the cash he had received from Abramovich to jump off Stamford Bridge.

By this point, Big Sam had received a hero's welcome at Cardiff, buying out the previous owners, and getting us promoted to the Championship, whilst buying decent players and promising a new stadium. Pre-season fixtures included the exotic razzmatazz of Racing Santander and Lazio, we had players coveted by Premiership clubs, a host of internationals, and a new stadium in the offing. There was talk of a back-door route into Europe through the Welsh Cup, or even into the Champions League by buying a Welsh League side and pooling the players.

Our first season in the Championship ended respectably in mid-table; a couple more signings might have seen a push at the play-offs. We should have seen the warning signs when Earnie was sold to West Brom for £3.5m, a snip at the price, despite being "untouchable". The second Championship season saw us play good old Leeds United again, a solid run at the end pull us away from the relegation zone to 16th place, a position that flattered to deceive.

And here is where it starts to get bad. Really bad. Firstly, Peter Ridsdale appears at Ninian Park as some kind of advisor, then Michael Isaac, the fans' favourite board member, resigns abruptly. Then suddenly half the first team is up for sale, the stadium is delayed again, the players' wages are only covered by the cut-price sale of Kav to Wigan and a loan from the players' union. The club is £30m in debt. Still, fans are keeping their humour about them - buy your piece of history here.

I was a big fan of Hammam when he arrived; I believed in the dream he was selling, and indeed the club has gone from mid-table lower-league stuff to the Championship. But now the dream is unravelling into a nightmare.

Sam has written a stirring and honest piece about how to take the club forward. However, I disagree with parts of his strategy, and question some of his assumptions. So here is my strategy for how to sort out the extraordinary mess and get back on track.

1. Abandon plans for the new stadium
The Millenium Stadium is empty most days of the year. It is far bigger than our current needs, but by selectively using the middle and lower tiers on three sides, and leaving an end for away fans, a good atmosphere could be generated for the larger matches. Using just the middle and lower tiers (but not the corners), capacity would be about 30,000 - more than enough to generate a decent atmosphere, and of course with potential to grow into the biggest club stadium in the country...

Ninian Park should be sold to developers, and the money used to support the club. The planned retail park on the site of the athletics stadium which would have held the new ground should go ahead without the stadium, again for the benefit of the club, not certain individuals.

Extrapolating from the figures on how the new site would pay off the huge debts by 2012, even with a small part of the site being used for retail, there would be a multi-million pound revenue stream; if the whole site were developed for retail (except the new athletics track, public sports fields, training ground and academy which should of course still be built), the income for the club would stretch into the tens of millions, safeguarding its financial future.

2. Focus on the club's unique heritage
Cardiff City is a Welsh club that plays for historical reasons in the English league. It is the biggest Welsh club by some distance. It has a youth academy which needs more investment to make use of the vast catchment area, and should also be a natural place for some of the decent footballing journeymen with Welsh roots to come and play out their last good years, lending experience to the youth and attracting the crowds. Neither of these groups of players involve racking up the debts we've seen for players who have come for a big transfer fee, enjoyed fat salaries, then left for a pittance under the current management.

Also, why not sing the Welsh national anthem before games, and introduce some authentic local atmosphere rather than childish and abusive chants about the English? Which would the away players and fans find more intimidating? Which would inspire the Welsh players more? Hammam was big on this at the beginning but has tailed off.

3. Market the club better locally
At the moment, Cardiff City has a lousy reputation because of groups of nasty little shits wearing Burberry, who like a good excuse to rough up the away fans. Hammam originally had the idea of making them into his enforcers, poacher-turned-gamekeeper style. Bad. Do not encourage these thugs.

If they were absent, and we played at the centrally located, beautiful and spacious Millenium Stadium, more of the Cardiff area's 500,000 people might come to watch. They turn out for the rugby; if the atmosphere were as friendly, and the spectacle as entertaining, why not the football?

4. Market the club widely
The Millenium Stadium is one of Britain's best-known and favourite sporting arenas, thanks to the Six Nations finale, the hosting of all the major English soccer finals whilst Wembley was being rebuilt, and several high-profile concerts. Cardiff as a city has regenerated itself into a thriving young capital city instead of a provincial backwater. There are direct flights from all over the UK, and low-cost airlines are opening new routes to Europe.

The club could organise weekend packages for visitors, including city tours, hotels, restaurants, and of course the chance to experience the sporting atmosphere of a game at the famous stadium. If they sold even 500 more seats a game, that would provide the salary for a decent player. It would also improve the profile of the club and therefore drive up regular attendance.

If Cardiff did manage to get to the Premiership, the thousands of fans who can't afford or simply can't get hold of seats at Anfield, Old Trafford, Highbury etc would have plenty of room for a fraction of the cost. Cardiff could be the biggest away event of the season, with train station, road access, pubs, restaurants and hotels on the doorstep. In Hammam's Wimbledon days, Selhurst Park regularly sold out to its 26,000 capacity - despite there only being 6,000 Dons fans! An extra 20,000 away fans for the visits of the big 5 teams, an extra 5,000 away fans for the visits of the other teams, millions in income for the club, and a massive jackpot prize for the local economy. This pattern worked in South London, so it should certainly work in South Wales.

5. Install management who care
Hammam has claimed he is in it for the long-term but doubts have been raised from within the club and fanbase about his motives. Ridsdale has not demonstrated any long-term commitment to the club, but has magically gone from temporary advisor to CEO in a matter of months. With no prospect of moving to a new home any time soon, and a mass exodus of players, we seem to be heading down the exact downward spiral we witnessed at their previous clubs. It is remarkable that both men got out of their last clubs with their own bank balances unaffected; I am sure they intend to do the same at Cardiff.

Michael Isaac has shown interest in buying the club; the fans respect him, and he knows the area and how to run a business. Hammam should demonstrate that he cares by bringing him back onto the board, and accepting his offer of investment, either in full, or as a partner. Given the club's marketability as the standard-bearer for Welsh football and Wales in general, and especially in the light of its weakened financial position, the club should be a bargain. Hammam should consider seeking a much bigger investor than himself who has the clout to make his pipe dreams a reality.

Given the real estate developments of Ninian Park and the retail site, there is a chance to build a solid holding company which could offer shares to the public to raise capital to be ploughed directly back into the club or into expanding the asset base and securing even more future revenue. Of course any club is ultimately a business, but shareholders play second fiddle to stakeholders - the fans - in the strange world of football. Combining the two gives a real impetus.

Well, I am sure that was fascinating for all of you, but at least I got it off my chest. Sam, Peter, if you're reading this, I am happy to elaborate. I will even waive my usual rate in return for some regular hospitality in the directors' box.