Welsh Wimbledon

Owen Davies argues that borrowing a different idea from Europe might prove a lifeline for Cardiff City

The cat was barely out of the bag before the FA of Wales was trying to beat it to death. “We will oppose the plan even if it means Premiership football coming to Cardiff.” God forbid that quality football should threaten the reign of mediocrity in South Wales.

Joe Kinnear had just let slip millionaire Peter Thomas’ tentative proposal to transplant Wimbledon FC wholesale from South London to Cardiff. Welsh hearts were aflutter and Vinny Jones’ transfer request thankfully removed the prospect of his spectre haunting the Land Of His Grandfathers on a weekly basis. I was thrilled. Then I remembered something. Dammit if there isn’t a football club in Cardiff already.
I support Cardiff City. We’re shit, and we know we are. Cardiff City are the most significantly under-achieving football club in Britain. It is the only club in a city of 300,000 and is the nearest club for 1.2 milion people, within 25 miles – perhaps the largest undisputed catchment population of any British club. It has a history of cup success and protracted periods in the top two divisions. It has a proven ability to attract large (if fickle) crowds when successful. It has a cavernous ground which has held over 60,000 and hosted memorable international matches.
But, without hyperbole, Cardiff have achieved nothing in my lifetime. We’ve been ten years in the lower divisions, and top division football at Ninian Park far pre-dates colour TV. Last month saw consecutive home defeats at the hands of Colchester, Scunthorpe and Bury in front of risible crowds, which left us three places above Macclesfield. Following the club, traipsing around the country witnessing soulless performances at Gillingham, Hereford et al, is to experience gut-wrenching bitterness. My analysis could dwell on the lack of ball-holding and creativity in midfield, or the slovenly and error-prone defence. But the stark fact is that the team is of poor quality.
This leaves Cardiff City in one of two places in ten years’ time: as a semi-professional club limping along in the Daewoo 3rd Division South; or (God forbid) mixing it with Connah’s Quay Nomads in the League of Wales. This is because we are a poor club (the fact that City fans suffer delusions of ‘sleeping giant’ status notwithstanding). But we have two hopes. One is that the Premiership and the First Division turkeys will defy psephologists and vote for an early Christmas: they will divert a sizable share of their income to the lower divisions and beyond, safe in the knowledge that it will pay dividends for football as a whole in the long run; First Division chairmen will quiet their secessionist rumblings; the FA will find a way to protect poor clubs from the Bosman ruling; Cardiff and other impotent strugglers will once again have a positive role to play due to the lifeline thrown to them by the major clubs . . . no, I don’t think so either.
The other hope lies beyond football’s narrow confines. Barely a mile from Ninian Park stands the imposing edifice of the national stadium, with Cardiff Rugby Club nestling cosily in the shade of its North Stand. Impressive though it is, it points to the obsolescence of the city’s sporting facilities. The national ground is too small for rugby internationals, too big for football, and ill-equipped for anything else. Cardiff Rugby Club has outgrown its compact 14,000-seater ground if its ambitions are anything to go by. Ninian Park now holds only 20,000, is partially seated, and lacks a roof at one end. Crowds of 3,000 rattle around like peas in a barrel, yet it would struggle to accommodate a Premiership match.
The WRU proposed to expand the national stadium – millennium fund and planning permission pending – to accommodate 70,000 seated, with, of all things, a retractable roof. This would displace the rugby club to a purpose-built ground in the burgeoning docks area.
The rugby club is, or soon will be, a professional outfit. And it would surprise no-one if the city developed a rugby league side fit to compete in a European Super League. It already has a successful ice-hockey side. What sense does it make to have four full-time sports clubs in the same city studiously ignoring each other, each pretending the others don’t exist, possibly to their own detriment?
Here’s a brutal scenario: Cardiff City flog Ninian Park to Tesco for silly money; they share a new 30,000-seater ground with two rugby clubs so the place is seldom out of use; the ground is also used by local schools and clubs and for business conferences; Summer also sees appearances by Oasis and Pulp; the national football side plays there when it can’t fill the national stadium; Cardiff Devils are brought under the patronage of the new Cardiff United Athletic Club, and the whole thing makes big money because of the massive economies of scale involved. By 2010 Cardiff City have a decent side.
Fanciful, maybe. But with rugby going bigtime, total integration in the manner of Barcelona won’t be far off for a lot of us. No-one would bet against greatness coming the way of Newcastle Gosforth RUFC. And I don’t buy the idea that friction between rugby and football precludes this (even in South Wales). No doubt there’s a hard-headed core who loath the eggshaped game, and some rugby followers who see football as a primordial sub-culture. But most are more accommodating, and there’s no reason why there should be animosity with everyone being professional now.
Ken Sproat’s invective against the ‘sporting club’ idea in WSC No 107 is understandable, given that Newcastle sit comfortably on top of the Premiership. From down here it’s a good bit more appealing. And Mr Thomas would make fans of both clubs happier if he threw his money at the Bluebirds rather than the Dons.
Such upheaval would be unpalatable to some. And not all rheumy-eyed nostalgia is misplaced. There would need to be safeguards to prevent the exclusion and alienation of the clubs’ current devotees. And the systematic redistribution of wealth which the game lacks at present should be carried out locally: not just community projects and youth development, but the active promotion and funding of ‘nursery’ clubs.
A dozen British cities would benefit from an overhaul of the way their sports clubs are organized. Their football clubs have been failed by their governing institutions and their richer counterparts who dominate them. So they must help themselves.
 I don’t believe that places the size of Plymouth, Hull and Bradford lack sufficient public interest to sustain sizable clubs. Would a Milanese-style ground-share in Bristol – England’s seventh city – take the edge off the Rovers/City rivalry? I don’t think so. Integrate and survive.

From WSC 108 February 1996. What was happening this month