Cardiff City are in Division One – but not everyone is convinced Sam Hammam has a long-term recipe for success. Andrew Turton, though, hopes he does

It’s the Second Division play-off final and it’s goalless with less than five minutes of extra time remaining. Andy Campbell beats the offside trap and, sprinting clear, lobs the keeper to send Cardiff City into the First Division for the first time in nearly 20 years.

There were great scenes within the Millennium Stadium that day, as Bluebirds fans celebrated with a combination of joy and relief. But there can be no doubt about who was celebrating the loudest – club owner, fans’ hero and self-styled Welshman, Sam Hammam.

Hammam has made no secret of his ambitions for City since he bought the then-struggling club three seasons ago and there’s no doubt that a second successive play-off failure would have seriously dented his plans. These all seem to hinge on moving from Ninian Park to a new development just a couple of hundred yards away, where an impressive new ground, plus a huge retail development, should help pay for the club’s drive onwards and upwards. With the club on the brink of reaching an agreement with the council regarding the stadium, it was essential they earned promotion this season. Another delay might have cast some doubt on whether Cardiff really were the “huge club” Sam claimed. It would definitely have been more ammunition to the anti-stadium lobby, who feel the west of Cardiff is already over-stocked with shopping parks and who question the need for a new ground at all.

But the plans rumble on and the new ground draws ever nearer, though Sam seems to have met his match in council leader Russell Goodway – a canny character who is respected almost as much as he is disliked. Perhaps wary of Hammam’s history of selling off football grounds, the council have spoken at length with their Merton counterparts and as a result have sensibly added some interesting conditions. For example, the club’s new home is to be built on the site of an existing athletics stadium, but this cannot be demolished until a replacement is built – right next door – at the club’s expense. And Ninian Park itself cannot be cleared for housing until the new football stadium is complete and ready for use. So there’s going to be no groundsharing, and certainly no opportunity for the Bluebirds to be left without a home, as Wimbledon once were. Sometimes, it’s comforting to know that your local council owns the freehold of your ground. At least that way, it can’t be mortgaged to the hilt, or, even worse, sold out from underneath you.

But there are still many who question the mathematics of the deal, believing Sam’s sums simply don’t add up. Although he claims that selling the retail space will pay for the stadium, using the returns from existing developments it’s difficult to see how it would. Admittedly, there is no cost involved with the land – that remains in the hands of the council – but building two stadiums costs money, especially when one is an impressive 30,000-seat affair. So the club must be borrowing the cash and, with Sam already boasting of borrowing over £12 million during the past 18 months to fund promotion – and now saying that he wants another £15m for team rebuilding – the size of the club’s debt is beginning to alarm a lot of people. Where is all this money coming from?

Does the story sound a little like that of other clubs who have attempted similar things, only to fall flat on their faces when the debt caught up with them? Or do Cardiff have something that those clubs don’t? It’s true that there is little point in having a marvellous new ground if it’s half-empty every weekend (as the Welsh Rugby Union knows only too well), but the recent resurgence of Welsh football has convinced Hammam that this is the place to be.

Although he did once investigate moving Wimbledon to the city, Hammam claims he was originally alerted to the possibilities of Cardiff City when he heard that Wales had sold out their opening games at the Millennium Stadium. Three years later, his move looks a good one, as with the national side on the verge of qualifying for Euro 2004, Sam and Cardiff are ideally placed to benefit from football’s high profile in Wales. Playing in the First Division with an uncontested catchment area of well over a million people will surely provide the fans to fill City’s new home, especially with Cardiff players making up a good proportion of the national team. So perhaps he can make it pay after all. Let’s hope he’s right.

For the fans who have lived through 20 years in the wilderness, it’s all a bit unreal. Cardiff City back in the First Division, buying top quality players, and moving soon to a space-age new home? It’s like a dream come true. Even with some huge price increases, it’s no wonder fans are clamouring to buy season tickets. But for some, there is still a feeling of scepticism and concern. There are still too many question marks. It seems Hammam’s past isn’t easily forgotten. 

From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month

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