Hammam's dragon fire is no hot air

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The Independent Football

Cardiff City and the FA Cup are synonymous with one match, the 1927 final, when a shot by their Scottish centre- forward Hugh Ferguson slid off the shiny new jersey of Arsenal's goalkeeper Dan Lewis (a Welshman) and City became the only non-English club to win the competition. Victory over the Premiership leaders Leeds United at Ninian Park today would run that famous day a close second and might even convince the more sceptical element among the club's long-suffering followers that there is something more substantial to Sam Hammam's new regime than hot air and headlines.

The year and a half since Hammam decided to plough some of his huge profits from selling Wimbledon into Cardiff City have brought a successful promotion campaign from the Third Division and then a promising start at the higher level, which stalled amid a frustrating series of draws. At Wimbledon the Lebanese businessman, initially attracted to the area by tennis, had a cause: fighting for football's little people and overcoming unlikely odds to keep the club in the Premier League. He eventually wearied of it, frustrated by an inability to move to pastures new – an avenue his successors are still desperate to pursue – but had not grown tired of football and has found a new cause, reinventing himself as a fire-breathing Welsh dragon.

The nostrils still flare from time to time, though if anything has changed, it is a willingness to proceed at a slower pace, even to the extent of talking down Cardiff's promotion prospects this season and taking "20 to 25 years'' to establish them as one of Britain's leading clubs.

The latter timescale tacitly acknowledges how far City have fallen since having a genuine claim to that sort of status. In 1924, three years before winning the Cup, they were runners-up to Herbert Chapman's Huddersfield Town for the League title, and on the present-day system of goal difference would have won it for the first and only time. Yet two years after the Wembley triumph they were relegated and in two more years were down among the dead men of the Third Division South.

Only for seven brief seasons between 1952-57 and 1960-62 did the Bluebirds take wing again in the top division, and the few glory days since then have come as a result of sneaking through the Welsh back door into the European Cup-Winners' Cup.

It is as the Welsh nation's representatives in an alien land that Hammam (conveniently ignoring Swansea City and Wrexham) now sees the club. Although dissuaded from plans to call them Cardiff Celts and discard the traditional blue shirts for red, he draws comparisons not so much with Catatonia as Catalunya: "Look at Barcelona. They are a football club but also representatives of the Catalan nation. We are the nation of Wales. Until I came here I had no idea of the intensity and passion. If we are successful it will reach such a level that nobody in Wales will dare – physically dare – to wear a Liverpool or Man United shirt.''

United, he is just about prepared to concede, are in an economic category of their own. He sees no other English club as being out of reach: not Arsenal, not Liverpool and certainly not Leeds United. "If we had the same team as Leeds and we were leading the Premier League like they are, we'd get 50 per cent bigger crowds than Leeds.''

He would have liked the chance to prove it by playing today's game at the Millennium Stadium, but the Football Association ruled that it had to stay down the road at Ninian Park in front of a capacity crowd of 21,000. "The game is going all round the world via Sky Television. What a feather it would have been in the FA's cap to show a Second Division club getting 50-70,000.''

First steps are being taken to secure the club's prosperity by building a new stadium nearby, initially to hold 30,000, which could eventually be doubled. "Once we have the stadium, the machine will be moving," Hammam says. "It will be unstoppable.''

Those unconvinced by all this rhetoric may prefer to listen to the man appointed last week as Cardiff's director of football, Lennie Lawrence, who took "30 seconds'' to decide to join Uncle Sam's army. Having worked at all levels, Lawrence is impressed by what he has seen of the city and the club: "There's a massive support base and if the stadium comes to fruition, the potential is unlimited. The club has the chance to become a really big one. Even in the town centre you can see the whole place is vibrant and buzzing. People usually give me a call when they are in the shit, but this is different.''