We've all been there. You arrive at the away end and a steward stops you. The heart sinks. Now what? But for one Birmingham City supporter arriving at Cardiff City this season the experience proved an uplifting one. He was halted as he drove into the car park.
"What's the problem?"
"You have a flat tyre, sir."
"Tell you what. Park there out of the way. Leave your keys with me and I'll put the spare on while you watch the match."
I know. Beggars belief, doesn't it? But it is true. Though his team lost 2-1 the Birmingham fan was consoled by being able to collect his keys and, with the spare fitted, drive home.
Cardiff used to be one of the most intimidating trips for away fans and there remain more fans of Cardiff subject to banning orders than any other club. However, since moving from the atmospheric but crumbling bear pit of Ninian Park to the spacious new Cardiff City Stadium in 2009 the club have made a determined effort to revamp their image. It has paid off. In March City were named Football League Family Club of the Year. They also won in 2011. In the intervening year Portsmouth won. Cardiff's response? They poached one of the architects of Pompey's campaign, Tom Gorringe, to ensure they regained the title. That is how seriously they take the matter.
I was one of the judges for this year's award and what stood out was Cardiff's approach to away supporters. At many places, especially in the past, visiting fans are regarded as something of a menace, often being treated as little more than a group to be fleeced and restrained. Not at Cardiff.
Gorringe, who is sales and marketing manager, said: "For us it is extremely important to make sure every fan, home or away, hospitality, wherever they are in the stadium, feels they have had a good day out and had value for money. We look at what other clubs do and try and take it to the next level."
So a fan entering the away area at Cardiff will find the stewards wearing the visiting side's kit, the TV screens showing videos about the away team, and posters thanking fans for coming to Cardiff. "We appreciate South Wales is not the most accessible of places," added Gorringe. "It is a trek for everyone. You are looking at £100 minimum for a day out at football these days. We want them to know we value them for coming."
Cardiff even ask their opponents if there are any local delicacies travelling fans might like and serve them in a bake-off against their own Clark's pies. Apparently not many Millwall fans took up the jellied eels option but Middlesbrough's Parmo (a deep-fried chicken and cheese wrap) flew off the shelves.
Julian Jenkins, commercial director, said: "When we started this journey six years ago we weren't in denial, we knew we had real problems, the perception of coming to our old stadium was not great. We try and change that perception. The work we do with away fans, and families in particular, is massive. We want more away fans to come. It is a good revenue stream for the club. With away attendances dropping, we are trying to do more to drive that number.
"The good thing about working in football is the expectation is very low. We had Millwall here. Go back 10 to 15 years ago that was a 'big' fixture – this year we did not have a single arrest because we treated them right. I had a letter from a Millwall fan thanking the club for serving him alcohol. How stupid is that? Why can't we treat people normally? Why can't we give them a beer?"
Gorringe interjected: "The Millwall fans came in and said, 'We can't believe your staff are wearing our shirts, we don't even wear our shirts [away]' because of the treatment they get. Their jaws were on the floor. It shouldn't be so unusual."
"Football in the Eighties was very good at telling you what you can't do," added Jenkins. "'You can't stand, can't do this, can't do that'. They would look at the ticket and say, 'I know it has the right date and match but should I really let you in?' Safety and security is paramount, but we are here to give people a great day out."
To that end stewards are called "matchday assistants". It is easy to mock this as corporate-speak but at Cardiff it is not just terminology. "Their job is not to say what you can't do, it is to assist with the matchday," said Gorringe. "It is not to say, 'You can't stand up', it is to say, 'You can't stand up because if you do he can't see and he has paid to have a great day'. We can work for hours putting a great programme together and if you get one steward who is rude and obnoxious and spoils a fan's experience that will be their lasting memory. For us it is being consistent, everyone has the same ethos."
To that end, he added, Cardiff do not have the special "family days" common at other clubs because, noted Gorringe, "if the next time they come it is a rainy Tuesday, we lose 2-0 at home to Barnsley and there is nothing going on, they go home with nothing to cheer about. That could be enough to put them off.
"There could be a new fan at our stadium at every game. Our aim is to make sure no one slips through the net and we provide a consistently high experience for everyone whoever we are playing, whatever happens on the pitch and whatever the weather is like."
The approach works. Many Bluebirds fans remain deeply unhappy at the change in shirt colour to red, but a winning team and a welcoming environment have put bums on seats. In the last season at Ninian Park, Cardiff sold 459 family stand season tickets. This season they sold more than 7,000. Next season will bring fresh challenges with the club in the Premier League. One will be pricing. Ticket demand is set to mushroom but Jenkins and Gorringe hope to resist pressure to increase prices, and aim to maintain family discounts.
Another challenge is keeping a lid on what Jenkins calls "historical issues". Some fan websites still advise away fans to be cautious in visiting pubs, but that applies to quite a few cities and most supporters who visited the Welsh capital for the cup finals when Wembley was closed enjoyed the experience. The best test will be playing Swansea City, traditionally a fixture steeped in mutual antipathy. "We do a lot of work with Swansea," said Jenkins. "We played them two years ago, we had no arrests. We are confident the fans will come and have a great day."
As for the impromptu car mechanic service, anyone needing emergency assistance might get lucky again, but turning up and asking for an oil and filter change would probably be pushing your luck.
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