There was some revealing and rather excruciating film footage doing the rounds a few months ago, which captured the way that Vincent Tan, a Malaysian businessman, had become the new emperor of Cardiff City, free to act with impunity around the club and among its supporters.
Shot from a table at the club’s April player of the year awards, it caught him explaining to the assembled throng in barely fathomable terms why Cardiff’s bluebird symbol had to go. “The bluebird was frightened by much bigger and stronger symbols: by the wren and what-not,” Tan said. “You know I’m a new football fan so I don’t know what the other symbols are…” The nervous laughter which followed – a bit like those feet-shuffling moments when your dinner host has just crossed the boundary of good taste – was the excruciating part. Someone might have stood up to tell Tan there was a century of heritage in that symbol. And that the club’s association with the bluebird dates to 1909, when a children’s play of that name – about the pursuit of a bird by children who wanted to commit it to a cage – captivated Cardiff during its run at the city’s famous New Theatre. Nobody did.
The forced, slightly obsequious laughter was necessary because – to paraphrase a tweet sent out not so long ago by one of Tan’s allies in south Wales – if you screw with him, he might take his money away. He’s already taken away their crest. And he’s taken their blue shirts away. But reality only really bit this week, when he took manager Malky Mackay’s head of recruitment away.
Some fans wouldn’t know Iain Moody from Adam but the fact that Tan replaced him with a 23-year Kazakh, Alisher Apsalyamov, who went to a Swiss finishing school with a friend of his son’s, certainly registered. The club tells me categorically that Mackay has not been asked to quit, though two sources have provided me this week with information to the contrary.
You would think Cardiff fans might have seen calamity coming. This is a club whose owners in the past 13 years have included Sam Hammam and Peter Ridsdale. But this is the way the desire to sit at football’s top table seduces you. Dreams of Saturdays at Old Trafford and the Emirates draw you in and, because that notion is now so very far out of reach for so very many teams, men like Tan seem extremely appealing when they walk through the door.
It’s why Blackburn Rovers, looking over the precipice as the Jack Walker money ran out, hitched their wagon to Venky’s, the chicken meat processors of Pune. And why Hull went with Assem Allam, another who wants to change the furniture of a proud football club. The essential rule of engagement, of course, is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Is Tan entitled to employ his son’s mate? Was Anuradha Desai entitled to employ Steve Kean at Ewood Park? Yes and yes. It’s only the minority shareholders who struggle: like the Bahraini board member at Leeds United, Salah Nooruddin, who recently tried – and failed – to secure a place at the club’s academy for the 18-year-old son of one of his business contacts.
The problem for Cardiff fans is that their ship has sailed now. The depth of dependency on Tan means that he is untouchable. More unsettling still is that sense that he is far less insulated from supporters’ criticism than Ms Desai has been. That much was clear from another revealing piece of footage, shot when BBC Wales was invited aboard his leather upholstered chopper in Malaysia last year. “If the fans are rude I may find a new buyer and leave,” he said. The deterioration of his relationship with Mackay stems as much as anything from the manager enjoying a popularity which, from Tan’s perspective, is enviable.
Like so much in football at present, the answer to this mess lies in Germany, with its 50-plus-one ownership model, under which 50 per cent of the club plus one share must be owned by their members, the supporters, protecting against those who arrive bearing gifts and are not all they seem. There is a beautiful British model, too – the Swansea way – but it entails year after year of work, creating a philosophy, embedding the supporters within it and maintaining it, as managers come and go. But everyone’s in too much of a tearing hurry for all that.
The Premier League does scrutinise owners’ business plans to ensure they are sustainable. But it can’t intervene on hiring and firing, not least out of a duty of neutrality to the other 19 clubs. And it cannot protect against an owner “not knowing any clues about football” – to quote the rather tactless observation of one Malaysian interviewee in Kuala Lumpur, when BBC Wales followed Tan to the opening of the 100th pharmacy of the chain he owns in the country.
Perhaps it will all turn out well. Tan has delivered his club to the Premier League and he has spent money. Perhaps Apsalyamov has a masters degree in metrics. But it feels like someone has annexed Cardiff City. To borrow the Churchill paraphrase used this week by Dave Boyle, the former chief executive of Supporters Direct, “appeasing a goon like Tan is hoping the crocodile eats the team’s performance last”. Supporters will shudder, give thanks it’s not their club being flayed, and then – when a wealthy messiah arrives offering them their own place in football’s Promised Land – they’ll say: “Yes please. We’ll have some of that.”
It’s all about to kick off with the T20 of chess
Can I write about chess in this section? It would have been a breach of trades description during most of the 20 years since Garry Kasparov twice faced the Deep Blue – a computer being required to revive a little of the memory of Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky in 1972.
But now there are signs of a stirring. We have the prospect in India next month of 22-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, the world No 1, facing Viswanathan Anand, the Indian 20 years his senior who has been reigning world champion for five years. There’s been a £320,000 investment by London-based American businessman Andrew Paulson for the rights to stage the most prestigious matches. And intriguing though the prospect of “blitz chess” (a T20 of the chequered board, in which competitors must finish in 30 minutes) might be, the source of greatest suspense will be whether Sky Sports really are ready to find a new star to translate “the Yugoslav variation on the Silician” for the mass market. “Good chess leads to draws,” one grandmaster told The Economist last week. This one’s going to need a Gary Neville to the power of 10.
Wilshere shouldn’t have retreated in tweet
Thank God for Jack Wilshere, you felt, when he’d broken the mould of what is generally a slow start to England talk in international weeks by coming out and saying that the England team is for the English – a sentiment many will share. Shame he felt the need to slide back into PR speak so fast when Kevin Pietersen slung his oar in on Twitter.
The initial conversation with Wilshere was self-evidently built around the case of Adnan Januzaj, of Manchester United and potentially England, though when things got heavy with KP, Wilshere then seemed affronted to have been implicated. “Seems to be a trend in this country, poor journalism in my eyes! I wasn’t referring to Janujaz,” he tweeted. Easy target, Jack. Should have stuck to your guns.