The gag among Vincent Tan’s associates is that the Malaysian billionaire knows nothing about football. To Cardiff City’s manager, players and supporters that joke is wearing thin.
“It really has been a normal week for us,” insisted David Kerslake, Cardiff’s assistant manager as he tried to stand in for Malky Mackay at yesterday’s chaotic press conference. It was an attempt to duck the issue but instead it sums up the farce into which a club enjoying their best times on the pitch for more than half a century has descended. This has become the norm.
One of Tan’s true loves is theatre – he funds an acting group in Malaysia to travel round schools performing Chinese musical theatre – and it appears he is intent on staging his own Christmas pantomime in Cardiff, casting himself as the villain. Tan was scheduled to arrive in this country last night and head to Liverpool for today’s match. Few will welcome his arrival.
There is talk among supporters’ groups of staging a protest at the next home game, against Southampton on Boxing Day. One supporter suggested the atmosphere could be “poisonous”. Previously the support has been pro-Mackay rather than anti-Tan – in other words there has been positivity within the ground. Now that changes.
Cardiff are ensnared in football’s Catch 22. Without Tan it is unlikely they would be preparing for a first top-flight match at Anfield since 1954; with him Cardiff are no longer what they were: different-coloured shirts, different badge, and a club whose future is still uncertain.
It was in 2010 that Tan, listed by Forbes as the 10th richest man in Malaysia and worth $1.3bn (£800m), was persuaded to buy into Cardiff. The potential was obvious. For all their financial troubles over the previous decade, here was a club one leap from the promised land of the Premier League. Tan spent £6m on a 35 per cent share.
Initially he showed no great interest. His focus was on his franchises – he made his first fortune bringing McDonald’s to Malaysia – and myriad other business interests. He is a character of contrasts, to some interested solely in money, to others one of the most generous philanthropists in Asia, the man who cannot stand golf but bought golf courses. “I like to put my eggs in multiple baskets, so that if the egg in one basket is rotten, I have other baskets to rely on,” Tan told Forbes.
His stake in Cardiff grew – it now stands at 51 per cent – and so did his interest. He was at Wembley to watch the League Cup final against Liverpool last year and saw a thriller settled on penalties. It was enough to make the businessman pay attention to his distant outpost – perhaps there was cash in those Valleys. He began to make changes; the following season Cardiff were kitted out in red. “The colour red is recognised as being synonymous with Welsh culture and heritage,” explained a club statement.
The colour of the shirt may seem trivial among talk of debts, dollars and deals, but it is symptomatic of an increasing remove between supporters and those who run their clubs.
Tan made millions through McDonald’s, Krispy Kreme and other franchise operations. He lists and delists his companies on the Malaysian stock exchange – Cardiff are set to be listed next year – with bewildering regularity. Last month it knocked back his latest attempt, to raise $250m (£153m) via a share sale, suggesting it was overpriced.
Sometimes the obvious needs stating: football clubs are not franchises. The example of Swansea must catch in the throats of Cardiff fans, and that is what Tan does not get. Cardiff is not Wales. Cardiff is Cardiff, the Bluebirds, blue-shirted for over a century.
He has moved to take Cardiff out of the red, although there is a way to go and promises remain vague. Tan paid off some debt, knocking £24m off the £83m listed in the last accounts by paying off the Langston Corporation. Of the remainder, £37m is owed to him at interest of seven per cent. He has promised to convert it into equity. It is estimated he has pumped £70m into the club – Mackay broke Cardiff’s transfer record three times in the summer.
But Tan wanted a say for his money. The 61-year-old took to texting Mackay on footballing matters, reportedly once instructing him to score more long-range goals as they went down well with the crowd. In October Tan suspended Iain Moody, Mackay’s head of recruitment, and installed Alisher Apsalyamov, a 23-year-old Kazakh with no footballing experience.
Now we are into the slapstick finale of this farce. Mackay’s suggestion that he wanted to sign three players in January was shot down this week by Tan, who dispatched an angry email to his manager; Tan didn’t like the way the team played, the players Mackay had signed, the results, his spending. Jump or be pushed, he ordered.
Cardiff sit four points clear of the bottom three ahead of the vital Christmas fixtures. After a 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion last Saturday, Mackay’s side are in a position to put some distance between themselves and the strugglers. What a time for Tan to choose to bring the house down.
“You wait 50 years for this and now…” said one Cardiff season-ticket holder. “Why did it have to be us?”
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