Cardiff City: Premier League & Adding To The American Pro/Rel Debate

By Trevor Klaus

Today I visited the stadium of one of the English Premier League’s new boys, Cardiff City. The club were promoted automatically from the Championship last season under promotion wizard Neil Warnock, and will certainly be looking to secure survival next season. The club will also be the only Welsh representative in the Premier League following rivals Swansea City’s relegation from the league at the end of last season. However, the Welsh side’s road to the top flight under relatively new owner Vincent Tan has not quite been as straightforward to someone unfamiliar with football.

While City’s history is a roller-coaster ride from decade to decade, the story of their recent history really begins with the club being taken over by Malaysian businessman Chan Tien Ghee. The club had previously worked hard to establish itself as a Championship side in the early 21st century after languishing in the lower leagues for a number of years prior, and Ghee along with new investor Tan sought to take the club to heights it had rarely seen before: the English top flight. With a new stadium already built just a year prior, and new investors in place, the club were primed and ready to have a crack at promotion, which the club achieved as champions in 2013. However, this was not without controversy of the pitch, which had turned some of the clubs most loyal fans against it.

The gate dividing home & away supporters at the Cardiff City Stadium.

The club known as the Bluebirds had been playing in blue (home colors) for most of their existence prior to the 2012-13 season. However, in an attempt to make the club more marketable globally, Ghee and Tan agreed to change the side’s home strip to red shirts and black shorts, as well as changing the club crest to accommodate the color change and the Welsh dragon, effectively trying to market the team as the team of Wales (despite Swansea being an established Premier League side at this point). This move backfired heavily, as Cardiff locals despised the decision, creating a distrust between the owner and the fan-base. This backlash is likely a large part in why Ghee left the club in 2013 shortly before the club’s promotion was confirmed. The club was subsequently turned over to Tan as the top flight loomed the following season.

The 2013-14 season was Cardiff’s first Premier League season, and despite promising signs early on, the club could not adjust to life in the top flight, and were relegated in last place back to the Championship. This failure was in part due to the growing discontent with Tan, as well as the sacking of manager Malky Mackay in December (later revealed to be due to inappropriate text messages rather than results). A return to the top flight would not be easy for the side with the ongoing problems at the club, however, things would start to look up for the club.

The first move back on the club’s road to recovery was the change back to blue in January of 2015, despite Tan’s apparent reluctance to do so. This move was crucial in helping Tan win back support of some of the club supporters who had clamored for the Cardiff blue to make a return. However, this move alone would not get Cardiff back to the promised land.

As is football these days, clubs are becoming somewhat of a playground for the uber-wealthy. Cardiff were no longer one of the very top spenders in the Championship, having been overtaken by the likes of Watford, Bournemouth, and Brighton & Hove Albion among others. This relative lack of spending saw Cardiff struggle in the Championship for the next couple of seasons, even seeing the club slip into the relegation zone early on in the 2016-17 season. To be clear to any Americans unfamiliar with how the sporting system works over here, this is the baseball equivalent of the Pittsburgh Pirates being kicked out of the MLB for being too bad, and then only a few years later being on the verge of being kicked out of AAA for the same reason. The club needed to start outsmarting the competition. Enter Neil Warnock.

Cardiff City’s road back to the Premiership was not nearly as simple as this road to their stadium.

With the club in a precarious position, Warnock took charge early on in the 2016-17 season, and was able to steer the club away from the trouble it had found itself in to finish mid-table. This success earned a well-traveled Warnock another year at the club, and Warnock went to work on reshaping the squad. Dead wood was out the door, as new key players such as Callum Paterson (Motherwell) and Danny Ward (Rotherham United) were brought in for cheaper business than most of the Championship. However, the team spirit and defensive organization instilled in the team by Warnock led the team to an unexpected promotion, only finishing behind free-spending Wolverhampton Wanderers. This promotion is arguably more impressive for Cardiff than the previous one due to these struggles.

A club shop which once again is draped in City’s traditional blue after changing back to the color in 2015.

Although I was not here for the clubs prior promotion, the excitement among football fans around the city is clear. Many kids roam the streets dressed in full Cardiff City kits, people walk around with shirts touting “Warnock’s Army”. The club are in a more fan-oriented place than they were last time around, and the atmosphere in the city certainly reflects that. The people of the city overall felt more vibrant than it seemed like they should be. It is a mood unlike anything in the American sports landscape today for teams that don’t win major championships.

This mood is in part why I wanted to write a blog about this club and football in this country in general. The big debate in American soccer at the moment currently lies with the possible implementation of promotion and relegation into the landscape, and I felt it was important to touch on a club who has experience both recently. While I personally am for pro/rel, and stories like Cardiff’s may also lean people towards it, it is also important to acknowledge the potential negatives the introduction of the system may have stateside. Staying in England, we have seen many historic clubs nearly fold in previous seasons following relegation (Bolton Wanderers, Portsmouth, and Sunderland in particular), a situation one of England’s former Champions League winners Aston Villa, as well as Germany’s historic club Hamburg currently face. Major fan protests have erupted at clubs such as Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool, Charlton Athletic, and Leyton Orient over their poor ownership and the consequences that have come from it (relegation in each case). The system definitely leaves more accountability in terms of these club’s successes and failures, and it may not always be for the better.

Having said this, good can come out of these situations for these clubs. Current Premier League sides Bournemouth, Brighton & Hove Albion, Huddersfield Town, and Southampton have all previously come within minutes of closing down due to financial mismanagement. These communities were able to overcome the clubs’ financial shortcomings and rise up the ladder into the promised land that is the top flight, with support for these clubs arguably greater than ever before. Stateside, we’ve seen nearly the entire Columbus fan-base rally behind the Columbus Crew in order to try and keep that team from relocating. While not exactly a like-for-like situation with the English sides, the situation shows a club fan-base in the US can rally behind a soccer team in perilous times. If pro/rel were adopted in the US, only time would tell just how many MLS sides this would be true for.

While implementing promotion and relegation into American soccer remains a pipe dream at this point, and would certainly have many kinks to work out if it were put in place, it remains a good idea in theory to me. It just so happens the story of the local side from Cardiff may help myself and others like me to push for this dream to occur.

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