Football clubs are strange beasts. They are forever in flux; a new home kit every year, new sponsors, a redesigned badge, brand spanking new identikit stadiums, an ever-changing roster of players, coaches, managers and even owners and yet the clubs themselves always remain the same. The Portsmouth FC who won the FA Cup as recently as 2008 are the same Portsmouth FC that will start the coming season in English football’s third tier despite going through relegations, administration and several different owners, at least one of whom may be a work of complete fiction*. The Manchester City who are now champions of England and funded by a multi-billionaire’s petro dollars are markedly different from the farcical comedy club they once were, and yet are also one and the same.
I’ve written before that football clubs, like great escape artists, never die. They are like Washington’s axe, Theuses’ ship or – if we’re going a bit more lowbrow – Trigger’s broom. The constituent parts that make up the club may change or be replaced as time passes, but the club itself always remains the same.
Of course these days football clubs are as much a business as anything else and businesses can cease to exit. They go bankrupt, they get liquidated, they cease trading. It happens in football too; but if a club ceases to exist a new club is birthed like a phoenix from the ashes. Different, new, yet still the same. We’ve seen this recently with Darlington and now Rangers in Scotland. The Rangers saga has brought the word “newco” into our everyday language and it is a new Rangers that will begin next season somewhere in the murky depths of the Scottish league pyramid. History will officially record that the venerable institution Rangers Football Club was born in 1872 and died in 2012. The “newco” Rangers will be technically a different side, in much the same way FC Halifax are not officially Halifax Town, Darlington 1883 are not officially Darlington FC and in Italy ACF Fiorentina are not officially AC Fiorentina. Yet despite having to be officially and legally distinct from their former selves (hence the slight name changes) every football fan considers these clubs to be the same as the dead teams they replaced. Is it different, though, when a club still in existence transforms itself into something new?
It’s a question I ask in the wake of Cardiff City’s infamous change of kit colours, badge and identity. The Bluebirds will be playing in red in the coming season and the club badge that once featured a bluebird prominently now looks like a beer mat for a small ale brewery and showcases a stereotypical Welsh dragon in a brilliant piece of outside-the-box thinking from the club’s Malaysian owners. The thinking behind this appears to be that red is a popular colour in Asia and therefore it will increase Cardiff’s merchandise sales in the region. That may well end up being true (frankly I’m sceptical as to whether Cardiff are known in the region at all, if so any increase would be a bonus) but the idea that the people of Asia will be falling over themselves to buy Cardiff shirts purely because of the colour seems rather ill thought out. Why buy a red Cardiff shirt when you could buy one worn by the more famous red-shirted sides of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal?
Frankly the plan does not seem to have been thought through and indeed in a recent meeting with angry fans, Cardiff Chief Executive Alan Whiteley confessed he “had no idea” where the additional revenue that had been talked about would actually come from. He also said that “Vincent Tan [the owner] has not put in black and white where he thinks the money will come from, he just believes he can do it” (you can read the full story of that extraordinary meeting here – I highly recommend you do).
So how is that after death Rangers will remain Rangers, but after something that on the surface seems simple, like a change of kit colour, means that for many fans Cardiff are no longer Cardiff? It’s not as though clubs have never changed kits. Manchester United’s red shirts are world famous and instantly recognisable, but they started out in green and yellow halves. Arsenal wore redcurrant shirts rather than bright red, Juventus wore pink. I wonder if perhaps it’s because such kit changes happened in these clubs’ formative years during the difficult birth pangs of the institutions we know today. Cardiff had been playing in blue for over a hundred years before this change.
What now for Cardiff fans? Do they follow the lead of the likes of AFC Wimbledon and FC United and break free to start their own rival, fan-owned club? Or do they, like fans of Fiorentina, Rangers, Darlington and numerous other clubs, accept that owners, kits and everything else may come and go, but the club – the intangible idea of the club – lives on forever?
*Really. Ali al-Faraj’s Wikipedia entry states in the intro: “it has been suggested that he may not exist”.