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Tan's red dawn

Lee Wellings writes about the Malaysian owner who turned blue to red and the promotion blues to Premier League action.
Last modified: 19 Apr 2013 18:26

So Malaysia will be represented in the boardroom of the world's most powerful football league next season - even if Tony Fernandes and Queens Park Rangers are relegated as expected.

Tan Sri Dato Seri Vincent Tan Chee Yioun - Vincent Tan to supporters of Welsh club Cardiff City - has taken the club in the capital of Wales into the English Premier League.

I was going to write 'controversial' owner but is he?

There was plenty of fuss a year ago when Tan stepped up his plans to make Cardiff more appealing beyond, well, Cardiff!

Having effectively saved the club by buying them in 2010, the Chairman of the Berjaya Group shocked fans two years on by announcing a rebrand. He didn't put it in those terms, but that's what it was. Never mind a century of history and tradition, the Bluebirds were to change their kit from blue to red, making them more appealing to fans in south east Asia.

Schadenfreude enthusiasts asked what the problem was - Cardiff is the capital of Wales, a nation that plays in red with a dragon for an emblem. Who needs a blue kit anyway.

But for some fans this was a painful reminder of who calls the shots and how little control of this proud Welsh club that plays in England actually comes from Wales. A change of club nickname appeared to be in order to.

Some of those dissenting fans are having to acknowledge that over 50 years without top flight football is a cause for unconditional celebration, Premier League football beckons, and that the red kit has not exactly proved unlucky. Personally, if I was from Cardiff? Maybe I'd rather support a club in a lower division in blue. Call me a romantic old fool if you will. But football has changed and there's no turning back.

It's certainly not the first time a British club has made a historic impact after changing to a red kit.

50 years ago the legendary Bill Shankly reinvented Liverpool and made the world notice. He ordered a change from white to red strip as Ian St John recalled in his autobiography: 

'Red for danger, red for power. He came into the dressing room one day and threw a pair of red shorts to Ronnie Yeats. 'Get into those shorts and let's see how you look,' he said. 'Ronnie, you look awesome, terrifying. You look 7ft tall.' 'Why not go the whole hog, boss?' I suggested. 'Why not wear red socks? Let's go out all in red.' Though Liverpool were hardly the 'white birds before that moment!

I wonder what Shankly, the man of the people, would have made of a Malaysian businessmen in charge of a community club, because that's how all football teams start.

Tan's business interests now include 7-Eleven in Malaysia, a Krispy Kreme franchise, a Burger King franchise a U Mobile Operator...and a Welsh football club. As I'm in danger of being flippant here, let's consider the man's personality.

He often wears a (red) Cardiff shirt under his business suit at games. His Better Malaysia Foundation reportedly contributes to at least 35 different charities. And a man worth over a billion dollars attended over half the club's games last season. Is this the most telling statistic of all. He clearly has a passion, even a devotion for the club already. And this is someone who lives in Kuala Lumpar with plenty of commitments that could keep him away from the tenth biggest city in Britain.

He's already pledged a transfer kitty of approaching 40 millions dollars.

I was at a sports business event in Singapore last month and the thirst for EPL football in south east Asia was again abundantly clear. I'm sure the lure of the big clubs can be forgotten for a weekend when Cardiff play their welsh rivals Swansea, which will be a rare and fascinating example of two big rivals going head to head in a league based in a different country?

You see Cardiff were meant to be the chosen ones from Wales. They've had good teams over the past decade or two but haven't quite been able to reach the big time.

Imagine the horror when Swansea quickly built an impressive, passing side, not expensive but brilliantly coached, that breezed into the Premier League in 2011...and have continued to punch above their weight amongst the big boys as well as winning a major trophy at Wembley this year. They've even got Michael Laudrup as their manager now. The genius of Michael Laudrup at a club that couldn't pay the bills a decade ago!

It's too stark a contrast to ignore that Swansea are the example of fan power in the EPL, the exception in a league that has become the billionaire's plaything. Fans saved the club, and now they have a significant say in how the club operates. They don't seem to be doing too bad a job.

The two big Welsh clubs finally co-existing at the highest level has even re-opened the debate about Scotland's big two coming south and playing in the EPL. The Premier League don't want Celtic and Rangers, but they have two of the biggest fan bases in world football, so you can never say never. Cardiff have their own Scotsman at the helm in Malky Mackay (which will boost the already disproportionate number of Scottish managers in the league.)

Cardiff continue to play at Cardiff City Stadium while one of the world's great stadium is close by, the Millennium Stadium, which hosted the FA Cup final for the best part of a decade when Wembley was being rebuilt, and never fails to provide a scintillating atmosphere for big rugby games, largely through those vocal Welsh fans.

Would the club one day play in this grand home to large crowds with a worldwide fanbase cheering them on? If Vincent Tan has anything to do with it this possibility must exist.

He's turned the no-promotion blues.

This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.