Cardiff City haven’t been great at PR in recent years. The ‘red rebrand’, uninspiring and unambitious managerial appointments, austerity and Vincent Tan’s repeated attacks on disgruntled City fans – all of these things have helped build an increasing sense of disconnect between the club and its public.
The arrival of Neil Warnock has gone a long way in tipping the balance the other way. Warnock, wherever he has managed, has always been well-loved by supporters. His natural charisma – the so-called ‘Warnock effect’ – has something to do with it. He talks straight with wit and charm; he demands hard work and commitment from his teams. What underpins all of this is that he completely understands the average football fan and he gets why clubs should connect with their local community.
Cardiff opened their pre-season with a friendly this balmy summer’s evening at Taffs Well FC: a club situated in a village approximately 8 miles north of Cardiff – off the A470 trunk road – which plays in the second tier of the Welsh league. This is not a famous or distinguished football club, but it is a kind of junction point to City’s heartlands.
This is something Warnock has done at every club: a pre-season friendly at a local club which acts as a fundraiser with the gate split 50/50 between the clubs. In this instance Taffs Well FC get to keep their half, Cardiff’s will be donated to local and national cancer charities. As well as being a great cause to support, it also means the football club is out there in the community, reciprocating the traditional relationship between football club and supporters, i.e. the club are giving something back.
Warnock hand-picked Taffs Well because of its close proximity to Cardiff, but also because the primitive facilities meant the City players would be taken out of their comfort zone. The changing rooms are cramped and certainly a world away from what Cardiff’s pampered players will be used to. It’s also a ground where the players simply cannot hide away from supporters. There are two small functional stands, but mostly the crowd stands around the edge of the pitch, right on top of the action. Before, after and in between there is no escape for the players, face to face with fans they have to interact with.
It was quite a thing to see these professional footballers – idolised by many of the 3,000 Cardiff fans in attendance – huddled close together behind the goal, somewhat awkward and nervous looking without the usual protection and barriers between fans and players at Cardiff’s home matches. New signing Lee Tomlin found himself separated from the herd at one point, left alone and looking somewhat overwhelmed by it all as he stood outside the Taffs Well FC clubhouse.
In fairness to the players they were good sports throughout, happy to chat with fans and oblige any selfie requests. This is part of what the day was and should be all about: the Cardiff players showing that human side, proving footballers are not as inaccessible as they are sometimes portrayed. It built a lovely, relaxed and friendly atmosphere before the match; with plenty of kids getting a moment with their heroes they will never forget.
It can’t be stressed enough how important events like this are. Cardiff could have hired 100 professional PR experts and anything they did would not have generated as much good will as this friendly. Cardiff have to make this part of the club’s DNA now: getting out into the community, engaging with its public, making itself something tangible and accessible again.
The bleeding of Welsh football support to English clubs will never completely stop, but Cardiff City are a club with a potentially huge catchment area; yet they have never really done enough to make the most of it. Sam Hammam tried when he first arrived at the start of the century, but Cardiff haven’t really had anyone within the club that could be such a galvanising force since – well until Neil Warnock arrived.
Warnock, realistically, will only be with the club for another year or two, that’s why the club have to adopt this sort of event into its identity and make it an annual thing. It should be a thing the club does, rather than something a particular manager did once or twice; ensuring it is written into any contract of any future manager. Get the club out into the community and it will do wonders for local identification with the football club again. Sadly, there will always be those football supporters who follow clubs hundreds of miles away despite having no cultural or geographical connection with them. However, the more youngsters in the valleys and Cardiff’s surrounding areas see Cardiff City as part of the identity of the local area the more likely they are to start following the Bluebirds for life rather than some foreign club.
As for the game itself, well it wasn’t as enjoyable or engaging as the wonderful, friendly atmosphere of the event itself. It was a fantastic occasion to be gathered with so many who had nothing but good will for the club and the event. It was like a great big Cardiff City party, like everyone being able to celebrate their identity as Cardiff City fans away from the pressure of a normal home game at the Cardiff City Stadium. Dare it be said: there has been a real sense of pride in the club from many Cardiff fans for putting this on and for all the organisational help they have given Taffs Well FC in the build-up. How long since Cardiff fans could say they were genuinely proud at what the club was doing?
The result – as irrelevant as it was – was a 1-0 Cardiff win, courtesy of an early volley from Anthony Pilkington. Warnock fielded more or less different XIs in each half – mostly consisting of first team professionals and a few reserve or youth players – with ‘debuts’ for summer signings Neil Etheridge, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Loic Damour and Danny Ward.
It is difficult to judge players in this sort of game, on a pitch that had a few lumps and bumps and a pronounced incline from one end to the other, against opposition so vastly inferior, but each of the ‘debutants’ made solid impressions.
Etheridge didn’t have much to do in goal, but he looks a strong and athletic goalkeeper. Mendez-Laing was arguably Cardiff’s biggest threat in the first half, very direct in his running, if a little wayward with his end product. Danny Ward worked hard and showed some good touches up front. Frenchman Damour looked very composed in midfield and was very efficient in his use of the ball.
Of the young and peripheral squad players, Cameron Crowe had a good game down the right hand side. He’s probably still a long way from the first team, but he does look a good prospect as an aggressive and forward thinking full back. James Waite was busy in midfield after replacing Pilkington in the first half and didn’t look daunted among so many experienced professionals. Of the senior players, Matty Kennedy did well on the wing and showed a few tricks and quality delivery that means he deserves at least a chance this season to make a first team breakthrough. Craig Noone was busy in the second half and came just a few inches away from one of his trademark left foot finishes off the right wing.
It is unlikely Warnock will have learned anything new from this fixture and to be honest, the match was secondary to the occasion itself. All that is left to say is well done to Taffs Well FC for putting on a brilliant event; a fantastic club that fully deserved their spotlight tonight. Bravo Mr Warnock – what a star! If only Cardiff had hired you five years ago – who knows where the Bluebirds would be right now.