Steve Coombs is back for his second guest blog, and it’s a superb read! Follow Steve on Twitter at @SouthTerracer
Just to forewarn you, what immediately follows might not be pretty. Think of a man at the end of his tether standing in the central reservation of a motorway, swigging on a bottle of vodka and screaming at traffic. That’s basically the tone of what follows. This will be as close as a rugby blog gets to a man lying on the ground outside his ex’s new house, weeping into the patio and trying to read her love poetry. Before I’m done, you may well wish to stage an intervention.
This is an overdue cry for help.
Also, there may be swearing. Protect your children. (There will be swearing, Ed.)
Since I last borrowed this blog for a bit of a whine back in March, I’ve pondered writing another one. Once or twice I almost wrote something about the name “Cardiff Blues”. Gosh, I even thought on writing something about the colours.
But, you have twitter, so you don’t need more of that kinda talk. And, there is not enough blood pressure medication in the world to justify me spending time confronting the sheer number of idiots with stupid things to say on the name “Cardiff Blues”.
I toyed with the notion of following the experts in articles that make you want to rip your own teeth out, and do a WalesOnline style “Top 10 Stupid Things Cardiff Have Done”. But, whittling it down to 10 would prove a challenge. And, before I got beyond number 7 I might start developing a nervous twitch. By the time I arrived somewhere between selling Mike Rayer and appointing Phil Davies I would start punching walls. And, my neighbours deserve better. They put up with enough of that on weekends.
Instead, I’m going to talk (eventually) about Cardiff Arms Park, and the lease.
Now, you may have got this far and suddenly be thinking “Oh those fucking busy cunt Cardiff fans. When will they ever stop going on about the fucking lease. Why is everything about CAP and their fucking lease. Will they ever stop? Those busy cunts. They’re so busy. And cunts.”
If you’re thinking this, then I will now address you directly:
Have you ever looked yourself in the mirror, looked at your stupid face and wondered, “Hmm, am I a fucking moron?” Well, I can ease the conflict in your troubled mind. The answer is “Yes, you are a fucking moron. And where do you get off calling people who love their team “busy cunts” anyway you pathetic knobrash?”
Because, this massive series of clusterfucks does all come back to the question of the lease. The Arms Park is both our prized possession and the source of all this fucking anguish.
I will now make a cup of camomile tea, meditate for a few minutes and come back in a bit to ruminate further. I will try and be calm while I do it.
The 1995/96 season. I was in the lower 6th form. In the week I studied literature, history and economics, dreaming of university, adulthood and anywhere that wasn’t Aberdare. On Saturdays I played youth rugby. This brought me first hand knowledge of what it feels like to be concussed by unknown assailants from Treherbert, and carnal knowledge of a blonde girl behind a nightclub at Minehead Butlins. But, I digress.
It was also the first professional Welsh club rugby season in history. At that time, there was a Premier Division of 12 clubs. They were (in order of where they finished that year): Cardiff, Neath, Pontypridd, Llanelli, Bridgend, Swansea, Ebbw Vale, Newport, Newbridge, Treorchy, Aberavon, Abertillery.
Some of these teams were strong that year, some weren’t so strong. It was a particularly bad year for Aberavon and Abertillery, who won only 5 games between them.
It was a good year for Cardiff. We won the league and came close to winning the first Heineken Cup. Footage of it is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOQ_-UeUBKI
It was the season Jonathan Davies came back from rugby league and packed out the Arms Park for a midweek game against Aberavon. If you’re too young to remember this, it is difficult to explain what a big deal this was. Imagine Elvis revealing he’d never died and returning to front a reformed Beatles. If you were a Welsh rugby fan, Jiffy returning was in that sort of category.
It was also a particularly good year for Pontypridd, who won the Cup. There’s footage of it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NV7VIMNnurM
With the exception of Treorchy (who had climbed up the divisions after the league had formed 5 years earlier) all those clubs had some justification for calling themselves “big”. They were certainly clubs that carried a lot of heritage, and proud tradition.
In this era, sometimes crowds were big, sometimes they were small. It depended how big the game was. But, even a club like Newbridge, based in a town of 6,500, could draw crowds on their day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PC1jo3P_Yg
(Please note, I’m not having this little nostalgic interlude in order to long for the old days. I’m taking you back to this time because it’s important to understand where we’ve come from, so we can better understand where things are now. You think this is bad? Before this is over I’ll have taken you back to the 19th century.)
Within 7 years, all that had gone.
Before the end of 1995, Ashley Levett had bought into Richmond rugby club. Sir John Hall started putting money into Newcastle. Nigel Wray began backing Saracens. Private money began flowing into rugby. Cardiff lost their halfbacks Andy Moore and Adrian Davies to Richmond. Things were changing. Sometimes change happens slowly. In rugby in 1995, change came at lightspeed.
Two years later, the Premier Division had been cut to 8 clubs. One after the other, clubs began finding it difficult to keep up with the pace of change.
Then, one after the other, clubs began contemplating how on earth they were going to continue even existing. There was a big difference between being a “first class” club in an amateur era, and being a pro club with players needing to be paid salaries. .
By 2003, there were 5 Welsh teams left at the top end of the game. Then there were 4. People will have their own theories on why those 4 clung on when so many fell away.
You may believe that this was all a conspiracy. Valleys clubs were conspired against to benefit a chosen few. A blazered illuminati sacrificing rugby clubs and having sex with goats over gin and tonic, all for the betterment of Cardiff and Llanelli.
No, it isn’t that.
Other people (lets call them, “the rational ones”) will point out that the 3 biggest centres of population were always most likely to retain pro teams. This is of course, quite sensible. But, Llanelli sticks out as a bit of an exception to that rule.
I’ll throw another suggestion into the mix:
Look at the stadiums, and who owns them.
Stradey Park saved Llanelli rugby club. It saved them when money first became a problem for them in the 90s, and it’s what in turn allowed the development of Parc Y Scarlets to take place. It was a long process, but they got there.
In Newport, you’ll note that pro rugby was recently saved (well, if you want to call it that) by the sale of Rodney Parade. They had an asset, and so pro rugby in some form will continue in Newport. For now.
In Swansea, it’s more complicated. But, it’s impossible to separate the rise of the Ospreys from the building of the Liberty Stadium. The favourable stadium deal negotiated by the Ospreys board, is what allowed that team to grow. No Liberty Stadium, with Ospreys hovering between the Gnoll and St Helens? I think they’d have gone the way of Celtic Warriors long ago.
We don’t have to stick to Wales either. Exeter have done great things. They are an exceptionally well run club and have a wonderful coach in Rob Baxter. But, the sale of their old home at the county ground to finance the creation of Sandy Park is the real key to their rise. I could go on with this. When you look at the story of teams that have made a success of pro rugby, very often you’re looking at the story of successful property moves and canny stadium deals.
As for Cardiff, and the Arms Park? Well, explanations of the agreement in 1997 between Cardiff Athletic Club and Cardiff Rugby are already out there. Check out CF10 and PhilBB’s blogs. It’s all there, if you feel like getting your head around that particular riddle wrapped inside an enigma. I don’t need to repeat what they’ve already written.
If you can’t be bothered, take my word for it: It’s a mess, and has been for two decades.
And, that’s why me writing my “Top 10 Stupid Decisions Cardiff Have Made” piece would be a waste of time. Because ultimately, like in Highlander, there can be only one. The problems this club has essentially all stem from that sweet little mess agreed back in the 90s. I remember how everyone thought it was a splendid idea at the time. But so many off field issues, not least the clusterfuck that was the move to the Cardiff City Stadium, ultimately all stem from that agreement.
You don’t even need to take my word for it. Just think about it. The Arms Park is 1960s stands and 1990s hospitality boxes. If redevelopment had been able to happen there long ago, what could have been achieved? What income streams could Cardiff rugby have been enjoying? Would there have been any need to waste huge amounts of money in rent to Cardiff City in the CCS years? Would there now be any need for a coach to walk away because he can’t be given a decent budget?
Like I said earlier, to understand where you are, you need to know where you’ve come from. And, if you want to know why Cardiff Blues are in the shit state they’re in, you need to look at the deal made in 1997.
And, ultimately Cardiff rugby will rise or fall based on making a new deal, which finally sorts that mess out.
So, now that I’ve indulged in a little nostalgia and bit of online abuse, lets move onto idle speculation.
That process, which began in 1995, and saw the collapse of Welsh rugby as we knew it. Well, it’s still going on. The rugby world keeps changing, and (most importantly) wage bills keep getting bigger.
There’s an old joke about Welsh rugby carrying on reducing the number of teams until just one is left called “Wales”. Well, frankly, I think this could happen.
I can easily see a situation where there is one Welsh pro team. Having the status of Japan’s Sunwolves or Argentina’s Jaguares. Post 2020, it’s possible to imagine a reformed Pro14 (yep, again) with more South African sides, a USA franchise, a German franchise and one token Welsh team. The national side would essentially be that team, plus the various big name players that will be plying their trade in England and France.
Beneath that? Well, we go back to the future. The focus goes back on the Welsh Premier division. Cardiff, Llanelli, Pontypridd, Bridgend, the whole gang. Old times. Semi pro obviously, and without the star players there. But otherwise, same as it ever was.
And, wouldnt that solve so many problems? No more worrying about how to pay the best Welsh players. They’re being paid by the English and French. No more worries about funding 4 pro teams. The WRU can pay wages for just one team and put anything left over into the community game.
For Cardiff, well semi pro rugby can be ok. And, doesn’t it solve the Arms Park issue? Cardiff Blues fold. And, the Athletic club just build a small 3,000 capacity stadium, with the rest of the land being redeveloped into flats, offices, bars… So much simpler. So easy.
And, the guys who remember the 90s and feel bitter that Cardiff are still a pro team, when their own became semi pro long ago? Well, no more need to feel bitter. We’ll all be at the same level. Finally.
Wouldn’t that all be so much easier?
Wouldn’t that all be so much fairer?
Wouldn’t that all be so much better?
No. Fuck that.
Fuck letting this club go semi pro to satisfy the whinges of a few whinging bitter fucks.
Fuck relegating ourselves to irrelevance on the back of our own inabilty to get our shit together.
Why? Well, that’s for Part 2. Yep, this piece will have a sequel in which I shall explain to you why it’s necessary to keep Cardiff Blues in pro rugby, and not only to be there but to thrive. I’ll explain why it’s good for the city, why it’s good for rugby and, yes, why it’s good for the valleys.
But first, as promised, I’m now taking you back to the 19th century.
In conclusion, let me add that all trivial obstacles should be set aside in the endeavour to form one good club, which shall be an honour to the town, and a proof of the good fellowship existing therein.
So ends a letter to the Western Mail from someone calling himself “Another Forward” (there were pseudonyms before the invention of the internet y’know) dated 12th September 1876. It was one of several letters referring to what became the formation of Cardiff rugby club.
Why did these good Victorian gentleman want to form “one good club”? Well, it was to beat good clubs from rival towns. They wanted to go to Newport and win. They wanted to go to Swansea and win. They wanted to go over the border, take on the English and win. They wanted to shout their name from the rooftops and be the best.
The emerging city of Cardiff wanted a team to be proud of. It still does.
The gentleman was calling for all other matters to be cast aside, so that all could focus on building something. They wanted to take something which at that time was a past time for enthusiasts, and turn it into something a growing city could rally around.
And they did it. They built something incredible, at Cardiff Arms Park.
“…all trivial obstacles should be set aside in the endeavour to form one good club…”
It was good advice then, it’s good advice now.