A feature on the first top-flight fixture between Cardiff City and Swansea City.
Swansea City and Cardiff City will spend the 2013/14 season competing against each other in the Premier League. A decade ago, such a reality would have been restricted to a game of Football Manager, but as both clubs bask in successful times one of the most fierce football rivalries has now found a high-profile new home. The Premier League represents all that is good, bad and ugly in the modern game, but the arrival of the Welsh duo means that some much-needed raw football passion will infiltrate the playground of the rich and famous when the two sides eventually meet on the biggest stage of all. For any person connected with either club, the name of their biggest rival is never too far away in conversation, to an extent that many border on having an unhealthy obsession with the other club. However, while success for their own club remains the priority, celebrating in the misery of the other can prove just as satisfying in the battle for South Wales supremacy.
The first derby took place at Swansea City’s former Vetch Field home back in September 1912. A 1-1 draw in front of around 8,000 cloth-capped fans set the tone for one-hundred years of football rivalry. The last time the two teams met was in February 2011, when Craig Bellamy scored the only goal of the game to hand Cardiff City victory at the Liberty Stadium. That match took place as both sides were challenging at the top of the Championship, and symbolised the progress that both clubs had made in short-space of time. Just over a decade prior to that match in April 1998, the two sides played out a 0-0 draw at Cardiff City’s Ninian Park in the old Third Division. At the time, both clubs were Football League strugglers with dilapidated stadiums and no money to make amends. However, by the time Bellamy had scored his eighty-fifth minute winner, both clubs boasted new modern stadiums and the financial backing to turn their Premier League promotion dreams into reality.
And for that there is every reason to celebrate when the two sides eventually meet in the Premier League. The two clubs are a pivotal part of Welsh football’s current feel-good factor, and their elevated status is an achievement that should be embraced and celebrated by all those with an interest in the Welsh game. The intensity of the opening Premier League fixture between the two clubs will be representative of the journey that has taken both clubs to the promised land. Although a distraction from the focus of each clubs ambitions for the season, it remains a fixture that can inspire like no other, both on and off the field. The changing culture of the modern game means that there will be few Welsh players actually involved, and even fewer players with a local connection to either club, but those that do have the privilege of wearing their clubs shirt on derby day will experience a bond with their supporters that no other fixture can generate.
Football is nothing without fans, and while this certainly applies to this derby and the intense, passionate atmosphere it generates, there is no hiding from the darker times that have traditionally marred this celebration of Welsh football rivalry. The South Wales derby is closely associated with crowd trouble, and this sad fact is unlikely to change any time soon. Incidents of the past have become glorified in fan mythology, and chants of ‘swim away’ only inspire a new generation of fans to make their own terrace history when the two clubs meet. However, this culture is not restricted to those off the field, and even players such as Swansea’s Alan Tate and Lee Trundle ,and recently Cardiff City captain Mark Hudson, have taunted their rivals with unwise actions. While the respective managers will attempt to appease the crowd in the pre-match build-up, the derby experience is built upon the passion it generates, but there are lines that cannot keep being crossed.
Few outsiders appreciate the real intensity of the rivalry between the clubs and the two set of fans, but there are both cultural and footballing reasons behind it. As Welsh clubs playing in the English pyramid system, every game brings with it a different cultural rivalry, and every fixture has a Wales v England feel to it as a result. With club and national pride emanating from the stands as both clubs take on English opponents, the derby offers that one chance of Welsh supremacy, the opportunity to become the best Welsh club until the two sides meet again. While this has always been the case for both sets of fans, it is the number of fans that has changed considerably over the last decade. The old basement battles were almost a private affair, with interest stretching no further than South Wales, but now, in the high-profile world of the Premier League, the derby will become a world-wide event, and the bragging rights have become more important than ever before.
There are also wider issues and reasons why the rivalry between the two clubs is so intense. Away from football, there is a natural battle for supremacy between Swansea and Cardiff. From media bias to government spending, there are many in Swansea who remain aggrieved over the perceived privileges that bestowed on the capital city. But while such cultural debates continually take place in the press and behind closed doors, bringing the two football clubs together offers the opportunity for one to at least achieve one instant victory over the other. This cultural debate is not lost on the supporters of both sides either, I know one Swansea City fan who refuses to buy anything sold within a Cardiff postcode, for fear of helping generate trade and economy in the area. The obsessional resentment is really not restricted just to football.
But for the rivalry and obsessional hatred, there is without doubt mutual appreciation for the respective troubles that both clubs have suffered in the recent past. Both clubs have had serious financial problems, brought on by rogue owners and false promises that have left the entire futures of both clubs in the balance. Both have risen through the Football League on a similar trajectory, and while few fans will care to admit it, there are many similarities between both clubs. Over the last one-hundred years, twenty-seven players have worn both badges during their careers, some with far more success than others. But while players will come, go and sometimes even cross the divide that separates the two clubs, the tribalistic tattoo markings of the swan and the bluebird remain inked on each fan for life.
While both clubs have similar tales to tell on how their eventually reached the Premier League, their similarities should not be dismissed as pure coincidence. Through their intense rivalry, both clubs have an unwritten agenda to at least emulate, and subsequently better, the achievements of their rival. Their fans expect nothing less. Over the course of the last decade, promotions, cup finals and new stadiums have dominated the histories of both clubs as each club sets a standard for the other to rise to. It is this constant challenge that pushes both clubs forward, and should one lose the competition of the other, then a natural complacency would set in to the detriment of the remaining club. Again, it is not something that the fans of either club would like to openly admit, but the recent achievements of both clubs have been the catalyst to the other reaching the same level of success.
However, for all the talk, the tribalism, the culture and the passion, the key statistic when the two sides meet in the Premier League will be the results. “I’ve never been involved in a South Wales derby, but I have heard a lot since I came last summer,” said Swansea City manager Michael Laudrup as Cardiff City were promoted to the Premier League. “There are a lot of big derbies in the world and I played in a lot of them, they all are a little different. But from what I’ve heard, you can compare Swansea against Cardiff to Lazio and Roma. They were clubs in the same city, with big crowds and lots of temperament, they were huge games.” While Laudrup and Cardiff City boss Malky Mackay may not appreciate the distraction that comes with the intensity of the derby, there is no doubt that the two Premier League fixtures between the clubs will play a defining part in their respective seasons. But the real challenge for both clubs must be to make sure that they are remembered for all the right reasons, irrespective of the result.
This blog was also featured in ‘Swans 100 – A Centenary of Memories Souvenir Magazine’ available from the Swansea City club shop.