Dez Corkhill: Waking a Sleeping Dragon

Dez Corkhill reminisces the days when he witnessed Cardiff City miss promotion to the big league and explains why the 'Sleeping Dragon' has awaken
By Dez Corkhill

Cardiff City will be playing in the English Premier League in the 2013-14 season. As I took my place in the Press box in the Main Stand at Ninian Park, Cardiff on 1st January 1992, it was impossible to imagine that those words could ever be put in the same sentence.

The FA Premier League was set to launch in August 1992, but Cardiff City at that time were mired at the lowest level of the English professional game; Division 4. Even so, a six-match unbeaten run through December 1991 persuaded 8,023 fans to turn up at the Ninian Park - the then-home of "The Bluebirds" - to cheer their team towards promotion.

Cardiff were playing Maidstone United. Correct, Maidstone United. Maidstone won. Correct, Maidstone won; 5-0. Cardiff weren't even the best team in South Wales that year as Valleys rivals Merthyr Tydfil beat them 4-1 in the Welsh Cup.

The only long-lasting impact made by Cardiff during this time was "The Ayatollah" - the chant / dance that Cardiff fans introduced during one of their away-days in the 1990 season. Imitating the TV pictures of the time of the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeni in Iran, the Cardiff fans latched onto this as a unique way to celebrate their team's successes. Some things you just can't explain. But the celebration stuck, and it will be coming to TV screens all over the world from next season.

But back to the dark days of the late eighties and early nineties. They were hard times to be a football supporter in Cardiff. Or Wales for that matter. Cardiff - who choose to play in the English leagues rather than the semi-professional Welsh League structure - tumbled to the bottom tier of the English League for the first time in 1986, and even though promotion was gained the following season, two years of struggle saw a second relegation after a 2-0 loss at Bury on the final day of the 1989-90 campaign.

It was an era when numbing defeat followed crushing disappointment and boardroom squabble followed PR disaster. Any potential good player was sold for half the amount they should have been, and Cardiff City were in dire straits.

On the field, some of the defeats in the 1986-96 decade were gut-wrenchingly awful. Port Vale hammered the Bluebirds 6-1. There was a 5-0 loss at Preston, and a 5-1 humiliation at North Wales rivals Wrexham. Add 4-1 defeats at the likes of Darlington and Leyton Orient, and 4-0 maulings at Chester and Northampton and throw in Huddersfield inflicted a 5-1 home defeat. Throw in FA Cup defeats to non-league Enfield, Bath and Hayes, and you can see what a rotten decade this was, and why supporters are so deliriously happy with Promotion to the Premier League.

Chairman Tony Clemo was ousted in 1992 after six dreadful years at the helm, and whilst the chairmanship of fairground-owner, Rick Wright, promised much, it delivered little except two Welsh Cup Final wins against semi professional opposition, and another relegation. By the end of the 1996 season, Cardiff City were to finish 90th out of 92 teams in England's professional league structure.

Off the field, Cardiff's fans had earned a reputation as a tough, lawless bunch. Despite the fun of "The Ayatollah" chant, there was a sizable hooligan following to the Club. "The Soul Crew" ensured that mayhem invariably followed every big match, and hooliganism became so toxic when Swansea City were the opposition that away fans were banned from going to the matches, and police road blocks were set up to stop fans even travelling between the cities.

At the time, I was a Cardiff-based journalistic observer all of this mayhem. A reporter for BBC Wales and Red Dragon Radio, a small personal contribution to the club was taking over as match-day programme editor for half a season in 1994. Such was the dreadful financial situation at the club that my quoted rates were very modest. I never was paid!

It wasn't always like that. There is a huge catchment area for support, and with no other professional football club in the city, Cardiff always had the potential to be a big club. They are the epitome of "The Sleeping Giant." City may have slipped out of the top flight in 1962, but they had a history that saw them win the FA Cup in 1927, and only be denied the League title by the narrowest of margins (goal average) in 1924 when they missed a penalty in their final match of the season - a goalless draw.

As a Division Two outfit, Cardiff remained dogged competitors who regularly caused upsets in Europe. In 1968, Cardiff made it to semi finals of the European Cup Winners' Cup, and were only beaten by Hamburg after a last minute goalkeeping error. Most famously, red shirted Real Madrid were beaten 1-0 at Ninian Park on a glorious night in front of 50,000 in March 1970. Brian Clark's headed winner went down in folklore. Cardiff fans conveniently forget to tell you that Madrid won the return leg 2-0.

Even bobbing along in the second and third divisions, there were great memories. John Toshack made his name at Cardiff, but he was sold off to Liverpool in 1970, and City's promotion campaign petered out with his sale. Cardiff would never - until now - get as close to the top flight as that 1970-71 season when they came in third.

Craig Bellamy will return to the Premiership - this time in a Cardiff City shirt

That's not to say that there weren't other good times and memorable players. Robin Friday became something of a cult hero in a 50-game cameo. John Buchanan scored what many to consider as Cardiff's best ever goal in a League Cup win over Swansea (all-the-more- sweet as Swansea were riding high at the time, and were managed by a certain John Toshack). Phil Stant, Carl Dale, Nathan Blake and Jimmy Gilligan all gave Cardiff some glimpses of a better tomorrow. And mention the likes of Phil Dwyer, Peter Sayer, Ray Bishop, Gil Reece, Keith Pontin and Nigel Vaughan and you'll get a nod of respect from the older generation fan. The ones who insist that Cardiff should always wear blue.

But as the years went by and Ninian Park decayed, so did quality of the football, and so did the economy of South Wales. By the time the mid-80's came, the coal mines in the Valleys to the North and West of the city - so important to the economy and employment in the area - had largely been closed down. The city's docks were run down and unemployment in the UK was high, with Cardiff, Wales' capital city, hit harder than most. In 1986, when Cardiff hit rock bottom in the football ladder, Cardiff - as a city - was going through similar strife.

It took 20 years to regenerate the city to what it is now. A pulsing, vibrant, economically-competitive city that is home to the Welsh Parliament, and that has re-invented its once-decrepit docks. Part of that regeneration included the redevelopment of the Leckwith area, literally just over the road from the Ninian Park. The club capitalised and, eventually, moved and rebuilt their home 200 yards to the site of the former Leckwith Athletics Stadium.

The clubs fortunes have followed a somewhat similar pattern to those of the city. As Cardiff rebuilt its docks and became the hub of the Welsh parliament, and established a reputation as an emerging economy, so Cardiff City Football Club got themselves back into a state that made them attractive to investors. Malaysian investors, as it turned out.

There was a lot of trauma en route to the Tan Sri Vincent Tan take-over. Post 1996, gritty manager Frank Burrows led the team to promotion in 1999, only for there to be an immediate relegation back down to Division 3. Those Boardroom problems were still there.

And then came Sam Hammam. Remember Sam? He was the driving force behind Wimbledon's "Crazy Gang", and he produced similar results, with similarly controversial and unconventional methods. Hammam went back to the Crazy Gang mentality by appointing first Bobby Gould, and then Alan Cork in the Managerial seat. The result was a promotion and on the field, Cardiff never looked back.

A significant play-off win at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium over Queens Park Rangers in 2003 pointed to brighter times for the Bluebirds. Cardiff fans packed the arena. City were promoted to The Championship. They looked, genuinely, a "Sleeping Giant" ready to wake up. Hammam wanted to rebrand the club as a Celtic Blues.

Now in The Championship, better names were being attracted to South Wales. A club record fee was given to Stoke for Peter Thorne, and then increased when Michael Chopra was bought from Newcastle to add goal-scoring firepower. Robbie Fowler, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Trevor Sinclair were other internationally recognised recruits in high-profile moves that showed the City were becoming more upwardly mobile.

Under the stewardship of Dave Jones, a rugged Cardiff were continual contenders at the top end of the Championship table throughout the 2005-2010 period, without ever being able to make the final step-up to promotion. The likes of Stephen McPhail and Peter Whittingham added creativity, but Cardiff could never seem to cross the line to the riches of the Premiership.

There were off-field problems to deal with. Hammam, and then Peter Ridsdale, had confrontational periods as Chairman, but the distractions didn't seriously affect on-field performances. And when City moved into the new Cardiff City Stadium built just 200 yards from their old Ninian Park home, there was a complete make-over of the club. Cardiff City now reside in a modern, clean, 21st century arena. There are plans to increase the capacity ahead of the 2013 season. 28,500 season tickets have already been sold.

The journey to the 2008 FA Cup Final, and eventual loss to Portsmouth, was enjoyed by the fans. But the defeat to Blackpool in the 2010 Play-off Final was just too painful, and saw the end of Jones' tenure.

By the time of the Blackpool loss, Tan Sri Vincent Tan had seen and invested in the real potential in the sleeping Giants. He wanted to rebrand them as a slumbering dragon. There was a bit of a hoo-ha, but ask the vast majority of the fans if they are seriously concerned at the proposed rebranding of the club, and the change from blue to red shirts, and they'll take this "problem" over those of the dark days of the 80's and 90's every time.

Malky Mackay was recruited with the task of getting City into the promised land of the Premiership. Maybe the change to the red shirts is the change that had the most impact. Maybe it was Mackay. Maybe it was the multi-million pound investment. I think the latter.

Cardiff were somewhat put off from their promotion quest when making it all the way to a League Cup Final appearance - and ultimate penalty shoot-out defeat - against Liverpool. But this season, with Mark Hudson and David Marshall dominant defensively, Whittingham creative, and Craig Bellamy and Heidar Helguson providing an attacking threat, Cardiff are, at last, in the promised land.

The "Sleeping Dragon" isn't slumbering anymore. He's breathing fire. You wouldn't have believed it possible on New Year's Day in 1992 when Maidstone United were in town.

Dez Corkhill is the managing Editor of Astro Arena - the malay-language sports Channel that broadcasts Malaysian Domestic football. He is an occasional contributor on Astro Supersports Premier league coverage, and a former journalist in South Wales.