The police are on high alert. Players and coaches are on edge. The fans can’t contain their excitement. For the first time in history, Cardiff and Swansea collide in the top flight.
The game tomorrow is being billed as the country’s biggest ever football derby. For some, it will be a celebration of the remarkable rise up the English league standings of two clubs who only recently were in the pits of financial despair. For others, the potential for the kind of crowd violence and fan hostility that has marred previous meetings between Wales’ two biggest clubs is the real story ahead of a powder keg match.
Whatever the viewpoint, it should be some occasion at Cardiff City stadium.
“We all have to be careful, calm and be aware of what could happen,” said Cardiff boss Malky Mackay. “But it’s an atmosphere the players must embrace.”
For so long in the shadow of rugby, Welsh football has never been so buoyant. The country has the world’s most expensive player in Gareth Bale, who moved from Tottenham to Real Madrid in August for e100 million, and another star in Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who has arguably been the best player in the Premier League this season. It also has two teams in England’s lucrative top division for the first time – a scenario that couldn’t have been envisaged ten years ago.
In 2003, financially stricken Swansea were within 90 minutes of dropping out of the Football League and into Conference football. The club survived relegation with a dramatic 4-2 win over Hull City at the old Vetch Field and were saved from bankruptcy by a fan-led consortium.
Now, the Swans play one of the most eye-catching brands of football around, having blossomed in recent years under the stewardship of Roberto Martinez, then Brendan Rodgers and now Denmark great Michael Laudrup. They also won the League Cup last season – the first major trophy in the club’s history.
“The rise of Swansea from nearly getting knocked out of the Football League to rising to the top half of the Premier League and winning a League Cup is a great story,” Swansea winger Nathan Dyer said, “and our recent success has been amazing for the club and Welsh football.”
Cardiff have also had their financial problems. In 2006, the club was under serious threat of administration but rebounded well and after knocking on the door of the Premier League for a number of seasons finally achieved promotion to England’s top flight last season for the first time in 51 years.
But while Swansea look like they are here to stay, trouble appears to be around the corner for Cardiff. Reports of meddling in team affairs by Malaysian owner Vincent Tan continue to hover over the club and have placed Mackay – one of British football’s most highly rated young managers – in a sticky position.
In the past month, a close friend of the Scot, Iain Moody, was replaced as Cardiff’s head of recruitment by a friend of Tan’s son who has no previous football experience and was on work experience this summer painting the walls of Cardiff’s stadium. The new head of recruitment, Alisher Apsalyamov from Kazakhstan, is reported to have stepped aside this week while the Home Office investigates his visa. “Nothing surprises me,” a clearly frustrated Mackay said yesterday.
A wary Laudrup knows derby day success would be the perfect tonic for Cardiff’s off-field turmoil. “I don’t think I am the one capable of answering what is happening off the pitch at Cardiff,” he said. “There can be a lot of things going on but for the game you park everything and play the game to try and win, which is much more important than what happens off the pitch.”
A win would give Cardiff fans some good news to cheer, as the Dane, a veteran of El Clasico and Turin showdowns, himself acknowledged when asked what constitutes a good derby. “A win, then it is perfect,” he said. “It’s the same all over, whether you are in Wales, Denmark, Holland or Spain, the feelings and emotions always make it something different.
“Afterwards you have the winner where you can be on top for a week. During the game it will be very tight, the atmosphere of the stadium is something different for a derby, but it’s still a football game where you have to try and win”
Both Mackay and Laudrup are getting ready for a special occasion, but the spectre of violence is never far from this match. In 1993, Swansea fans ripped up seats and threw them at Cardiff supporters in horrific scenes that led to the game being dubbed the “Battle of Ninian Park.” Visiting fans were banned for the next four years.
In 2009, a referee was struck by a coin during the derby and a number of fans were arrested for public-order offences the last two times the teams have met. “The rivalry between Swansea and Cardiff is frightening,” said Warren Feeney, who played for both teams. “I really don’t think people realise how bad it is.”
Police officers will be deployed across Cardiff, while Swansea fans can only claim their tickets for the match if they board special buses that will have a police escort. Police call the tactic a “bubble trip” and use it for certain matches where violence is expected.
There’ll be plenty more at stake tomorrow than simply three points.