The Arms Park is overshadowed by the monstrous Principality Stadium, a ubiquitous Holiday Inn and the Westgate Street flats. The ground is hidden in the dip between two centuries worth of architectural development and the River Taff, with the fine Gwyn Nicholls’ gates at the Angel Hotel entrance offering only a hint of the sweeping grandeur and glory of years gone by. Despite being adorned with sponsors logos, it is the faceless concrete and shatterproof glass of the North Stand that offers a begrudging ‘welcome’. However energetically the fan-zone under the South Stand is promoted, it cannot escape the shadow of its overbearing neighbour. Yet for all of this, the Arms Park is a glittering oasis of history, of heritage and of high ideals. As with most history, much of it is hidden, but you only have to scratch the surface to reveal its true worth and find out the real story.
To the occasional visitor, the Arms Park offers no overt evidence of the rich tapestry that the club has weaved for the last 140 years. The odd angle of the Athletic Club, a left-over from the days that the current ground was a cricket pitch, adds to the sense of a fairly jumbled landscape. The apartments overlooking the ground-erected by the Butes in order to block the view of the ugly 1932 North Stand from the fantasy that was Cardiff Castle - provide a fine backdrop (and a better view for their residents than the members experience in their lounge). The overhanging Principality Stadium dominates the immediate skyline, as if trying to keep its smaller brother in check, but looks and feels incongruous. The visitor may be confused by the mishmash of marketing at the ground – Cardiff and Blues shaped into the seats of the North and South stands, Cardiff RFC flag flying from the clubhouse, ex-players of the club on the walls leading to the fan-zone (all post 2003) and so on. The latter suggest a recent history, the decaying infrastructure a different one.
In the good old days before access to the upstairs bar was restricted to those enjoying corporate hospitality, you would pass photos of the great teams and players of yesteryear, Cliff, Rex, Bleddyn, Jack, Gerald, and Gareth, looking down on you from their salad days, huddled together pre-Under Armour marketing and hi-performance shirts in their heavy jerseys, off-black shorts and standard black boots. The old National Stadium typically formed the backdrop to team pictures, rather like an apologetic uncle at a wedding, late for the photograph, awkwardly blending into the scenery but somehow making it complete.
A real sadness is that once you had started climbing the stairs, you had already passed an Aladdin’s cave of wonder and breathtaking richness. The Hubert Johnson room, dedicated to rugby supporters the world over, in memory of the daring feats of those players privileged to represent Cardiff Rugby. The room contains a Springbok head from South Africa, a whale’s tooth from Fiji, an All Blacks shirt from 1905 and many other treasures. On Cardiff Blues match and many other days, it is out of bounds for supporters. So secret is it that one current Cardiff Blues star allegedly did not know of its existence.
The need to preserve history is understood, the need to hide it less so. Put simply, the contents of the room should be front and centre of any visitor and every supporter experience at the Arms Park. It deserves the widest audience, and unifying Cardiff and Cardiff Blues memorabilia must be a priority.
Cardiff rugby supporters though are a funny bunch, equally ambivalent and demanding in their desire for success. Since 2003, they have been served a Tapas-like menu of choices of who to follow – Cardiff, Cardiff Blues, The Region, The Blues, the Blues Family, The Pro Team, and now the (Capital) Rugby Region once again. The menu oscillates between embarrassed backward glances towards and complete disdain for our past. It’s a tangible manifestation of a major identity crisis. Many would ask why, when we have possibly the greatest provenance of any rugby club in the world, so much effort is going into trying to develop more an inferior branding which will have no impact on either gates or affinity? It’s the first part of the Cardiff Blues name that’s the USP-check this out with rugby folk from other parts of the world if you’re in doubt-but the company seems to get this badly wrong at times. The media follows suit; certain pundits rejoice in saying ‘Blues’ but seemingly have an aversion to saying ‘Cardiff’. The sensible man’s rugby journalist, Simon Thomas, fortunately thinks differently.
For many, the marketing at Cardiff Blues is a confused mess. If the organisation cannot define what it is and promote itself accordingly, how are fans expected to strongly identify with the product? This is surely one of several factors behind dwindling attendances. There is a real risk that, in seeking to appease the absent and seemingly mythical regional fans, the club will increasingly alienate its core support by morphing into a more and more unrecognisable entity. It often seems to simply lack the confidence to celebrate who we are.
Any planned future must therefore embrace our heritage. It must recognise that a million marketing campaigns may come and go, but the successes of the past, appropriately acknowledged and encapsulated in the City name, is a more powerful narrative than any hashtag can hope to generate. The challenge for the club is to find a way to embrace this past while continuing to evolve and fulfil its broader obligations in the current landscape of Welsh rugby-but this is not the Gordian knot that is sometimes claimed. The forced fracture of 2003 is simply another step on a journey. Some on social media, most notably those who have joined this journey in recent times, tend to decry anyone who wishes to recognise our heritage; others cry foul and confidently declare, incorrectly of course, that we’re more interested in the name than our great start to the current season (Go Danny!)
Both types of critic miss the point; heritage is massively important in any sport. That’s why Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack is in its 153rd year of publication; that’s why the Cardiff City Supporters’ Trust took on Vincent Tan over the red shirt; that’s why many supporters trusts are formed; and that’s why many of the great sporting stadia in the world have income-generating museums as a key feature. If the wishes of certain Twitter glitterati come to fruition, and Cardiff become East Wales Gladiators or some such, the journey will be one that many of us will probably (and sadly) no longer be part of.
We are where we are. Let’s celebrate our pro team or regional status* (we’ll be blogging about the latter shortly), but also where we’ve come from. For us, there is absolutely no impediment to doing both. In the process, let’s encourage both the recent fans and those who have been coming to the Arms Park for decades-we need both camps to get fully behind the team and to demonstrate how much we care about Cardiff rugby. Protecting the past, embracing the future - a unity ticket! What do you think? We’d love to know.
*Delete as applicable
EXCELLENT ARTIcle. I'm from whitchurch, although LIVED in newport for 10 years and latterly port Talbot the last 11 (worked in the steel Ind.) At no time did I consider SUPPORTing ANY other regional team. I and my daughter's (live in cardiff) are SEASON ticket Holders through thick and thin.
great piece. Last night you could hear Cardiff at one point (usually when we were surging forward) or blues at other points. Definite split
I've always taken the admittedly parochial view that i support my home town team, and I don't live in blue!
He who pays the piper names the tune or in this case the team. A well written article that lays out the chronicle of the professional game and the struggle between hearts and heads. Other Pro12 teams such as the Ospreys and the Dragons seem to have also neglected their heritage, following a commercial agenda, rather than giving the supporters or their rich history any priority. However Leinster and the Scarlets have embraced the modern game with due deference to their past and present greats, with a welcome that you will always remember.
Cardiff doesn't need a shrine to Bleddyn or Gareth but a vibrant identity for the club that they helped put on the world map. I think the CF10rugbytrust could be the thread that draws the necessary groups together to make it happen.
Great article -- I entirely agree you need to know where you have come from to know where you are going... but how do you motivate the people and create the groundswell that's needed to come together?
Great article. Having watched CARDIFF since 1964, I have always wondered why the Herbert Johnson room has never been more accessible. Of course at present the clubhouse is a bit of a lottery when it comes opening times.