Mess with my club? Easy, tiger!
Hull City’s Assem Allam, who wants to change the club’s name to Hull Tigers, is just the latest owner to trample on the view of fans.
Would you trade tradition for success? That’s the dilemma facing football’s green-eyed wannabes desperate to establish themselves in the big boys’ league. Premiership new boys, Hull City and Cardiff City would be languishing in the Football League if it wasn’t for the financial largesse of their foreign owners, Assem Allam and Vincent Tan. These men ought to be adored, but both are reviled for riding roughshod over sacred club traditions. I’m totally with the Hull and Cardiff fans on this question. Not because I’m a blind devotee to tradition – it is possible to break with tradition, sometimes radically. What matters is how you go about it. And treating your own fans with contempt is definitely the wrong way to do it.
Vincent Tan, Cardiff’s Malaysian owner, is a case study in mismanagement. He has poured millions into the club, but his decision to change the club shirt from blue to red has sparked angry protests by Cardiff fans. If you want to understand why the fans are upset, take a gander at the Cardiff page on the Historical Football Kits website. If you’re a sad football obsessive with an unhealthy fascination with football kits, you’ll probably be familiar this site. Look, I’ll hold my hand up. I’m a regular visitor myself. It’s very more-ish. And it does what it says on the tin: it charts the evolution of British football kits. You will learn, for instance, that, while Cardiff City’s shorts have changed colour – alternating from blue to white – the club shirt has remained the same colour – blue – for over a century. Vincent Tan’s decision to switch to red shirts in 2012 was nakedly commercial. He wanted to attract fans in the Far East where red is regarded as a lucky colour.
The desire to build a brand which is attractive to overseas markets is also behind Assem Allam’s plan to change Hull City’s name to Hull Tigers. In what must go down as a contender for understatement of the season, manager Steve Bruce admitted: ‘I don’t think he quite understands the history and tradition.’ The Hull manager has urged supporters to set aside their protests for the good of the club. ‘I think the chairman has put something like £70million into this club, so without him there wouldn’t be a club or a Hull City.’ However, Allam’s arrogant dismissal of opposition to the name-change has only served to fuel supporter discontent. Allam has described City fans who unfurled a banner against the name change as ‘hooligans’. His curt response to the launch of the ‘City Till We Die’ campaign was to declare: ‘They can die as soon as they want, as long as they leave the club for the majority who just want to watch good football.’
The lesson one might draw from Hull and Cardiff is that football traditions are sacred and inviolable. However, if you browse the Historical Football Kits website, you’ll see that, while some clubs have retained the same colours for decades, others have radically reinvented themselves. Leeds United have only sported their iconic all-white strip since 1960. Prior to that, the team had worn various combinations of blue and yellow. It was manager Don Revie’s decision to adopt Real Madrid’s all-white strip. The revamp wasn’t regarded as sacrilege because, at the time, Leeds had little history or tradition worth boasting about. For much of the twentieth century, Leeds was more of a rugby-league city. It was Revie who transformed Leeds into a major football power and it was he who created what we now regard as its history and traditions.
My own club, Crystal Palace, has also reinvented itself in the modern era. Palace’s colours had been claret and blue for most of the club’s history. However, in 1973, manager Malcolm Allison adopted Barcelona-style red and blue stripes and changed the club’s nickname from the staid Glaziers to the more aggressive-sounding Eagles. In 1976, the home kit was changed again to an all-white strip with a red and blue sash – in my view, one of the most elegant kits in the history of football. As with Leeds, the break with tradition wasn’t problematic for Palace supporters. Until the 1970s, Palace was a club without an illustrious history, never having played in the top flight until 1969. The overhaul of the club’s image appealed to fans because it represented a fresh start. The new image felt modern, ambitious and dynamic.
We football fans quite rightly bristle at the word ‘rebranding’, with its commercial connotations. Football as we see it isn’t a business in the normal sense. We are fans, not customers. We are active participants in the matchday drama – the ‘twelfth man’ – not passive consumers. Switching club allegiances is not an option either. Devotion to a football club is not the same as brand loyalty to Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Following a football team isn’t simply something we do. It defines us. It’s part of our identity. And although fans may not legally own our clubs, we claim moral ownership. The football club ‘belongs’ to us, to our town or city.
This is a concept which is clearly lost on Vincent Tan and Assem Allam. That’s why they don’t see the need to give fans any stake or involvement in the rebranding. It’s fair to say that consulting fans isn’t Assem Allam’s style. Failing to engage fans is not an oversight; Allam doesn’t care a jot what fans want. When asked by a journalist about fan opposition to the name change, Allam ranted that ‘no one on earth is allowed to question how I do my business’. Even in a conventional business, it would be commercial suicide to treat your customers with such contempt.
It isn’t just foreign owners who get rebranding wrong. Newcastle owner Mike Ashley caused a storm on Tyneside when he renamed St James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena. Everton, a club owned by Scouser and lifelong fan Bill Kenwright, enraged its fans by changing the club crest without consulting them. Both clubs were forced to backtrack on these decisions. By contrast, Crystal Palace unveiled a new kit and club crest this season to a warm reception from supporters. Why? Because the owners talked to the fans. They used Twitter and posted on the fan messageboards. They invited fans to vote on different kit and crest options. It’s not rocket science. The owners recognise that football is nothing without its fans. They also know that fans are prepared to embrace modernisation if they are involved in a dialogue rather than given an ultimatum. Palace’s owners might not have the financial clout of Vincent Tan or Assem Allam. The club might get relegated. But you know what? I’d rather go down than see the soul ripped out of my football club.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.