Tag Archives: Bluebirds

The day I saw the Bluebirds play the Busby Babes

It was one of the first professional football matches I ever saw. It may even have been the very first.

The awesome magic of Manchester United was at its height back then, not just in the way they played but in the sense of expectation, admiration and sheer wonder that they inspired in spectators. My Dad took me to Ninian Park that day, 27th April, 1957, to watch United take on the team that had already infused my bloodstream with deep, irreversible loyalty and passion, the ‘Bluebirds’, Cardiff City. The teams were in the First Division, the highest tier at the time, way before the inception of the Premier League. Nine months later, two of the United players I watched would be killed in the Munich air crash. Three others were rescued by Harry Gregg.

I was reminded of that day earlier this week by the announcement of the passing away of the legendary Irish goalkeeper. Reputations were harder to earn in the days before headline writers assumed control of the national psyche. Harry Gregg wasn’t in goal that day, his place taken by Ray Wood. Quite honestly, I remember very little about the match, which is a pity, as it was obviously a bit of a nail-biter. (As a very young lad, I think I found the spectacle of the near-deafening noise of so many supporters, the vastness of the stadium and the atmosphere of seriousness and passion even more interesting than the game. My Dad kept encouraging me to watch what was going on on the pitch!).

I haven’t found any full match report, but I have discovered the timings of the United goals. They scored in the 43rd, 86th and 90th minutes. So it looks as though my beloved Bluebirds were probably 2-1 up with four minutes left on the clock. Irish international Liam Whelan, who was one of those who tragically died in Munich, scored in the 43rd minute. That would be a good time (maybe) to bring the scores level at 1-1 (I don’t know). Another guess: Cardiff went ahead again in the second half. But Scottish international Alex Dawson scored in the 86th minute, that much is sure. And Liam Whelan finished us off by scoring from the penalty spot on 90 minutes.

Liam Whelan died at the age of 22. Eddie Colman, who also played in the game I watched, was another who perished in the disaster. An England international, he was just 21. The only Welshman to play that day, Colin Webster, would certainly have gone on the Munich trip if he’d been fit, but he had ‘flu and couldn’t go.

It’s difficult to describe the depth of national mourning – across the whole of Britain – that surrounded that disaster. There wasn’t quite as much of the mind-numbing, media-fed tribalism back then. There had been twenty-three deaths in total, including players, crew members, club staff and journalists. Manager Matt Busby survived, but the list of famous players who died also included David Pegg, 22, Mark Jones, 24, Geoff Bent, 25, Tommy Taylor, 26, and team captain Roger Byrne, 28.

So when it was revealed that Duncan Edwards seemed to have survived, a collective sigh of relief went around grieving football fans. He was a true “Busby Babe”, only 21 on the date of the crash. He was without doubt one of the most admired players in the United squad, arguably in the whole of England, despite having had a couple of ‘dodgy’ games just prior to the crash. I can’t improve on the Wikipedia section on him headed Style of Play. He was highly talented all around the park and played 177 games for the club.

Although Match of the Day didn’t launch until 1964, I’d often see Manchester United featured on sports reports on TV. Now millions tuned into news broadcasts on the BBC Home Service (precursor of BBC Radio 4) to hear the latest updates. Initially it appeared that Duncan Edwards would recover from his injuries. As the situation with the other survivors – and most notably that of Matt Busby himself – became clearer, the whole focus of news reports about the crash eventually switched to the condition of Duncan Edwards (see right – photo of the statue of Edwards in the centre of his home town of Dudley). Every morning, I’d wait for the 8.00 am news broadcast. Invariably it included an update on Edwards’ condition, such was the level of public interest. At first things looked good and after the first week he seemed to be making a recovery. But then reporters became less optimistic. His condition took a turn for the worse. On the morning of 21st February the lead story told of his death, which had happened overnight. That was a highly emotional moment for me and millions of others. I don’t want to overstate the extent of national mourning, but looking back it does have just a tinge of the kind of feelings engendered by the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. I think emotions were heightened by the two weeks he spent fighting to survive.

Although tributes to Harry Gregg were fulsome, for me they didn’t entirely do him justice. “He went back into the ‘plane and saved a number of people” doesn’t really describe his courage. And he was a very courageous player, by the way. Those were the days when ‘keepers were far less protected by the rules of play. It was perfectly legitimate to barge into a goalkeeper and bundle him over the line. Nowadays I sometimes wonder if giving a goalkeeper a dirty look can result in a red card.

Trapped in the wreckage at first, Gregg managed to prise himself out of the twisted metal. He ignored shouted orders to get away from the plane for fear of explosion. In fact, he clambered back into the shattered shell of the blazing aircraft to undertake a series of rescues. Amongst those he pulled to safety were Vera Lukić, pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, and her daughter, Vesna, together with the three other players that I’d seen play – Albert Scanlon, Ray Wood and Dennis Viollet – as well as Jackie Blanchflower and the now-legendary Bobby Charlton. According to reports, Charlton and Viollet were unconscious, Gregg dragging them from the plane by the waist-bands of their trousers.

Sport, in general, and football, in particular, has a way of creating lasting memories, whether for the onlooker or the participant. My memory of the match I attended has all but faded; but what happened nine months or so later, and the aftermath, will stay with me as long as I live.


Image credits

Busby Babes last match – public domain – see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Busby_babes_last_match.jpg

Munich crash –
Deutsch: Crash des BEA Fluges 609 am Flughafen Riem, MünchenFotofuzzy1 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Duncan Edwards
ChrisTheDude / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

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The marketing own goal that is Vincent Tan’s re-branding of Cardiff City

Revising the packaging of a brand is a sure-fire way of rekindling interest in a product that has flagging sales.

Having earned a living in marketing all my working life, I’ve often been involved in ad. campaigns that have been not so much about launching a product, as about “old product development”. Perhaps the most memorable for me was Lucozade, where in 1982 I was part of the team at the Leo Burnett ad. agency which re-positioned that (sugar-and-water) drink so that it would no longer be seen only as an “in sickness” tonic. Before the relaunch, Lucozade itself was in very poor health. But the bottles were re-designed, cans began to appear, the labelling changed, the price went up to pay for our TV adverts. – and the rest has been history …

Campaign letterWhen Vincent Tan bought Cardiff City (the “Bluebirds”) in May 2010, there was very little wrong with the product. Tan promised £100 million investment in the football club, to include a new stadium and a new training ground. All that has come to pass, Cardiff spent last season in the Premier League and, despite the fact that they were relegated back to the Championship after just one campaign, of late Tan has been prepared to take out his cheque book whenever necessary to bring in new players.

Now clearly this billionaire didn’t become so financially successful by being over-sensitive about people’s feelings. One of his more outrageous actions, in December last year, was to sack the coach who had guided Cardiff into the top flight, Malky Mackay being generally acknowledged to be the best manager the club has ever had. The pretext was that Mackay was promising to bring in new players, without consulting the owner, shortly after his own assistant had been sacked for an apparent overspend. It all sounded like financial mismanagement and poor communication systems within the higher echelons of the club. An inspiring leader of men, with more than a touch of genius when it came to the nitty-gritty of football strategy and tactics, Mackay and his talents were wasted on the bonfire of Tan’s vanities.

But Tan had infuriated the supporters even more by striking a blow at the very essence of the club – its colours. Under what has proven to be a quite erroneous impression that changing the kit colour to red would make the Bluebirds more attractive to potential new supporters in the Far East, Tan insisted that the club kit be changed from blue to red.

The fans’ fury was manifest in all sorts of ways, including marches in the city centre, letters to the press and a storm of anger on social media. But strangely the most effective and visible show of discontent has been a kind of Ghandian passive resistance. Supporters have simply refused to wear the new colours. Each home match is surrounded by a sea of blue.


What Mr. Tan doesn’t seem to get is that the fans are investors too. Aside from their purchase of season tickets, theirs is an emotional investment, a burning passion mostly founded in a very strong sense of identification with the city where they live, were born or in some other way identify with. In Cardiff, a capital city into which all aspects of Welsh culture are continuously funnelled from the surrounding valleys, that passion is more intense than is found at most sporting grounds.

This is what occurred to me last night, as I sat listening to the commentary of the first match of the 2014/15 season, an away game at Blackburn Rovers, which ended in a 1-1 draw. So many new names to get used to – new players signed during the summer. Little do the new boys realise, I thought, that there’s a secret weapon waiting for them when they play their first match at the Cardiff City Stadium, against Huddersfield on August 16th.

The roar of support from the Cardiff fans takes everyone by surprise; it’s often referred to by radio commentators visiting the ground for the first time. It’s intimidating for visiting teams and must be worth at least a one goal advantage to the home side. It’s what the Cardiff City brand is really all about. Players, managers and owners will come and go – it’s passion and heritage that makes this product what it is. Each fan is caught by a different set of emotional ties in supporting Cardiff City. The passion has an ugly side, I suppose, in that Cardiff supporters en masse have got a reputation for being prone to violence at away games. But even politicians aren’t immune from it – it’s what got ex-Labour party leader Neil Kinnock forcibly removed from his seat at the Fulham ground last season.

Defacing this cultural icon by changing the colour of the team kit may appear a deranged act; but in reality it’s probably just a marketing own goal. Longer term it won’t affect the club. No new owner in his right mind would decide to stick with the colour red in the face of the tide of blue that floods into the Cardiff City stadium for every home match. Indeed, fiddling about with the shirts and shorts just makes the supporters even more determined to protect their heritage: the more Tan says red, the more the fans say blue.

There never was anything wrong with this particular old product. It’s nice to have all that money spent on the stadium; it would be good to be back in the “Prem”; but ironically none of that really matters to Cardiff City’s main consumers.

If you really want to see whether Cardiff City is in need of some old product development, just go to a home match, stand in the crowd – and look around.

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Filed under Cardiff City, Football, Marketing