It’s all over now baby blue

Cardiff City’s switch from blue to red is a depressing reminder of what’s wrong with modern football.

"In order to show proper respect for your future, you must sometimes show some insensitivity to your past”. Such were the words and rationale of Roberto Goizueta, the former CEO of The Coca Cola Company, who 27 years ago changed the formula of the world’s most popular soft drink and launched a new product, imaginatively named "New Coke". At the time Goizueta and his team were faced with a dilemma: the Pepsi challenge was in full flow and consumers seemed receptive to the idea of switching from Coke to its sweeter, blue packaged alternative. Fearing a loss of ascendency in the fizzy drinks duopoly the company took decisive action and in April 1985, amid great fanfare, Coca Cola was replaced by New Coke. 79 days and some 400,000 complaints later though, the original drink returned.

Fans of Cardiff City FC will be hoping the backlash to the announcement of their own rebranding yields similar results. From next season, the team nicknamed the Bluebirds will play their home games in a red kit bearing a new club crest.  The switch from red to blue has been enforced as a condition of investment from Cardiff’s Malaysian owners, who feel the changes will “help [Cardiff] develop its brand and to allow it to expand its appeal to as wide an audience as possible”. Due to its association with prosperity and good fortune, red is seen as more attractive colour in the Far Eastern markets identified by the club as potentially lucrative. Although it may sound like marketing spiel borrowed from HSBC’s “the world’s local bank” campaign, Cardiff are adamant that they need to go along with this rebranding exercise to  “safeguard the immediate and long-term future of the club.”

It’s fair to say the reaction from fans has been less than enthusiastic. In an effort to prevent their clubs nickname – the Bluebirds - becoming a painful and ironic reminder of what once was, supporters fought an unsuccessful campaign to keep Cardiff blue. Even for those who have taken the pragmatic approach - arguing a financially secure Cardiff City that plays in red is better than a potentially insolvent Cardiff City that plays in blue – last week’s announcement can hardly be considered a victory. Instead, it’s a rather depressing example of football’s financial realities running roughshod over supporter sentiment and years of tradition.

Unlike Cardiff, in the two years prior to the disastrous launch of New Coke, Coca Cola extensively canvassed its customers’ opinions about the proposed change. Over 200,000 Americans participated in taste tests, the results of which compelled Goziueta to boldly describe the launch of New Coke as “the surest move ever made”. There problem was that while Coca Cola had been making sure people liked the way their new drink tasted, they had neglected to consider customers’ sentimental attachment to the (old) brand. Unusually, the spectacular U-Turn that followed proved mutually beneficial to all parties. So pleased were customers to get their much loved product back, that they bought it in huge numbers, revitalising Coke’s stagnating sales and consolidating the company at the top of the pop pyramid. Indeed such was the speed with which Coca Cola snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the New Coke debacle, that many have speculated that the entire episode was a marketing ploy from day one.

Sadly for Cardiff the world’s conspiracy theorists have yet to devise a plausible scenario in which this colorful saga turns out to be anything other than what it is: the epitome of all that’s wrong with modern football. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano described the game as “a primordial symbol of collective identity”. Alan Sugar said it’s “the only business in the world where it's embarrassing to make money”. In a roundabout way both men made the same point: football is exceptional. It’s a game where fans’ emotional ties and tribal allegiances to clubs, their traditions, heritage and yes, the colour in which they play, takes precedence over commercial activities and the will to turn a greater profit. Except it isn’t. Football’s sacred cows have been on auction to the highest bidder for some time now. Clubs have moved cities, changed names, ceased to exist. The beautiful game has been contaminated by ugly language:  leveraged buy-outs; administration; liquidation. For their owners, clubs are no longer symbols of local pride; they are global brands, whose merchandising potential must be maximized at all costs.

In 1985 fearing dissent among its customer base Coca Cola relented to their will. In 2012, the course of action taken by Cardiff’s owners shows, in black and white, that shirt sales in Asia are more important than the views of fans from the city whose name the club bears. And when the leopard’s spots are up for sale, it’s a sign that the tail must be well and truly wagging the dog.

Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff City will be wearing red next season Photograph: Getty Images
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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.