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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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge