In a tale of two cities, the poisonous rivalry between Cardiff and Swansea is deep-rooted and strays into all sorts of grievances
For Vincent Tan, the first top-flight match between Cardiff City and Swansea City promises to be quite an eye-opener, unless anybody has gone to the trouble of explaining to the Malaysian why neither club is in the business of rolling out the red carpet. "I don't understand why they are so upset with each other," Cardiff's owner said about the two Welsh clubs on the eve of the season. "I would like to really welcome them here, we should give them as warm a welcome as possible and when we go there we want them to give a warm welcome."
Back in the real world 2,200 Swansea supporters will report to the Liberty Stadium at noon on Sunday. Half an hour later 47 coaches, accompanied by a police escort, will make the 40-mile trip east along the M4. Match tickets will be issued on board and after stopping off at a designated holding point not too far from the ground, a handful of coaches at a time will complete the final stage of the journey to Cardiff City Stadium.
The whole operation is organised with military precision and, assuming everything goes to plan, the two sets of supporters will not get anywhere near each other.
Anyone wondering what would happen if those hell-bent on causing trouble were able to come face to face need look no further than the YouTube footage of a Saturday afternoon at Newbury Festival in July last year. A brawl broke out involving 50 to 60 Cardiff and Swansea supporters and lasted for 15 minutes in full view of the main grandstand.
By the time police arrived at the racecourse to gain control, there were men stumbling around in blood-stained suits. It is, in short, little wonder that the police and both clubs have come to the conclusion that "bubble trips" are the only way to control these fixtures.
"We haven't walked the streets of each other's ground for 15 years," says Annis Abraham, a reformed hooligan who was part of Cardiff's notorious Soul Crew firm in the 1980s and has been a season-ticket holder at the club for 41 years. "People say the police are ruining it; they're not. I don't stick up for the police usually but they're preventing a bloodbath. As much as I detest the way they're brought in at Cardiff and we're brought in at Swansea, it is needed."
This poisonous rivalry transcends football. It is also a tale of two cities. The enmity is deep-rooted and strays into all sorts of grievances, right down to why Cardiff, the capital city, got the Senedd (Welsh Assembly) and Swansea, the poor relation, ended up with a new swimming pool. "It is two cities that choose not to get on with each other from a sporting point of view, and a political and cultural aspect as well," says Alan Curtis, who played for both clubs between 1972 and 1990 and is now first-team coach at Swansea.
"I think Cardiff has always been perceived, in most parts of Wales, to receive whatever funding is going around. To be fair, Cardiff now is a beautiful city. It seems to me that everything gets channelled in that direction, even things like the Welsh Assembly. Cardiff didn't want that and the city of Swansea did and was prepared to house it.
"I just think there's always been this perception that Cardiff are seen as the Big Daddy, so to speak. I remember Sam Hammam talking a couple of years ago about 'our little cousins down the road'."
Hammam, who was Cardiff's owner between 2000 and 2006, and is now back at the club as life president, made several patronising comments during his time at Ninian Park, including one particular remark, in August 2000, that came back to haunt him. "Swansea will never be a big club and if they are being honest with themselves they will say so," Hammam said. "If Swansea fans are Welsh and want to see top-class football in Wales, then they should recognise that Cardiff is the only Welsh club with a cat in hell's chance of making it."
In truth, for the previous 15 years neither club had looked like getting anywhere near the top flight. Swansea finished sixth in the old First Division in 1982 but dropped like a stone and by 1986 were back in the fourth tier along with Cardiff. The landscape was bleak. Times were hard, the once-thriving south Wales coal-mining industry was collapsing and football hooliganism was rife.
Running battles between supporters were the norm. In 1988, Swansea fans chased a group of Cardiff supporters into the sea after fighting broke out following a game at the Vetch Field. Accounts of what happened that night vary wildly – Abraham claims that nine Cardiff teenagers were up against 100 "Jacks" – but singing "swim away", complete with the breaststroke action, has been Swansea's favourite way of goading their rivals ever since.
The violence reached a tipping point in 1993. Two years after 39 fans had been arrested amid ugly scenes in an FA Cup tie at the Vetch, Cardiff and Swansea supporters clashed in what became known as "The Battle of Ninian Park". Images of Swansea fans tearing out seats in the grandstand and using them as missiles as Cardiff supporters invaded the pitch to confront them were plastered across national newspapers.
"The hooligans had their day," says Jason Perry, who was playing for Cardiff at the time. "The Swansea fans started to throw seats towards the family enclosure. My wife was there and she was pregnant, so players that weren't involved had to take her away to safety. That was a low moment for me.
"You look back and shake your head. Cardiff have to take responsibility that day for their organisation. Women and children were affected and hence you had a response from the Cardiff supporters, which I'm not condoning. It was a sad day, which resulted in away fans being banned. It's done right now but in the dark old days it really was nasty."
The football was almost as depressing and by the end of the 1997-98 season Swansea and Cardiff were close to rock bottom. Swansea finished 88th on the league ladder. Cardiff were one rung lower, in 89th place. Interest in the derby had dwindled – 6,459 turned up at Ninian Park and 5,621 watched the return fixture at the Vetch. The ill-feeling, though, remained.
"Hatred isn't a tough enough word," says Andy Legg, a former Swansea player who signed for Cardiff that season and received threats as well as razor blades in the post. "I was substitute for my first game and Frank [Burrows, the Cardiff manager] said: 'Go and warm up.' I went to warm up and got absolutely hammered by the Cardiff fans.
"I can remember scoring my first goal, against Plymouth, I went to celebrate in front of our fans and they hurled abuse at me, a couple of people spat. Eventually I won people over and they were absolutely fantastic to play in front of, but it was tough at first."
At the start of the 21st century significant changes were taking place in the boardrooms. Hammam took over at Cardiff and promised the world. By the time he departed six years later Cardiff were in the Championship but also in a financial mess. Peter Ridsdale took over as chairman and claimed that Cardiff were £35m in debt – much of which was owed to Langston Corporation, a company that Hammam was involved with – and losing £10m a year.
The catalyst for Swansea's revival came in 2002 when Tony Petty, the club's Australian owner, who had tried to sack players to cut costs, was forced out as fans took to the streets to protest. A group of local businessmen who were lifelong fans, together with the supporters' trust, took control and, after the debts were cleared through a company voluntary agreement, set about rebuilding the club.
The problems, however, were not solved overnight. A year later Swansea were 90 minutes away from being relegated from the Football League.
James Thomas, who now works as an ambulance driver, answered an emergency of a different kind when he scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Hull City. Swansea never looked back. They won promotion under Kenny Jackett two years later and, in another hugely significant moment in their history, left behind the decrepit Vetch at the end of that season and moved to the Liberty Stadium, which was built by Swansea city council.
"Without that [new stadium], we would never have got to where we are today," Huw Jenkins, Swansea's chairman, says. "The old Vetch was so poor in its conditions, we had hardly any women or children watching. The new stadium provided motivation for everybody, so we can't thank our local authority enough, that they had the foresight to believe that the football club could help to enhance the city. Hopefully we've paid them back by getting a lot of great publicity for the area as a whole."
Swansea's profile was changing on as well as off the pitch. Roberto Martínez was brought in as manager in 2007 and introduced the tiki-taka football that is now part of the club's DNA. By 2008, Swansea had joined Cardiff in the Championship and the derby was back on the fixture list for the first time in nine years.
Cardiff, however, had more to worry about than Swansea's resurgence. Although they reached the FA Cup final in 2008, when they lost to Portsmouth, financial problems were mounting. Ridsdale oversaw Cardiff's relocation to a new stadium in 2009 but the following year fans were calling for him to resign after feeling badly let down by a "golden ticket" scheme that was supposed to lead to money being spent on players but ended up being used to clear debts.
The season ended up with high-court battles to stave off winding-up orders over unpaid taxes to HM Revenue & Customs, defeat to Blackpool in the play-off-final and Ridsdale handing control to Malaysian investors, including Tan.
Swansea continued to quietly go about their business and, in 2011, under the management of Brendan Rodgers, won promotion via the play-offs to win the race to become the first Welsh club to play in the Premier League.
For Cardiff, Tan's investment had solved the financial issues at a club that, in the words of the Cardiff director and former chairman Steve Borley, was "bouncing from one transfer window to another for survival".
But Tan's involvement also came at a price.
In the summer of 2012 he made the controversial decision to change the club's colours from blue to red. Hugely ambitious but with money to back it up, Tan put pressure on Malky Mackay to win promotion, which the Cardiff manager duly delivered.
By that stage, Michael Laudrup's Swansea side were on their way to a top-10 finish in the Premier League and, 10 years on from that do-or-die game against Hull, had claimed the first major trophy in their history, when they beat Bradford City in the Capital One Cup final in February to qualify for Europe.
It has been a remarkable journey for both clubs and one that nobody could have predicted when they were scrapping around at the bottom of the football pyramid 15 years ago.
Their renaissance has now provided the Premier League with its first match involving two clubs from outside England and presented Cardiff and Swansea with the chance to show a global television audience that the worst of enemies can put on a footballing spectacle.
"It's a fantastic achievement to have two teams in what is probably the best league in the world and it's really important both clubs put Wales in the best possible light," says Curtis.
"Between the two sets of fans there is going to be a fair amount of banter and, dare I say it, hatred.
"But I'm sure it will be nothing like the 80s. Both sets of supporters need to set the right standard, because the eyes of the world are upon us."