Owner's meddling has included suggesting tactical changes and substitutions from the stand during Premier League matches
It was one of those press conferences that raised far more questions than it answered. Malky Mackay said as much as he felt he could in the circumstances, which included making it clear that Iain Moody, the sacked head of recruitment, was under rather than over budget this summer and outstanding at his job. But the Cardiff City manager stopped short of offering any explanation for the turbulent events that have plunged the club into crisis over the past fortnight.
In Mackay's eyes, those issues should be addressed by Simon Lim, the rarely seen chief executive who is based at the stadium and has the owner Vincent Tan's ear. On six separate occasions Mackay said that he was willing to talk only about Saturday's match at Chelsea and twice the press department intervened because a reporter dared to ask the sort of question – when will the supporters get the full story? – that those who follow the club are understandably keen to know.
In truth, it was Tan, not Mackay, who should have been pulling up a chair at the Vale of Glamorgan hotel, dealing with the fallout and apologising for the mess that has overshadowed a decent start to the season. The owner, however, is not due in south Wales until the lead-up to the home game against Swansea City on 3 November, when he will hold crunch talks with Mackay and Mehmet Dalman, the Cypriot businessman who was appointed chairman in the summer and with whom Mackay has found some common ground – "mutual respect" as the manager put it – amid the chaos that has engulfed the club. Whatever Tan has said publicly, Mackay's position remains precarious.
The owner's influence at the club stretches far and wide and, as the Guardian has learned, into territory where many will feel he has no right to be meddling. It is understood there have been occasions during this season when Tan – who recently claimed his investment in the club stands at £125m – has interfered with team matters on a matchday. Although it has not happened every week, Tan has tried to convey messages from the stand during Premier League fixtures, including suggested substitutions and tactical changes.
It is a particularly worrying development at any football club but looks even worse in the context of a filmed conversation that took place outside a high-street chemist in Malaysia earlier in the year. "He doesn't know any rules about football," Al Chuah, the managing director of one of Tan's many companies, said laughing. "He invested in pharmacy without realising what drugs are all about." Tan, smiling at his friend's comments, delivered a brief and insightful response. "It doesn't matter. It's another new business."
With no emotional attachment to football and no previous experience of operating in the game, it is perhaps not surprising that Tan has made increasingly bizarre decisions, whether that be changing Cardiff's kit colour from blue to red, replacing the head of recruitment with a 23-year-old from Kazakhstan who had been painting and decorating earlier in the summer, or undermining the talented, highly respected and universally popular manager who last season led the club back to the top flight for the first time in 51 years. Mackay, an erudite and diligent man, has been left to pick up the pieces.
"Obviously I am really sorry for our fans for what they have been through over the last couple of weeks, it has been difficult for them with their club being under the spotlight for non-footballing matters," the Cardiff manager said in his opening address. "I absolutely feel where they are coming from and I am as disappointed as they are – it is as a result of Iain Moody leaving the club.
"Iain is an absolute class act as far as I am concerned. He has done a very impressive job for the football club. In one of the periods of success, which we have been in over the last two and a half years, he has had a huge part to play in the restructuring of my squad. He helped bring in more than 20-odd players. He will be missed by everyone who works for our football club. He leaves with my utmost gratitude and respect. I would say our loss will be someone's huge gain."
Without mentioning Tan, Mackay then set the record straight on the summer transfer budget, which the owner previously suggested had been exceeded by £15m – leading some to believe that was the reason for Moody's dismissal.
"One thing I would clarify, as I have read a few things over the past couple of weeks, is that we were absolutely under budget this summer. That is what I have to say about Iain," Mackay said. "As far as I am concerned, again for clarification, under no circumstances was I asked to resign and at no time have I thought of resigning from the football club."
The feeling is that Mackay was playing with semantics when it came to his own position. It is understood that, before Moody's dismissal, Mackay was told by Tan that he should walk away from the job at the end of the season, rather than immediately. Why Tan should want to get rid of someone who is regarded as one of the brightest young managers in British football is hard for many to comprehend. One school of thought inside the club is that Tan is envious of Mackay's status and popularity.
What can be said with certainty is that Tan knew that by firing Moody he would hurt Mackay badly. Mackay and Moody had formed a close working relationship when they were together at Watford and that bond only strengthened during their time at Cardiff. Respected by Mackay and the players, Moody worked tirelessly to get deals done in the summer, making 47 flights across 60 days at one point. Cardiff spent big, breaking their transfer record three times, but the early signs are that Tan's money was invested well.
Yet from the moment that Alisher Apsalyamov put down his paintbrush and started shadowing Moody, the writing, as well as the emulsion, was on the wall at Cardiff. Apsalyamov, a friend of Tan's son, has never worked in football before but is now tasked with focusing "on gathering data on individual players". Asked whether he had met Apsalyamov or if he could explain why Moody has lost his job, Mackay replied on both occasions: "I'm only going to be talking to you about Chelsea." It was that sort of day.