In 1899, some 35 years after Wrexham had became the first football club in Wales, the cricketers of Riverside FC in Cardiff decided to take up the association game as a winter pastime. Football had played a poor second to rugby in the south since the codes split in the 1860s but was now finding favour with the large migrant working population. The town was growing rich on the coal dug from the valleys, and Cardiff was granted City status in 1905. After pottering about in the Cardiff and District and south Wales Leagues for a decade, the ambitious Riverside FC merged with Riverside Albions and laid claim to the name “Cardiff City”. After several refusals, the club secretary and driving force, Bartley Wilson finally received permission to use the new title from the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA in 1908. That only proviso was that should any club become professional in Cardiff, then Riverside would have to give up the name.
This wasn’t an idle threat. Riverside had lost 3-12 to Cwmparc in the Welsh Cup, and Aberdare, Merthyr and Treharris all had bigger claims as south Wales’ biggest clubs. Many Welsh football fans travelled regularly to watch Bristol City’s professional Division One team. Ton Pentre were one of the main local sides, and when they played a match at Bristol in 1908/09, over 1700 supporters travelled from south Wales, including 800 from Aberystwyth. Riverside were insignificant by comparison.
Riverside’s secretary was a Bristolian. And when Bart Wilson eyed up a place in the successful English Southern League, his flirtatious advance was returned. Harry Bradshaw was the Southern League secretary who toured south Wales looking for clubs to boost his young competition in 1910. He wanted a Cardiff side to enrich the League, but insisted that Wilson found a stadium. Once Lord Ninian Crichton Stuart came on board as guarantor, the deal was settled. The Southern League would get its Cardiff side, playing at the newly built Ninian Park in 1910.
The club had started wearing blue shirts even before that very first professional game at Ninian Park, probably after the merger with Albions. They had definitely discarded Riverside’s chocolate and amber quarters by the time of the very first photograph taken before 1910. Of course, there had been no protest about this change, because Cardiff City had no support base. They were a parks side who had attracted decent crowds for a few exhibition matches, but these were curious spectators, not supporters. This was a social club with little history and no identity.
The club soon became known as the Bluebirds. There is a legend that the name is related to a stage play that was popular in Cardiff in 1909, but it is likely that the Bristolian Wilson, simply started using a name that reflected that colour of the club’s shirts. Bristol City wearing red, were the Robins, so Cardiff in blue, would be the Bluebirds. To this day, Cardiff City are the only football league club ever to have used the nickname. (Barrow only started calling themselves Bluebirds in the 1980s by which time they were non-league).
With a newly professional team hired mainly from Scotland, Cardiff City immediately attracted crowds of 4-10,000. These were brand new supporters of course – plastics in modern parlance. The more established Ton Pentre, Aberdare and Merthyr drew bigger crowds. But by the time the club were accepted to the Football league in 1920, City could boast huge attendances of 30-40,000 for their games.
Cardiff’s blue shirts were plain until the 1925 Cup Final, when the City’s Royal coat of arms was sewn onto the badge as an indication of civic pride and royalist gratitude. There was no badge normally, but the coat of arms was used again in the 1927 final. The crest had also appeared on the club’s programmes during the 1922-23 season and alongside a drawing of the civic centre in 1934. This was a ‘Cardiff’ iconography, not ‘Cardiff City’ and is still worn by the City’s rugby club to this day.
The coat of arms used during the Cup Final was not the football club badge, it was a garnish for the big occasion – Sheffield United shirts also displayed their own civic crest in 1925.
And that was it until 1959 when we saw the appearance of a club badge on a Cardiff shirt for the first team photograph. The club had played in blue probably since it had first been called Cardiff City but clubs did not wear badges as a rule. Naturally, the Bluebird was Cardiff’s first badge, cementing its place as the club’s emblem – the heart of its identity.
The badge then disappeared until 1967-68, when the word ‘Bluebirds’ was stitched into the clubs shirts. And by the time Cardiff City beat Real Madrid in 1970, the shirt featured a classic, simple Bluebird on its breast. The clubs greatest moment since 1927 would be identified with that badge.
The bluebird remained on a simple round white background without any writing until 1980, when the background turned yellow for a while. Still, the badge on the shirt needed no words. Everybody knew that logo – the Bluebird was Cardiff City Football Club. It was as simple as that.
The club had been using a crest on promotional material and its programme covers since 1979, when a daffodil and a dragon were incorporated as symbols of Wales. (If my memory serves me right, cricketer Tony Lewis – the Head of the Wales Tourist Board was involved with that decision). The crest featured the Bluebird prominently, and also had the word ‘Bluebirds’ as part of the design.
By 1985, that crest started appearing on the shirts, and it stayed there unchanged for the next 18 years unchanged until a new owner arrived. Even when the crest had gone from the badge in 1994 , it was was incorporated into the thread of the shirt.
But Sam Hammam was keen to impose a new identity on the historic club, and the black and yellow colours of the St David’s cross were incorporated into the design from 2003 until 2008 when we returned to the more traditional crest.
Cardiff City’s bluebird identity lasted another three years until the news broke this Summer, that without consultation, or regard to the club’s identity and history, one man from Malaysia would be changing everything. Vincent Tan changed the club’s colours and drastically redesigned the badge to feature a dragon and a cringeworthy ‘Fire and Passion’ strapline. The bluebird was relegated in significance until a final indignity at the home game versus Brighton, when 20,000 of the club’s own supporters waved red scarves bearing the legend ‘Cardiff’ (not Cardiff City) and displaying a red bird where there used to be blue.
I no longer recognise the famous club that has played in blue since it was honoured with the title Cardiff City, and which has always been known as the Bluebirds. I suspect too that the club’s name will change over the next few years. Who knows what further insults will be thrown at the memory of Bart Wilson, Fred Stewart and the millions of other who helped build a national institution over a century, only to see it demolished in a single shameful season.