Rhydian Bowen Phillips is a man of many talents. His Instagram page describes him as “presenter/singer/actor/voiceover” and he can be heard on Sky and S4C, the Welsh language channel, as well as handling announcing duties at the Wales national team home games. But he is also involved with Cardiff City, Albion’s next opponents, as a fan and a presenter.
“With regards to Cardiff City, I’m presenting the end-of-season awards for the third time, and when Neil Warnock talks to groups of fans in Cardiff and the valleys, I’m the host,” he says. He is South Wales’s answer to our own Richard Reynolds, mewn geiriau eraill (in other words).
Bluebirds fans are under-represented in the world of newspapers, which may account for the absence of much sympathetic press this season until the recent home match against Chelsea, when a controversial late offside (non-)decision went in the London club’s favour.
“We are having a rough deal from the media,” Rhydian agrees. “Jason Mohammad is doing a good job sticking up for us on various BBC platforms, but Bluebirds fans are rather few and far between in the media. There is more of a tradition of musicians. The late Stuart Cable of Stereophonics was a fan, and Owen Powell from Catatonia. Matt Pritchard of Dirty Sanchez fame too and Hollywood actor Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk). And boxers – Joe Calzaghe, Nathan Cleverly, the Selby brothers.
“I find myself shouting at Match of the Day most Saturdays because we get a minimal share of the highlights. Even if we are playing one of the big clubs, ninety percent of the comment will concentrate on Liverpool or Man City or whoever our opponents are and then perhaps at the end some reference to a contentious decision that didn’t go Cardiff’s way. And that will be it.” Albion fans feel your pain, Rhydian. But there was one recent and notable exception.
“After the recent Chelsea debacle, as I would call it, fair play to the pundits – they did invest a bit of time on the red cards that weren’t shown and the offside. But then they flipped it to talking about Neil Warnock, which always happens. They took the focus off the officials to ‘How did Warnock react?’ and ‘Why did Warnock say this?’ And then ‘What will Warnock say next?’
“And that is a little unfair, because he always gets that no matter what he says. And I think what he did after that match was quite clever. He went onto the pitch but kept his distance from the officials, acknowledged the Canton Stand and the rest of the stadium as they booed, and it was some of the loudest booing I’ve heard for a long time.
“So he can be restrained although yes, he can also blow a gasket sometimes, and it would have been justifiable that day. Because those wrong decisions ultimately could cost Cardiff their place in the Premier League. I know you judge it over the whole season, but they played so well for 85 minutes in a game that nobody fancied them to win. We caught them at a good time but it just unraveled in the last five minutes or so.”
Warnock, of course, is the ultimate Marmite manager, but Rhydian is one of many admirers. “I love him. I think he’s great and you would be hard-pushed to find a Cardiff City fan that doesn’t like him. When he was first mentioned as a possible manager, you looked at the fan sites and message boards and I don’t think there was anybody who said they didn’t want him, or didn’t think he would be the right fit.
“He had always been very complimentary about us in the past, even as manager of QPR or Crystal Palace. He has told me that he loved the ferocity of Ninian Park and he feels a kinship with the supporters. He is from a working class industrial coal-mining background in Yorkshire, and calls us ‘blood-and-guts fans’ that get behind the team no matter what.
“I am from the Rhondda Valley just outside Cardiff and that is where the following is primarily from, not just the city but also the valleys, Merthyr, Bridgend, over to Port Talbot and towards Newport too. I think he feels at home. He has said that he will only leave if Vincent Tan, the owner, wants him to. I know he has retired before and he and his wife, Sharon, seem to like it here.
“If he’s not your manager, I can see that he would wind people up. But when he is, you want him on your side.”
Warnock has had a tough season off the field as well as on it, dealing with the aftermath of the fatal plane crash that robbed him of new signing Emiliano Sala. “He had done the right thing, he had gone out and found the striker, that £15m player who was going to bang in the goals. They had planned the team around him for the second half of the season.
“Then that crazy situation unfolded. Some people have almost forgotten that. I know Sala never played for Cardiff, but he went to the training ground and the stadium and as we say, ‘Once a Bluebird, always a Bluebird.’ I think that has galvanised the fanbase and the team to pull off this one last impossible miracle in his memory.
“The world’s media were focused on Cardiff, my wife and I were watching television for updates, hoping against hope that the outcome would be positive. We never met the guy but he was a Cardiff City player and it has affected the whole club.”
Speaking of Vincent Tan, has he been forgiven yet for his decision to change the club’s kit to red back in 2012, a decision he reversed in 2015? The idea behind it was that red was a lucky colour in the Far East, and he seemed to have been proved right as Cardiff made it to the Premier League for the first time. But that ascent to the pinnacle, which lasted only for the 2013-14 season, was turned to dust and ashes in the eyes of many because of the intrusion of the alien red.
“That was a difficult time,” Rhydian says. “I think he has been forgiven, but a lot of people refused to go and said: ‘That is not my team. It is not Cardiff City.’ I kept on going but didn’t wear red, didn’t touch red and didn’t want anything to do with the new badge. For me, that wasn’t the Bluebirds. The clue is in the name, isn’t it?
“I and many others kept wearing blue, all chanting ‘We’ll always be blue’ in the 27th minute because of the 1927 FA Cup final win. We kept focused and kept believing. We knew that we would get blue back sooner or later, and finally he admitted he had been wrong. He said his mother had told him off for doing it. He ultimately fell on his sword and changed it back, and for such a wealthy and powerful man, who had invested a phenomenal amount of money into this club and still continues to do so, to admit his mistake was a big thing.
“He has done a lot to put the damage right and he is seen more at games, he walks round the pitch and has selfies with the fans. But it was a strange time. People who had always stood next to each other or had always walked to games together were falling out, some saying they wouldn’t go to games, others who would. Slowly but surely people have come back and the stadium is full again now. But there is always something interesting going on at Cardiff City and always some gallows humour that goes with it and gets you through it.”
That previous Premier League season had seen the managerial debut in Britain of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who replaced Malky Mackay in January 2014. Solskjaer has been hailed as a coaching genius since replacing Jose Mourinho at Manchester United for transforming a squad of expensive and proven world-class players into a winning team, but memories of him in Cardiff are less rosy.
“Malky was relieved of his services and Ole was given free rein to spend a lot of money, to bring in a lot of names who have all since left apart from Sean Morrison, who is now club captain, and Bruno Ecuele Manga a few weeks before he left. As for the rest, they were shipped out: Fabio, Kenwyne Jones, Federico Macheda and suddenly lots of Norwegians.
“He only won three Premier League games and we finished bottom. He seemed like a nice guy but just looked out of his depth on the touchline, like someone who had been pulled out of the crowd and given a chance to manage a football team. I think what has happened at Old Trafford was a question of players suddenly having freedom after playing for Mourinho. But I think we can look back on Ole as one of the worst managerial appointments of all time.”
Warnock has done rather better and could yet keep the Bluebirds up; the Albion v Cardiff match could decide both clubs’ fates. “Neil Warnock has said that we have [five] cup finals left but you can write Liverpool and Manchester United off as free hits. In the games against Brighton, Fulham and Crystal Palace, anyone can beat anyone. But I’d like to think we will be battling for our lives. They have been unlucky at times in matches and with injuries, losing Sol Bamba and then Callum Patterson. But a Neil Warnock team will battle to the very end.
“And when you look at the amount that Fulham and Wolves have spent, it is remarkable that we are still in with a shout. It is a nice feeling for a Cardiff City fan that Fulham have gone down before us because their fans were so dismissive of our style of play as ‘not the Fulham way’ and things like that. We have our style of play and you cut your cloth. They might think they play better football, but look where they are now.”