I went back to the Arms Park last week. Mrs Griffin, an emigrant Gwenta, had never experienced the full hit. What better way to mark Valentine’s Day early than to take her to the North Terrace after a romantic burger and four pints of Dark in the City Arms? So to the Arms Park went this lucky woman, whose hitherto life-forming rugbyexperiences had been supporting the blue and black of Newbridge losing at home, or casting evil looks at the pods of cowboy-hatted and muffin-rolled shrieking ladies chatting through Six-Nations games on their spangly mobile phones. How did it go?
Friday night was a fabulous, standing, soggy-footed, icy-blasted, burger-aromaed, advertising-board-banging success.
Of course I’m biased, because Cardiff Arms Park is special for me. And reserving every rugby man’s right to recount a personal rugby story of only marginal relevance and less interest, here’s mine.
To borrow a phrase, given that as a rugby referee I have passed from rising star to elder statesman without any discernable period in between, officiating at the Arms Park is quite probably the highlight of my rugby career. It will certainly be the first line of my obituary. I’d been there as supporter, schoolboy, programme seller, you name it. Once I had been raised to the ranks of the select elite of the Cardiff & District Society of Rugby Referees and proved myself not to be a complete plonker with a flag or whistle, I ran the line at Cardiff Arms Park as a touch-judge, in the days before earpieces and proper tidy assistant referees from neutral countries, for three Cardiff home games. The fact I was a Cardiff supporter in private life was entirely irrelevant, because you see two teams on the pitch and you’re too busy clocking offside lines, protecting kickers and reminding the slowly rising floor-stragglers of their social obligation not to give their fellow man a poke once the ball’s gone away. The true personal glow that one losing side was Cambridge University was only revealed when your correspondent (MA Oxon) joined the players for a couple of pints afterwards in a crown-encrusted tie. But my God, it was an experience to be part of those games.
Now, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the board of the Blues, and of Cardiff City. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place on this one. I don’t pretend to know how the money stacks up, or what getout clauses, break penalties, or obligations they need to juggle.
I also don’t have any truck with those purists who think the corporate element is bad for our game. I’m a corporate affairs chap. I do spread collars and silk ties, warm handshakes and proper shoes, wool coats and decent food in formal entertainment. I get that you have to do things well for your major clients, and I’ve been on both ends of it working for A Big Corporation. But true hospitality involves giving your guests something personal and special. You can’t do it in a sterile, half-empty, manufactured stadium. It matters if you have something of yourself in the experience for them, and you get that at Cardiff Arms Park.
You see, I’m also a rugby man. Atmosphere matters. Fans do buy an experience. And it’s pretty damned impossible to have that experience with rows of empty seating in a stadium. They need to come back to Cardiff Arms Park, and do it soon. Because it’s home.