Saturday, 7 April 2018

Cardiff Cardiff'd It

Cardiffing (v): to singlehandedly, and spectacularly, cock up the end of every footballing season. 

2008/09 - Cardiff need a mere two points from four games to qualify for the play-offs. They manage to get just the one, thus missing out to Preston on goals scored, having been battered at Deepdale 6-0 within those four games. They also lose 3-0 in the last ever game at Ninian Park. 

2009/10 - City reach the play-off final but somehow, even after taking the lead twice, succumb to Blackpool, a side who by their own admission were not Premier League material. 

2010/11 - With Craig Bellamy and England international Jay Bothroyd spearheading their attack, Cardiff again make the play-offs and, having secured a credible draw away in the first-leg, Wembley surely beckoned once more. Nope. We lost. 0-3. 

2011/12 - League Cup glory. Well nearly. City lose a penalty shootout to Liverpool in the final. But that was just a day out - it was all about promotion. The play-off/Cardiff pairing was going to be a trilogy and, just like its two predecessors, it would end in heartbreak, the Bluebirds going down 5-0 to West Ham.

2012/13 - We actually won the league but it didn't matter because we were playing in red and everything was shit. 

2013/14 - We got relegated from the Premier League, finishing last, but it didn't matter because we were playing in red and everything was shit.  

It's fair to say that Cardiff fans may have become used to witnessing some truly awful footballing occasions in April and May.

But last night took the piss. And I mean it proper took the piss. There's Cardiffing and then there's last night's Cardiffing. 

I was confident before the game. Walking towards the Cardiff City Stadium after a pre-match pint in the Napier, I was sure of a City win and that this would be one of the most memorable nights in the relatively short history of our ground. 

I was half right. 

A big crowd, a crunch match, an in-form team and Neil Warnock in our dugout, I thought we'd not only come out victorious, but do it somewhat convincingly. 

I know, I know, what was I thinking? Hadn't years of following City taught you anything?  

Evidently not. 

What makes it harder to stomach, however, is that the first half did nothing to convince me that my prediction was wishful thinking. 

Apart from efforts by Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota, Neil Etheridge went largely untroubled, with City having some good chances of their own. Albeit they looked unable to string a few passes together, I thought more than matched Wolves. 

But the second half. Jesus Christ. 

Football has a way of coming back to bite you and as soon as Neves had another free-kick opportunity moments after hilariously ballooning his first, you sort of knew what was about to happen. 

It was the kind of strike that £15m gets you. Etheridge's position could've been better, but, in stark contrast to his counterparts in blue, Neves held his composure to score an all important first goal. 

Just like at Bramall Lane on Monday, going behind didn't necessarily mean that this Warnock side would be confined to defeat. I was adamant that City would get a chance and that thought was only echoed when Helda Costa spurned a great opportunity by putting the ball just wide. 

And, just like the proverbial bus, you wait all day for one and two come at once. 

I'm not really a fan of Mike Dean. I suppose he's not really a fan of Cardiff after one of our fans threw a 50p coin at his head in 2009, but I thought he was exceptional last night. 

Dean has a reputation of being arrogant, he probably assumed the just under 30,000 crowd were there to see his refereeing rather than the game, and that, despite the talent on show, Dean was the real star. 

When the first penalty was awarded my mind quickly turned to who was going to take it. 

Whittingham?, I thought, clearly not over the fact he doesn't play for us anymore and hasn't for quite some time. Ralls? No, injured. Zohore? No, subbed. 

It came down to three: Joe Bennett, Aron Gunnarsson, Anthony Pilkington. 

Gary Madine didn't even enter my thought process. I knew he took penalties at Bolton, but I felt there were better options at our disposal. 

Sure enough, with only a short run up, the strike didn't have the power and was saved well by John Ruddy. 

Ah well, penalties are missed all the time. Never mind, we go again at Villa Park.

But no.

Dean gave us another crack at redemption, this time in textbook Hollywood fashion. A lengthy blow of the whistle, a stern hand in the direction of the spot. Simply box office stuff. 

Not quite up there with the 'Welcome to the Premier League' whistle he does at the end of play-off finals, but it's close. 

Again, I referred to my list of three players to take this one. Bennett had a great game, Gunnarsson won it and has the bottle of a Viking, and Pilkington was in confident mood following his exploits in Sheffield. 

I wasn't too unhappy to see Junior Hoilett positioning the ball. He's one of the best in the league and I was sure that we couldn't miss two injury time penalties, not remembering I support Cardiff City. 

I'm glad he went for power, if Ruddy had saved this one it somehow would've been even worse. It's hard to describe the feeling of seeing the ball deflect off the bar. It was eerily similar to how I felt after the Wales v Ireland game in October. Empty. 

As seats were punched and fans streamed out of the exits, it was easy to think that this could start a capitulation but I cannot see this side repeating the feats of City sides of yesteryear. 

Cardiff gave Wolves, who are the best side in the league, a decent game and should've got a point. The difference was simply the individual quality. Neves looked a cut above even before his goal and there's no doubt in my mind that he will shine in the Premier League next year. 

How much of a psychological blow this will be remains to be seen. But, if there's any side that can bounce back from a setback like this, it's this Cardiff one under the watchful eye of Neil Warnock. 

The ending of the game was a complete non-story. I agree that Nuno should, in an ideal world, show respect with a handshake and then celebrate with his club.

However, if I was manager of City and my title rivals had just missed two last minute penalties, not only would I have not shaken the manager's hand, I'd be bolluck naked in the away end crowd surfing on the advertising hoardings. Passion. 

It's noteworthy that Warnock's rant at Nuno is what's being talked about rather than our players shortcomings in terms of composure, arguably taking the pressure off them ahead of Tuesday. 

It's those subtle but important things the experienced Warnock does that makes me confident that he will not let this define our season and add this campaign to the list of calamities mentioned at the start of this piece. 

Hopefully, as we sip on some post-promotion beers in May, we can look back at last night and laugh just like the rest of the world is. 

"Remember when we missed two last minute penalties to lose at home to Wolves?"

"Yeah mate, that was peak Cardiffing"

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

City ease past Leeds

It's a simple rule of mine: never put Cardiff on an accumulator.

When we faced a woeful Rotherham last year - a game we eventually won 5-0 - I wasn't particularly comfortable with adding City to my weekend flutter. Likewise, if Cardiff ever ended up playing Barcelona and were nailed on to lose, I couldn't bring myself to bet against my own team.

However, for the first time in my life last night, I broke that rule.

I put Cardiff to win, and, in an even more surprising twist, I put them to win 4-0, such was my confidence.

Cardiff v Leeds United has been a fixture that has nearly always seemed to go our way. The Yorkshire side have only won here three times in 70 years, with two of those coming in the last two campaigns.

But, as we made our way through a massed pre-match Canton, I remarked to the group that there's no way Leeds can make it three victories on the bounce in south Wales.

I also mentioned that, despite being top and rightly getting some plaudits, Leeds were yet to face a team with genuine promotion credentials. They've had a relatively light start and, although there are no 'easy' games in the Championship, there are certainly teams that offer sterner tests, and places that are not quite as welcoming as others.

With little to compare in regards to Leeds v the Premier League hopefuls, the only game you could read into ahead of last night was their game at Millwall.

Leeds fans probably don't get much of a welcome anywhere but, at The Den and Cardiff City Stadium, the hospitality is arguably 'spikier' than most when the Whites are in town.

At Millwall, a physical side with a pressing style that makes them somewhat similar to Cardiff, Leeds failed to cope and succumbed to a 1-0 defeat. In a way that is very similar to Wolves, United have the possession and the passing stats, but, when they have it "up em", they struggle.

With our record against Leeds, the fact we were due a win against them at home, the Neil Warnock factor, and the predicted attendance despite the Sky broadcast, I could only see a Bluebirds win.

In true Cardiff City fashion, that optimism was spoiled at 18:45, a full hour before a ball was due to be kicked, when the club app revealed that our centre-midfield duo of Joe Ralls and Aron Gunnarsson were not only missing from the starting line-up, but not even on the bench.

Gunnarsson has always been a favourite of mine, but Ralls, who I regularly slated last year, has become one of the key components in this Cardiff machine.

Their replacements: Sol Bamba, Craig Bryson and Loic Damour had the makings of an industrious unit, but I struggled to see where our creativity would come from to break down a previously solid Leeds defence.

Through my time at university in northern England, I have a few mates who are Leeds fans (something I never thought I would say), and their line-up was as much of a surprise to them as it would have been to Warnock and co.

A lot was made of Pierre-Michel Lasogga in the build-up to the game, especially after the striker missed the birth of his child to play last Saturday, but he didn't make it off the bench. Samuel Saiz, who I've been led to believe is a better player than compatriot Pablo Hernandez, also missed out much to the dismay of said Leeds mates.

But my worry over the Cardiff midfield trio needn't exist.

They were impeccable from the first minute to the last, as was every other player in blue. Work is the least you expect from a Warnock side and that's something this team does to the point that it completely breaks the opposition.

From the very start Cardiff were hounding Leeds and that workrate eventually resulted in the first goal. With Damour pressuring Mateusz Klich's into a mistake, the Frenchman brilliantly played in Junior Hoilett who dazzled the defenders to set up Kenneth Zohore for a tap-in.

I forgot where I read it but someone remarked that, in the first few minutes of a game, you can tell whether Hoilett will be 'on it' or not. Yesterday, much to the dismay of Leeds, he was indeed 'on it'. Quick and silky, Hoilett had one of those games where he could beat four defenders in a telephone box. Every time he came close to being tackled, he found a way to create space and carry on his run.

It was no surprise to see his long range effort hit the back of the net for Cardiff's second, given his confidence and performance at that stage.

The game seemed pretty much done and dusted there. I've mentioned a few times on this blog that, under Warnock, the horrible, numbing feeling that Cardiff are still going to somehow drop points from a winning position has gone away.

Leeds, for all their passing and possession, hardly troubled Neil Etheridge. For the life of me I couldn't see how Leeds would score one let alone two or three. Their task was obviously made even more difficult when captain Liam Cooper, in a week where he recieved his first call-up for Scotland, was sent off.

At the time I thought the first foul was a straight red and, having seen it back a few times, I still think that's the case. A two-footed scissor tackle has to be deemed as dangerous play and Kevin Friend, who had a decent game otherwise, got that one wrong.

Fortuntely, Cooper didn't make the most of his reprieve. Moments after his first yellow, he took out Nathaniel Mendez-Laing (who made up some serious ground to even get there) leaving Friend with no option but to dismiss him.

In truth, Leeds were better with ten than they were at full-strength. Etheridge, who has had a few ropey games of late, produced a quality double-save to keep the Cardiff jitters away.

Now. This third goal.

Warnock was critical in the week of the how the 'Warnock way' is being portrayed. Our football is perceived to be from the dark ages, a myth that is perpetuated by the media.

There seems to more arrogance in the 17/18 Championship than in previous seasons when it comes to style of football. Fulham, Wolves, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, and a few more, all seem to be clambering over each other to be deemed the best 'footballing' side in this division.

Cardiff, to fans of those clubs at least, don't belong in the same bracket. We should be taking our 40-yard hoof-balls into lower mid-table and be made to stay there to let the pretty boys fight for the Premier League.

After all, City are 24th in the league when it comes to: number of passes, the success rate, the accuracy and the possession. But on points? 1st.

It's the hypocricy that amuses me. I'm only in my early twenties, but even I've seen how dirty and vicious Leeds teams have been, and that's nothing compared to what they were like in the 70s/80s. Wolves have also served up some turgid football in recent years. Suddenly, with foreign coaches and a few good results, they're now two footballing dynasties too good to be in this league.

Cardiff have beaten both already.

Hopefully, with the aid of the Sky cameras, people see Zohore's second goal, where he capped off a flowing team move (featuring the rhyming commentary of Hoilett..Zohore..Hoilett..Damour..) and realise that Cardiff are more than what they have been depicted as thus far.

I won't hold my breath on that, nor the fact that Cardiff will still be referred to as anything other than 'dark horses'.

If you were new to the league and watched the build-up last night, you could be forgiven for thinking that Leeds were 50 points clear with a game left. How would Cardiff cope against the mighty table-toppers? Yes, they were top. On goal difference.

I'm not one for claiming media bias against my club, I never cared for the running order of the highlight shows, but it's about time Cardiff, and Warnock, start getting the credit they deserve. Perhaps, having now beaten media darlings Leeds, Wolves and Aston Villa, that will start to happen.

Finally, a word on Bamba. Hoilett was Man of the Match, a decison I wouldn't argue with given that he was instrumental in everything Cardiff did attacking-wise, but I thought Bamba was absolutely immense.

In a defensive-midfield role, a position he has occupied a few times for us, he was magnificent. Important challenges, key interceptions and just by being a general nuisance, Bamba came back to haunt his old side and ensured that Ralls and Gunnarsson were seldom missed.

If he carries on displaying the sort of speed and footwork he did towards the end of the game as Leeds tired, he might find himself out on the wing for a game or two.

Despite my pre-match confidence, City still surprassed my expectations last night and made Leeds look very ordinary. It's only ten games in, and I'm reluctant to get ahead of myself, but based on what we've seen so far, there is nothing for Cardiff to fear in this league.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Wolves Warnock'd

With the two sides boasting 100% records from the three Championship games so far this season, there was always going to be an air of confidence surrounding Molineux yesterday afternoon.

Wolves fans had the sort of self-assurance you tend to get when you spend nearly £20m in one summer on quality players.

Before every game, I look on forums and social media to see what the fans of the opposition think ahead of the upcoming fixture. 

Most expect a tough match against a well-drilled Neil Warnock side - a statement history would prove correct. However, a lot of the Wolves support showed some incredibly misplaced arrogance in assuming that gritty, ugly Cardiff would be no match for their silky, total football. 

They were keen to stress that Cardiff had beaten three poor teams this season (Burton, Villa and Sheffield United) and that once they came up against the mighty Wanderers, they would be found wanting. 

Cardiff fans, on the other hand, although in buoyant mood, were wary that City simply don't do four wins in a row. I'll admit, I wasn't convinced City could win up in the Midlands. I've been following the Bluebirds for long enough to know that when things are going too good, a fall is usually around the corner. 

Before we were even out of South Wales, an announcement was made on the bus that The Telegraph was reporting that a Brighton bid had been accepted by City for Kenneth Zohore. With the mood sombre, City fans pondered just how could City expect to win at Molineux without the big Dane, and was Omar Bogle not signed as back-up, but as a replacement?

As the mood in the away end brightened following a Manchester United goal-fest at the Liberty Stadium, things got even better when the news came through that Zohore was starting for City, and that the supposed bid was a load of rubbish - for now at least.

To the game itself, and, if any Wolves fans had any assumptions that this was going to be a walkover, they were soon to be reminded that those kinds of matches seldom exist in the Championship. 

In this league, work-rate and cohesion go a hell of a long way. You have to be as good off the ball as you are with it and Cardiff's pressing was on a level I've never seen from them before. In the early stages, Wolves were not given an inch. 

Warnock's teams have a reputation for being bullish, physical and masters of the 'dark arts'. Little kicks, niggles and clever fouls are used to disrupt the opposition and void them of any rhythm. These tactics, employed by Cardiff on times yesterday, seemed to wind up the majority inside Molineux, who struggled to grasp why a team had come to fight and not simply bow down to the footballing gods in orange. 

Wolves were rattled as several passes from their star players went astray and things quickly got heated. The crowd voiced the majority of their discontent towards referee Scott Duncan, after several 'meaty' challenges from Cardiff. 

There was also one incident that caused managers Nuno and Warnock to square up following an apparent elbow on Romain Siass from the impressive Loic Damour. If anything did happen - and the reaction of the benches and stand suggested it did - it was off the ball and on the opposite side of the away end, so, to quote Arsene Wenger: "I didn't see it."

If it was harsh on Wolves that Cardiff didn't go in at the break with ten men, it was harsher that Cardiff weren't in the lead. Sol Bamba rattled the bar with a point-blank header, and with goalkeeper John Ruddy called into action numerous times, Wolves were fortunate to still be level. 

The second half started much the same and the 2,000 travelling support didn't have to wait too long for a goal. Junior Hoilett, one of the star men of the season so far, easily beat his man before having the composure to pick out Joe Ralls who passed the ball into the net.

Awoken after conceding, Wolves started to show why they're considered one of the favourites to go up this year. 

They got the equaliser when Neil Etheridge could only parry a shot into the path of Diogo Jota, who in turn set up Barry Douglas to drill in a ball for Leo Bonatini to tap in. Etheridge has been criticised by some for not holding on to the initial shot, but I think that's a bit unfair. It was a powerful effort and he did try to get it away from danger, which didn't quite work out. 

Etheridge has been solid since his arrival and with Lee Camp out for some time yet, I am more than comfortable with City having him in between the sticks. 

With the match evenly poised and the crowd enthralled in an intriguing encounter, both sides looked for the winner. Cardiff were especially vulnerable on the counter, with several of their own corners nearly resulting in one-on-ones for Wanderers.

When I went on the forums ahead of the game, Nathaniel-Mendez Laing, a Wolves academy protege, was predictably labelled a 'Wolves reject' by some, despite the fact he had scored three league goals in as many games this season.

Aside from the reject comments, the more 'thoughtful' of the Wolves fanbase acknowleged that Mendez-Laing came through when Wolves were in the Premier League. With a raft of quality available, the youngster was unable to force his way in and found himself plying his trade in the lower leagues. With his ability unquestioned, it was his mental state that seemingly ended his career at Wolves. This is something Warnock has clearly addressed already in his few months at Cardiff.

Another feature on the messageboards was just how many ex-Wolves players seem to score against them when they revisit. It's a football cliche that players go back to haunt their old clubs, but it's seemingly true for Wolves. In fact, when Mendez-Laing powered a shot through Ruddy to score the eventual winner, every reply on the Wolves forum was along the line of: 'Every f***ing time'.

On Boxing Day's fixture at Brentford last year, Zohore scored an 87th minute goal to put City in front, only to concede a few moments later. After that game, a visibly fuming Warnock said: "This will never happen again,"

How right he was. Cardiff saw out the last few moments of the game yesterday in relative comfort. No panic, no rash clearances. Calm, composed and efficient, City coasted their way to victory to make it four wins out of four. In Cardiff teams of the past, the trait of concentration in the latter stages was rarely held.

Again, there was not one player who had a poor game. Every individual made a contribution to the team effort and, as I mentioned earlier, cohesion goes a long way here. 

I will give honourable mentions for Hoilett, Ralls and Mendez-Laing who, as a free transfer, is proving to be the signing-of-the-season on the evidence so far. 
Wolves fans didn't take the defeat too well. Painting Warnock as a footballing dinosaur with an out of date philosophy (I hate that word in football), they accused Cardiff of being cheats, dirty and cowardly. But it's very short-sighted to see it like that. 

City played some superb stuff yesterday. As often there's a crunching tackle, there's a piece of brilliance from Hoilett. As often there's a powering header from Sean Morrison, there's a one-two between Ralls and Damour. As often there's a long throw from Aron Gunnarsson, there's a Cruyff (Robson-Kanu?) turn from Zohore. 

There's a balance. Each of the defence, midfield and forwards possess power, technique and resilience. 

Cardiff were quicker and fitter. They completely outworked Wolves and if their fans think that pretty football is going to be enough to get you out of this league, then yesterday should offer some much-needed clarification. 

Wolves are a good side, but there's now a blueprint on how to beat them. I doubt Nuno would have faced too many teams like Cardiff under Warnock in his managerial career, but he can expect a few more this season. 

Riled, outfought, and out-thought: Wolves were well and truly Warnock'd. 

Monday, 14 August 2017

City Show Promotion Credentials as They Brush Aside Aston Villa

A few days ago, I wrote this piece questioning why Cardiff had largely been ignored when it came to the discussion of promotion contenders from this season’s Championship.

I went on to state that, after City’s 1-0 victory at Burton last weekend, some people may start to take notice of Neil Warnock’s side.

As impressive as an opening day win at the Pirelli Stadium was, it was the next league game, against ‘big-boys’ Aston Villa, that was going to offer a little more insight into how this season could eventually pan out for Cardiff.

After all, Burton operates on a small budget and are one of the favourites to go down. Villa, on the other hand, have spent £80m in two seasons and are one of the favourites to go up.

The first home game of a campaign always has a special feel about it, especially when the place is brimming with optimism. This, as well as the fact I starved myself of football this summer (Taff’s Well v Cardiff was the only 90 minutes I watched), made me the most excited I’ve been to go to a game since Bristol City last October.

This is when football is at its most frustrating and dangerous. No other sport can hand you a defeat just when you’re most confident of a win. Cardiff City seems to do this more often than any club.

But not this Saturday and not this side.

City produced one of the best performances I’ve seen in at home in years to dismantle Villa 3-0 in front of a good crowd of 24,???.

Before the game, as I did my ritual walk down Sloper Road for the first time since April, I was surprised, and intrigued, to see both Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Loic Damour starting (the pair excelled in my sole pre-season game at Taff’s Well).

If it’s one thing I’ve learned since last October, it’s to always trust Warnock.

I assumed he’d stick with roughly the same side as he did at Burton. The five at the back would counter Villa’s attacking ‘threat’, and Lee Tomlin given the task of unlocking a defence led by John Terry.

Instead, pace was the order of the day. And how effective it was.

Terry, Alan Hutton and James Chester are not the quickest defensive unit in the division, and Cardiff’s front three exposed it beautifully on Saturday.

Kenneth Zohore, fresh from an opening day winner was powerful and direct in his running, single-handedly bullying Villa players on times as he carried on his fine form. A lot was made before the game of how the Dane would cope against the experience of this Villa side. Very well, as it goes.

After previously failing to recapture his QPR and Blackburn form in a Cardiff shirt, Junior Hoilett had one of his best games since joining the club. It’s been one of the few frustrations in Warnock’s tenure that we haven’t seen Hoilett show consistently what he’s capable of, but Saturday will surely give him the confidence to kick on again.

Lastly, Mendez-Laing, a free transfer from Rochdale, put in a superb performance that not only resulted in a brace for the player, but left City fans drooling over the prospect of having a new icon at the club.
It’s quite baffling how he hasn’t moved up to this level before, and with no transfer outlay, it seems a shrewd acquisition by Warnock and his staff.

Damour, Joe Ralls and Aron Gunnarsson marshalled the midfield with ease against the likes of Henri Lansbury, once deemed the shining light of Championship. Having only recently arrived from another country, Damour has settled into the league well and looks comfortable on the ball.

I’ve slated Ralls on numerous occasions, especially in the Paul Trollope days. Not as naturally gifted as his predecessor Peter Whittingham, Ralls was sometimes on a hiding to nothing with me and perhaps other City fans. But since Warnock’s appointment, Ralls has been one of the standout performers in this City side. Calm and composed in possession on Saturday, he’s one of the keys to how successful this Cardiff squad will be.

The back four limited Scott Hogan to one glorious chance at 0-0 - a shot that was saved well by the solid Neil Etheridge (Monk from Mean Machine moment aside).

As games go, this was as spot-on as you could get at home.

Villa’s attack was made to look toothless by a sturdy defence, and with City’s attacking trio wreaking havoc at the other end, it was the perfect formula on a gorgeous day in the Welsh capital.

With the Bluebirds on top of the pile, it’s important to remember that it’s sadly early days. The Championship doesn’t end in August (otherwise Cardiff could’ve been relegated last year).

But it’s hard not to start getting excited about what City may be able to achieve this year. There are tough tests to come, starting with Warnock’s old-flame Sheffield United tomorrow, before travelling to face big-spenders Wolves next Saturday.

Tenacious, quick, physical, solid, and led by a man who has seen it all in this league. 

There won’t be many sides that fancy a trip to South Wales. 

Just ask Aston Villa.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Under The Radar - Why Cardiff Deserve to be Labelled Promotion Contenders

If you were a Championship newbie, keenly watching the major broadcasters to get a general idea of the division for the season ahead, you could be forgiven for thinking the league only had a handful of teams participating.
Sunderland, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Leeds, and Wolves are this season’s chosen few. These are the sides chosen by Sky, BBC et. al., to form the base of their Championship coverage in 2017/18.
Having worked in newsrooms of the like, there are obvious reasons why these clubs have an appeal over certain others.
They’re perceived to be the ‘big’ clubs. They all have Premier League experience, all are relatively well-supported and, perhaps most importantly, have spent a fortune assembling what they hope to be successful squads.
Of the roughly £148m spent in the league thus far, these five clubs are responsible for 54% (£80m) of it. That number doesn’t include free transfers, with the likes of John Terry and Chris Samba adding again to Villa’s already staggering wage bill.
But if the Championship has taught us anything, it’s that you need more than a good side and a bulging wallet to make it out of this league.
The media, like the rest of us, enjoy making predictions, but there are far more than five sides worth mentioning.
Hardly a day goes by where someone doesn’t ask me how I think Cardiff will do in this campaign. My answer is always along the lines of:
‘Having got a decent squad and a talented, ambitious manager, there’s no reason why they can’t challenge for promotion. The only problem is: there are fans of around 14 other clubs saying the exact same thing.’
From Leeds to Reading, Fulham to Sheffield, there are thousands of fans hopeful of a promotion-winning season.
None more so than the City faithful.
Ahead of the opening day at Burton last week, I watched quite a few previews and I could count on one hand the times Cardiff were mentioned.
After the 1-0 win at the Pirelli Stadium, however, some pundits started describing Cardiff as ‘dark horses’ and that they were their ‘tip’ to sneak in the play-offs.
I’m certain that the fact the winner was scored by Kenneth Zohore, undoubtedly one of the league’s deadliest strikers at the end of the last season, helped ensure Cardiff’s place as contenders in the eyes of some.
It’s going to be while before the whole division starts to take the Bluebirds seriously, but I think that is going to suit Neil Warnock down to the ground.
In Warnock, Cardiff have a Championship stalwart. A man that not only knows the league as well as the layout of his house but also knows how to excel in it. With a proven track record, his experience is going to be vital in navigating another gruelling campaign.
On the pitch, though, if you have a quick run through of the Cardiff squad, it’s difficult to spot a glaring weakness area.
In Neil Etheridge, Lee Camp and Brian Murphy, the goalkeeping area is in a healthy state – a stark contrast to last season which featured the disappointing Ben Amos during Paul Trollope’s ill-fated reign.
Arguably Cardiff’s key bit of business this summer was retaining the services of Bruno Ecuele Manga, a centre-back far too good for this level. 
Captain Sean Morrison has often come under criticism for his defensive lapses and lack of composure, but next to Manga and the impressive Sol Bamba, he should be able to cope well. As a back three, it's as good as you'll get in this division.
With Lee Peltier, Jazz Richards, Matthew Connolly, Callum Paterson and Joe Bennett, the full-back areas are covered well, both going forward and defensively.
Peter Whittingham leaving was a day a lot of fans were dreading. A modern-day legend, Whittingham was an integral part of the club’s success in the last ten years. Despite playing a lesser part last year, his goals and assists won Cardiff an extra few points, ultimately ensuring a top-half finish.
A centre-midfield pairing of Aron Gunnarsson and Joe Ralls with the excellent Lee Tomlin further up is good enough to compete in this league. It has a good balance of legs, steel, creativity, and skill. However, with Stuart O’Keefe set to depart, Loic Damour and Greg Halford are the only other options. Although the former has impressed so far, he is untested and it leaves City a tad light in a key area. 
On the flanks, Cardiff have an embarrassment of riches. Even with the inevitable departure of Craig Noone (a move suitable for everyone), they have Junior Hoilett, Kadeem Harris, Matty Kennedy, Anthony Pilkington, and the impressive Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. 
Zohore and his health are no doubt key to how successful this season will be. A brutal campaign of 46 matches, it's a big ask of any player to keep fit but Danny Ward could be the saving grace this season. Ward, having had a good year in a struggling Rotherham side in 16/17, could be the one to chip in with the goals should Zohore miss any games.

As well as these two, Cardiff also have the youthful Ibrahim Meite and Fred Gounongbe (remember him?), although whether they are of standard or not remains to be seen.

When you look at that team, City have more than enough to at least warrant being talked about. 

Villa manager Steve Bruce said that he was envious of the way this Cardiff side has gelled and expected a 'typical Neil Warnock team' when the clubs meet tomorrow afternoon.

Warnock's teams have always been tough to beat. Physical, strong and resolute are all traits that his current side have. But there's much more to them than that. They have the hard-nosed character, but they also possess pace, flair and huge technical skill in Tomlin.

23rd when Trollope was sacked, Cardiff ended up finishing 12th - one place above Villa. The 'Warnock effect' has been in effect for some time, and having had a full pre-season with his own players, it could go on for a while yet. 

Although the broadcasters won't say that. 

Friday, 3 March 2017

Interview: Andy Campbell

25th May 2003.

A day etched into record books as one of the greatest moments in Cardiff City history.

This was the day that City ended an 18-year absence from the First Division by beating QPR 1-0 in the play-off final.

Cardiff, who finished sixth and beat Bristol City to get to the Millennium Stadium finale, were spearheaded that season by division top scorer Robert Earnshaw, who netted 35 times.

But, on this occasion, it was to be Earnshaw's replacement that stole the show in South Wales.

Andy Campbell, the Middlesbrough-born forward who replaced 'Earnie', lobbed keeper Chris Day with only six minutes left in extra-time to seal Cardiff's promotion in their home city.

Campbell is now quite rightly considered a cult hero at the club and any time a Cardiff v QPR clash is on the horizon, memories of that strike resurface.

Ahead of Saturday's meeting between the two sides at Loftus Road, we talked to Andy about that goal, his opinion of Cardiff as a city and just how good Neil Warnock is.

Andy Campbell scored Cardiff's winner in the final.Credit: Getty

First of all, if we go back to your childhood, who was your footballing hero growing up?

Being a Middlesbrough fan, I was a regular on the terraces of Ayrsome Park. My hero was Bernie Slaven. I also loved watching England - Gary Lineker made me dream of one day playing for my country. 

You had a terrific loan spell at Cardiff (scoring six goals in your first four games) before joining permanently in 2002. Was the decision to move away from Middlesbrough and your local club a tough one?

Bryan Robson had lost his job and was replaced by Steve McClaren. I felt from day one that I wasn't given a fair crack so the only real option was to leave. Once Lennie Lawrence showed an interest there was only one club I was going to sign for. 

Lennie was at Boro when you were on your verge of coming through. What was your relationship like?

Lennie was great with me. A real gentleman and someone I fully respect within football and I owe that man a lot for what he's done for me. He's a real football man and thoroughly enjoyed my time playing for him and tried my best every game for him. 

You played in an England U21 side that featured the likes of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand. What was it like to play in a side like that?

A dream come true to play for my country and to play with those names was a fantastic achievement. I knew straight away that they were top players and were all heading for the top. 

Andy with Lampard, Gerrard, Ferdinand at England U21 level. Credit:@Carra23

Just how big of an impact did Lennie have on the team to steer them to promotion? And when did the players start to believe that they could go up?

He was great. Always calm even when we didn't get the results we needed or didn't perform the way which he and the fans expected. He always believed we would go up and passed that on to us as players and the belief was so strong in the group there was only going to be one winner in the play-off final. 

Regarding that occasion at the Millennium Stadium, what were your pre-match emotions?

Happy to be involved. I'd had a hernia operation around a month before and was struggling up until around five days before the game. The buzz around the hotel and the build up was amazing. It was great to be involved with such a great bunch of lads. 

Can you remember what was going through your head when you saw Gareth Whalley play that ball over the top?

Gaz knew I lived a ball over the top and he swung his weaker foot at the ball and played a peach of a through ball. The rest they say is history. 

You scored one of the most crucial goals in the Bluebird's history, but how important are the club and the city itself to you?

The city and club played a huge part in my life. The club gave me a platform to enjoy my football and progress. My eldest daughter was born in Cardiff so I'm extremely proud that her roots are where my best footballing moment happened. It means we come back more often and it's great to show and explain to her how amazing the city is. 

Would you say that Cardiff was the most enjoyable time in your career?

I loved my time there. It didn't end great but I had a blast from the moment I walked through the gates at Ninian Park. The club and fans were amazing with me and have been ever since and it's always great to be able to reminisce with them about good old days. 

Moving on to present times, the club is now on an upward curve after a dreadful start. How well has Neil Warnock done and how far do you think he can take this club?

For me, he's a fantastic manager. One of the best in the Championship. His record speaks for itself and I firmly believe that he will get us promoted next season. He's taken his time to assess the squad he inherited and has now brought in players who he trusts will do a job for him and progress the club forward. Good luck to him and I hope he achieves everything he wants to do for our amazing club.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Warnock Bringing City Back

This week saw the fifth anniversary of the night that Cardiff City beat Crystal Palace to reach the League Cup final, their fourth trip to Wembley in as many years.

That team was led emotively by Malky Mackay, a man who effortlessly ingratiated his way into the hearts of the fans of the club. The final, however heartbreaking the ending turned out to be, was one of the last few occasions that it felt like you were watching City.

In the half a decade since that penalty defeat to Liverpool, following the club has often seemed a chore; a weekly punishment for an unknown crime.

It's not been the same since Ben Turner's goal against Liverpool in 2012

It's pretty baffling that such a feeling could arise when you consider that during these five years, the Bluebirds comfortably won the Championship, and achieved Premier League home wins against Swansea City and Manchester City in their short stay in the top division.

The rebrand debacle ensured that the soul of the club had been tarnished. The unique aspect that made it Cardiff City, the distinguishable feature that over the years had entrapped thousands on a lifelong roller-coaster, had vanished.

Mackay's sacking, Solskjaer's overspending, relegation and the underwhelming appointment of Russell Slade followed. Cardiff were on a never-ending downward spiral.

Slade wasn't fancied from the start by a large number of City fans, mainly because he was perceived to be another 'yes-man' to Vincent Tan. With his quiet, often self-depreciating and uninspiring demeanor, the former Leyton Orient boss didn't fit the ideology of what some fans identified as a City manager. An ideology that was executed impeccably by Mackay and one that every future manager will be compared with for some time yet.

In fairness to Slade, for what he lacked in persona and charisma, he made up for with results.

He was the one that eventually steadied the ship, after all. Despite being restricted by the now financially astute Tan, Slade led the club to 11th and 8th respectively.

The ship was safe, but was it going to go anywhere?  Although possessing a squad capable of challenging, Cardiff's play-off push never really got going. This, coupled with the fact that there some animosity still lingering in the stands towards him, meant that Slade's time as Cardiff boss was over.

Moved upstairs (for a fortnight at least), he was replaced by Paul Trollope, an appointment that offered more evidence of the cost-cutting efforts by Tan.

Although a good coach for City and Wales, it quickly went downhill for Trollope. Winning only twice in eleven league games, the team were sinking at an alarming rate and were likely heading to League One.

It was clear that the club needed a hero. A firefighter that would not only douse the flames of relegation but could also be the orchestrator of something far bigger in the seasons ahead.

There was only one name that fitted the bill - Neil Warnock.

With seven promotions already noted down, Warnock added a great escape to his CV following his saving of a seemingly doomed Rotherham United last season.

At Championship level, his pedigree is second-to-none.

Not only does he fit the bill in terms of the club's aspirations (from relegation candidates to promotion candidates), he also fits the fans' ideologies previously mentioned.

Passionate, explosive and successful - Warnock is the type of person that is equally loved by his own as he is hated by others.

On his Wikipedia page, not only does he have a 'Disputes' section - something that is impressive in itself - he has five subsections within that. From arguments with players to having rows with entire clubs, there are not many people out there that Warnock hasn't pissed off at some point.

But that's what's needed in this league, especially when you're at the wrong end of the table trying to work your way up.

Nice football is all well and good, but when teams get in your face, you better have some steel about you. The Championship is 46 grueling games of 'in your face' football. Cardiff didn't have that nasty streak under Trollope but have it in abundance now.

After every game, I look at the opposition's forums to see what they thought of City's performance etc. More often that not, they all follow the same pattern. They moan about how we nullified them, how we stopped them playing and how we outfought them.

I don't rate Warnock purely because of his fiery temper, his robust style of football and the fact that he makes it seem like it's Cardiff City against the world. Most importantly, he's successful and ambitious. He's made no effort to hide his need for a record eighth promotion.

How the table looks since Warnock was appointed on October 5th, 2016. 

The table since he's joined shows how well he, his staff and some of his signings have done to guide Cardiff up the table and on the cusp of safety. Tuesday night's spirited defeat at table-toppers Brighton is a testament to how far this side has come.

It's been reported that this season is an audition for Warnock. If he does well, he'll be backed considerably by Tan for a promotion push next year. However, if he doesn't show enough, the Yorkshireman's time in South Wales will be cut short with Warnock admitting he'll only stay if his aspirations are matched.

Tan only needs to look at the above graphic to see that with the extra 3/4 players that are needed, a play-off challenge is achievable.

But, along with the relative success on the pitch in his short time here, Warnock has achieved something far more remarkable off it.

This may just apply to me or you might feel the same, but, for the first time in years, I'm really enjoying my Saturdays. It's great going to games knowing that we're at least going to give it a go and that the players are going to show a bit of bottle and fight.

That's all the majority of football fans want; a bit of heart. I don't care if we fail to win every game. If that mattered, I'd follow Barcelona via Sky Sports.

Nor am I bothered about an amazing possession-based game with hundreds of three-yard passes. That's not the Cardiff way, nor the British way. Goals, shots and full-blooded tackles - that's what I like to see at a game.

City have never been perceived as a 'nicey-nice' and fashionable club and we probably never will be. I've always heard people call Cardiff a horrible club and having Neil Warnock in charge will only enhance that, but I think that's a great thing to have.

We may as well embrace it, I quite like the thought of teams dreading playing us. It's how it used to be.

When Warnock signed, he said: "This is my type of club - blood and guts."

We're his type of club and he's our type of manager. It feels good to have the old City back.