Around this time last year, a high profile manager from Scotland proclaimed that he hoped his side didn’t do a “Cardiff” in their upcoming, very important, match in their pursuit of Rangers for the Scottish Premiership title. Celtic promptly went on to do exactly what Neil Lennon didn’t want them to as they lost 3-2 at Inverness and the silverware was as good as in the Ibrox Park trophy cabinet.
Celtic had done a “Cardiff” and, although it wasn’t a pleasant experience as a City fan to hear your side being referred to in such a manner, the sad truth is that most people knew exactly what Lennon was talking about when he mentioned us. Two days before that Celtic match was played, City were beaten 3-0 by Middlesbrough at home in embarrassing fashion when a win would have taken them into second position in the Championship with one game to play and when we were taken apart by the same score in the home leg of our Play Off Semi Final by Reading, it was just one more instance of Cardiff “doing a Cardiff”.
In case you are one of what must be a tiny minority of City fans who are unaware of what “doing a Cardiff” means, it is a way of describing a horrendous loss of form on important, season defining, occasions. Sadly, City teams have made a habit of doing this in recent years – to use a more common term, City have acquired a reputation for bottling the big occasion.
Being a generous soul, I do not believe we “did a Cardiff” in the 2008 FA Cup Final or the 2010 Play Off Final (on both occasions we were beaten by a better team in my opinion and there was no shame in defeat), but there are those who will tell you that we did – particularly against Blackpool. However, the capitulation to end all capitulations at the end of the 2008/09 campaign certainly qualifies, so that’s at least two of the past three seasons which we have ended as something of a national laughing stock.
Now, the present team might end up making a fool of me by folding pathetically in the two upcoming matches with West Ham, but they would be flying in the face of all the evidence we’ve seen so far this season if they did do that.
Yesterday lunchtime, Malky Mackay faced the latest “massive” match of his first season with us and, just as they have done on almost every one of these big occasions, City rose to the challenge and produced a performance above the level they had been showing in the fixtures leading up to the big occasion.
You only have to look at a record of ten points out of a possible twelve against the two teams who were promoted automatically to see we have not been daunted by the top sides in the Championship. Our record against the sides immediately below Reading and Southampton is pretty good as well and when you add our last four performances in our League Cup run to that, there is little evidence that can be found of us freezing on the big occasion.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the Cardiff City we all know and, usually, love if they didn’t do something to send the blood pressure rocketing and, in going behind quite early on at Crystal Palace in the match they needed to avoid losing to guarantee a top six finish, they frazzled the nerves of their long suffering fans – we are, after all, talking about a team who had yet to win after conceding the first goal this season.
In saying that though, although they weren’t exactly carving Palace open in the first half, City were generally in control of proceedings and, for long periods, it did look like exactly what it was – a team unbeaten in nine matches up against opponents who had not won in eight. Indeed, if it wasn’t for what was at stake influencing our thinking, I reckon there were more than enough signs for confidence that we could, and would, get on terms if we kept plugging away like we had done in the first forty five minutes.
There have certainly been times in recent home matches where City’s apparent superiority was not reflected in terms of efforts on target and there was an element of that yesterday, but, just when it was really needed, our best player rediscovered his dead ball “mojo”. When someone scores from the sort of angle that Peter Whittingham did with that free kick, then there is a temptation to say that it was something of a fluke, but our talisman has provided sufficient proof of his special talent down the years to be given any benefit of the doubt as to what his intentions were – for me it was a shot hit into an area where he knew that the merest touch on it could easily end up in the net.
City turned the screw after that and their season long ability to score from dead ball situations was re-emphasised when Aron Gunnarsson’s long throw was flicked on by Mark Hudson into the path of Don Cowie who ended a personal goal drought which had lasted more than six months, by volleying in a superb right foot effort from around the penalty spot.
Shortly after that, Middlesbrough fell a goal behind at Watford and it was possible to breathe a bit easier. News of a Boro equaliser was followed virtually straight away by confirmation that Watford had scored again and so, with Palace only threatening sporadically, the last few minutes were nowhere near as nerve racking as I for one, had expected them to be.
In saying that, when this City squad get in front (in recent away matches anyway), I find that I have quite a bit of faith in them seeing things through. To only lose four away matches out of twenty three is an absolutely tremendous achievement – we did only lose three times on our travels during our 1959/60 promotion season, but that was in a twenty two team league and so we played two fewer away matches that year.
So, our season is to be extended by another nine days, at least, with two matches against the team that were generally considered to be the strongest in the division back in August (and for most of the months which followed as well). If I’m being honest, a two match tie favours West Ham with their bigger squad of players who feel more at home in the Premiership than the Championship and the fact that they have rediscovered the knack of winning at Upton Park only makes our task all the more difficult – to my mind, the real achievement for us has been making the top six.
Thankfully, our manager, coaching staff and playing squad will have no truck with such thinking. One of the benefits of having a squad which may not be as naturally talented as some of our recent ones, but has a real spirit and togetherness about them (the situation that so many of us said we wanted after the “galacticos” of last year) is that they tend to be strong mentally. This City squad won’t be intimidated by West Ham and if our opponents show any signs of feeling sorry for themselves after missing out on a top two place or are as arrogant as their manager sounds at times, then City can beat them – even if we end up being well beaten over the two legs, this City squad has shown over the past nine months or so that they do not deserve to have the insult of them having “done a Cardiff” thrown at them.
+ a thank you to City fan Nigel Harris (Nigel Blues) for this picture.by The other Bob Wilson
Having started their season off with a very creditable 1-1 draw against FA Cup finalists Liverpool’s Under 18′s in an away match shown live on that club’s TV channel. City’s Academy side ended it with a 2-2 draw at Treforest against Chelsea’s youngsters on Saturday morning. The first team’s game with Leeds meant that this match against the other Cup Final team was one of only two home fixtures for the Under 18′s that I missed this season, but this report from Chelsea’s official site gives a pretty detailed, if one understandably one eyed, description of what happened. Okay, Chelsea obviously didn’t have their best team out having played in the Youth Cup Final the night before, but for our lads to come back from 2-0 down to get a draw deserves praise and, combined with last week’s 4-2 win at Derby, it represents a decent end to their campaign (for the record, Jesse Darko and Theo Wharton were our scorers on Saturday).
If the beginning and end of City’s season was satisfactory, then it must be admitted that some of what went on in between was not as encouraging. I say that knowing the focus at this level is very much on player development and not team results and when you consider that five second year scholars (Ralls, Darko, Saint-Luce, Nugent and Oshilaja) were offered pro deals by the club (I think I’m right in saying that this is the highest number since we gained Academy status), then, possibly, I’m being harsh in that judgement, but when this year’s team were bad they were very bad. The performances against West Ham and Coventry were as poor as any I’ve seen from a City Academy team over the past eight seasons and, against the latter, there was not even the excuse of a weakened team to fall back on because it saw a City side featuring six players who had been offered professional deals by the club comfortably beaten by a visiting outfit that included many of their Under 16 players.
Perhaps my sense of disappointment is due to the fact that the group of City players which formed more than half of the team that thrashed England 4-0 at Under 16 level last season became first year scholars this season and so I was expecting more from them. Again, I could be guilty of being harsh on those lads there, because you only have to see the difference between Kevin Sainte-Luce and Jesse Darko in their second year at Academy level compared to their first to see that this is a stage where that extra year can make a big difference. As it was, the two players I’ve just mentioned spent a lot of their campaign playing for the new Under 21 Development team (as did Adedeji Oshilaja) and this helped explain why results tended to tail off in the second half of the campaign.
Highspots of the season for me were a 4-0 win over Watford (traditionally a club with a strong Academy) in October and a very entertaining 3-2 victory over Villa later that month. Coming back from 2-0 down to beat Portsmouth in March deserves a mention as well and City also played well in their unlucky 2-1 defeat by Tottenham in the Youth Cup game played at Cardiff City Stadium in front of a crowd of over a thousand.
My nomination of Theo Wharton as my player of the season at this level is both predictable and deserved. Although he played quite often for the Under 18′s last season, Theo can still play at this level next year, but the offer a two year pro deal and a first team debut not long after his seventeenth birthday suggests he probably won’t be doing so. What impresses me most about Theo is the stamina which guarantees he will still be going as strong in the ninetieth minute as he was in the first. Sometimes when a player’s stamina levels get praised, it can be a way of masking a lack of technique, but, on the often difficult Leckwith pitch, Wharton has been able to show that he possesses the requisite skills as well – another good thing is that he doesn’t show a trick or two in a showboating way, but because it’s the best method to achieve his goal.
While some members of the Wales team that I mentioned earlier have found the step up to Academy level a testing one, Tommy O’Sullivan who, like Wharton, has been offered a pro deal as a first year scholar, has increasingly looked at home amongst his elders. Usually one of the smallest players on the pitch, O’Sullivan has been used in a deeper role than the one in which he did so well for his countryWales last season, but he still shows the same cleverness and awareness and it’s easy to see why the club were prepared to offer him a three year contract as Premiership sides began to sniff around. Given his size, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tommy still plays for the Academy team on a regular basis next season when, hopefully, some of the other good players we have in his age group (e.g. Declan John, Josh Yorwerth, Rhys James, Gethyn Hill and Jaye Bowen) will make a bigger impact.
Although two years might seem a long time when you are as young as these lads are, it flies by in terms of the time that they have to make enough of an impact to earn a professional contract. I believe that the number of contracts that have been offered over the course of this season indicates that our current manager is a more sympathetic and trusting judge of young players than his predecessor was, but, even so, some who have shown genuine ability over the past year or two like Mamadou Dialllo, Yannis Drais, Josh Powell, Adam Davies and Jordan Carter have been released within the last few weeks – my best wishes to them, and all of the others who have been told they are being let go, for the future.by The other Bob Wilson