I daresay that our first season back in the second tier of the domestic games in eighteen years came as a pleasant surprise for most City supporters. For young fans, their first experience of what, for all of it’s name changes in recent years, is still really the Second Division was probably nowhere near as painful as they suspected it might be, while the older generation, worn down by season after season of struggle at that level in the seventies and eighties, were overjoyed at how easily City were not just surviving but prospering in what is Europe’s fourth best supported league.
The 2003/04 season, or the first half of it at least, offered the first chance for City fans to talk about the prospect of playing top flight football the following year without being thought of as barking mad for thirty three years. Okay, the campaign might have fizzled out a bit towards the end, but a squad containing fine players at this level such as Kavanagh, Gabbidon, Earnshaw, Vidmar and Thorne as well as youngsters with the promise of a James Collins had a lot going for it – indeed in the, televised, final game of that season it was said during commentary that Gabbidon and Collins were the rocks on which a strong Cardiff Play Off challenge could be built in 2004/05.
However, during the summer of 2004, a couple of things became obvious – first, manager Lennie Lawrence did not rate Collins as highly as most others did (more on that later) and, second, there were a few tell tale signs that things were not as hunky dory financially as Sam Hammam, with all of his talk of Premiership sides being our “feeder clubs” and of not selling our “crown jewels”, was letting on. As a result, City fans saw the first of what was to become a succession of high profile departures when Earnie was sold to West Brom three weeks into the season – predictably, our owner was promising all sorts of expensive new recruits to come in on the back of the Earnshaw money, but the truth was that while he was saying this, the final steps were being put in place for the signing of the Langston loan note debt which has been like an albatross around the club’s neck for nearly seven years.
Whereas money had seemed to be no object during previous Sam Hammam summers, the close season of 2004 saw only two new arrivals and, while Tony Warner and Robert Page, were, almost certainly, on good wages, they both cost the club nothing in transfer fees. Warner was brought in from Millwall to become first choice keeper, while Welsh International centre back Page arrived from Sheffield United, but both were under intense pressure from supporters to succeed right from the off and they failed to do so.
Warner’s arrival demoted fan’s favourite Neil Alexander to third choice keeper at the club, but it was more the throwing of a plastic bottle at Cardiff fans during a notorious match with Millwall on the opening day of the 1999/2000 campaign that turned his new side’s fans against him and, with him making errors during a very poor pre-season programme for City, he found himself being booed by a section of his new club’s supporters before he had kicked a ball in competitive action! As for Page, he was not too popular, despite him being a self confessed life long City fan, because he was replacing Collins who, in the eyes of most supporters and quite a few seasoned media observers, had done a fine job when, finally, given his opportunity by manager Lennie Lawrence in the closing stages of the 03/04 campaign.
No matter how you try to dress it up, Warner and Page were very poor signings that asked serious questions of Lennie Lawrence’s management. Despite leading the club to promotion and then consolidating at the new level, Brighton born Lawrence had never really won over the City crowd since taking over from Alan Cork in early 2002 and his cause was not helped one bit as he was forced to leave out Warner for the first game of the season. With Page also showing that, at this stage of his career, he just wasn’t as good as James Collins, the pressure was on Lawrence right from the start and with Earnie leaving and his team making an awful start, the calls for a change of manager grew by the game until things came to a head after Derby became the latest team to come to Ninian Park and leave with the points on 18 September.
Remarkably given how things were looking in mid September, a 2-2 draw at Crewe and a come from behind 2-1 win at home to Coventry in their first two matches meant that City had the chance of going to the top of the table if they could beat Plymouth in a Friday night televised game at Ninian Park, but the weaknesses that were apparent during pre season had not gone away and a 1-0 defeat marked the start of of a run of seven matches without a win during which home form fell away badly. At least City were able to find the net in away defeats at Ipswich and Wigan and they did get a 0-0 at Forest, but it was misery all of the way at Ninian Park with the Plymouth defeat being followed by 1-0 and 3-0 losses to Stoke and Watford with the latter being just about the most decisive home mauling we have had in our eight seasons at this level since 2003.
Looking back, what becomes clear is that it was a time of great change at the club with Earnie’s departure being only one of several that left the team looking nothing like the one that had assembled for pre season training only a few months earlier. The game with Watford was to see the last start in a City shirt for two Welsh internationals as John Robinson, so impressive in 03/04, but so ordinary in 04/05, left to move closer to his Sussex roots to tend his sick mother and injury and lack of form meant that, one substitute’s appearance in the return game with Watford apart, Page could not displace Collins once he was, belatedly, recalled and so he moved on to Coventry early in 2006.
With Andy Campbell continuing his post Play Off Final decline and Vidmar at the veteran stage, there were places up for grabs throughout the team. New signing from West Ham Jobi McAnuff filled one of the gaps as he arrived for about a tenth of what we got for Earnie, but, initially at least, it was to their own youngsters that the club looked in a bid to turn things around with striker Stuart Fleetwood making a first league start against Derby and the likes of Byron Anthony and Nicky Fish being given opportunities alongside Joe Ledley and Cameron Jerome who were promoted from the club’s recently formed Academy.
Anyway, the main talking point to emerge from the game with Derby actually occurred after it had been played as Sam Hammam gave a typically colourful defence of Lennie Lawrence to the media at a time when many were saying that the manager’s days were numbered. Hammam talked at great length about his respect for his manager and, to be fair, backed him up to the extent that full back Darren Williams and midfield player Gary O’Neil were loaned from Sunderland and Portsmouth respectively in time for the next match at Dave Jones’ Wolves.
As for the game itself, well what had been a promising start by Fleetwood was ended when he went off with an injury in the first half and, although City tried hard and the performance was better than the one against Watford four days earlier, that’s not saying much really. Derby still won at a canter thanks to a superb long range strike by German international Marco Reich in the first half and a close in effort by veteran Ian Taylor after the break. As far as that second goal goes, when people criticise the superb Danny Gabbidon for all of the mistakes he made while with us because he was too casual, I always ask them to name some goals he cost us because of this. Without fail, they cannot come up with any, but, for me, Derby’s second that day was down in the main to his sloppy crossfield pass being intercepted – so that’s one anyway!
With the debate on the manager put on the back burner (Lawrence left as soon as the season ended) and inspired by the excellent O’Neil, City did improve after that – Wolves were beaten and only one of the next nine matches were lost, but, after Leeds, somehow, escaped with a 0-0 draw to make it five consecutive goalless home matches it was only well into the second half of a 2-0 win against rock bottom Rotherham on 16 October that Peter Thorne headed our first home goal since Lee Bullock’s match winner against Coventry on 10 August!
18 September 2004
Cardiff City 0 Derby County 2
City Margetson; Weston, Gabbidon, Vidmar, Barker; McAnuff, Bullock, Kavanagh, Parry (Campbell); Thorne, Fleetwood (Lee); Subs (not used) Alexander, Boland, Collins
Derby Camp; Kenna, Konjic, Johnson, Vincent; Reich (1) (Junior), Huddlestone, Idiakez, Taylor (1); Tudgay, Smith (Bolder); Subs (not used) Grant, Holmes, Peschisolido