Best day ever supporting City?

Expectation is a funny thing and, in football terms at least, I would say that it is something to be avoided at all costs. At the start of both of our seasons in what is now known as League One early in the previous decade, I expected us to go up. The Sam Hammam publicity machine and a level of transfer spending unheard of at Cardiff City before ensured that, despite my best efforts to think otherwise, nothing but promotion would do.

Thousands of City fans were of the same opinion as well and when you consider that there were only two sides outside of the Premiership (both of whom were benefiting from parachute payments after recent relegations) with bigger wage bills than us, then you begin to see why people felt like they did. Alan Cork’s side 0f 2001/02 struggled to cope with that expectation but his replacement by Lennie Lawrence in February 2002 saw us go through the rest of the regular season unbeaten to finish fourth in the table and qualify for the Play Offs as very much the in form team of the four who would be fighting for that last promotion spot.

One of the few match day programmes I have bought in the last thirty years.

Once again, expectation levels went through the roof as City won at Stoke 2-1 in the first leg of their Semi Final and the Second Leg would, surely, now be a formality – I certainly thought that way anyway. I daresay many supporters would go for last May’s Play Off Final defeat as their most disappointing day following Cardiff, but I can honestly say that I have twice been more upset after seeing us lose than I was against Blackpool – the first time was against SV Hamburg in the Semi Final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1968 and the second was against Stoke in 2002. Whereas I could see the Blackpool defeat coming beforehand because they were in better form than us going into the game, naivety of  youth in 1968 and faith in the inevitability of Sam Hammam’s “dream” being fulfilled in 2002 meant that I did not contemplate defeat and this only meant that, when it came, it was that much harder to take.

Despite the lesson I should have learned after the Stoke experience, a few more new signings in the summer of 2002 had me believing that we were on our way to being “bigger than Barcelona” again when things got back under way in August. However, after a good start which had seen us top the table on a few occasions in the first couple of months of the season, the 02/03 side proved to be as erratic as their predecessors had been under the previous manager and this time there was no great finish to the campaign to take into the Play Offs as we just scraped in by finishing sixth with just two points, and one goal, to show from our final five matches.

Going back to that word expectations, our poor form and a Semi Final against Bristol City (who we never beat in those days) meant that they were at a very low level this time around as far as I was concerned. That didn’t change much either even after we showed tremendous defensive resolve to edge out the wurzels 1-0 on aggregate thanks to Peter Thorne’s header at Ninian Park in the first game, because, only a month or so earlier, Play off Final opponents QPR had become one of four teams to beat us at home over the second half of the season and with sixteen wins and five draws in their previous twenty four matches, they had the momentum that we lacked.

Nearly 40,000 City fans pack into the Millennium Stadium to make 25 May 2003 one of the great days in the club's history.

Not even the fact that the Final was in, many respects, a home match because it was being played in the Millennium Stadium offered much of a source of comfort because Rangers had only lost once on their travels since December and, although I was determined to enjoy the big day, my feelings were similar to the ones I had for the Blackpool match because I just saw our opponents as being the in form team out of the two going into the game.

With hindsight, what I was not paying enough heed to was that we had, arguably, our best player coming back into form after missing most of the season through injury – Danny Gabbidon was fit and able to play a full part while our opponents were missing theirs as Richard Langley was suspended after a sending off in the First Leg of their Semi Final at Oldham (I know Langley was a disappointment during his spell here, but he was regarded by many as League One’s best attacking midfield player at the time).

In Langley’s absence, QPR looked to lack that someone who could do something out of the ordinary in attacking areas and their side was, perhaps, over reliant on power and size. This was the impression I got watching a first half which we edged without being able to show this in the scoreline – I say that mind, but, looking back seven and a half years, it’s hard to remember many close misses at all by either side and I honestly cannot recall anything we did in that first half in terms of a goal threat to back up my opinion that we were the better team.

If that first period was, indeed, ours, then the second one was certainly QPR’s as they enjoyed their best spell of the whole two hours – I can recall veteran Kevin Gallen going very close with a shot which seemed to have Neil Alexander beaten and then, in the dying minutes, the otherwise impressive Spencer Prior messed up a header back to our keeper and sub Andy Thompson’s header lobbed just over the unguarded goal.

The moment promotion was sealed - Andy Campbell wheels away after lobbing Chris Day.

City had not threatened QPR’s goal once in the second half and if those ninety minutes had been played at Loftus Road or Ninian Park in a league game in front of 10,000 people, they would have been instantly forgettable, but when you throw in all of that unbearable tension and the prize at stake, then normal criteria did not apply.

At least extra time saw an improvement in entertainment as City began to take a grip on proceedings – Prior’s header which drew a fine save from Ranger’s keeper Chris Day was as close as either side came before substitute Andy Campbell (bravely brought on by Lennie Lawrence in the second half of normal time to replace the anonymous Rober Earnshaw) took his place in Cardiff City history with a penalty shoot out looming just six minutes away.

What action there had been up to then had come at the opposite end of the ground where the QPR fans were gathered, but I had a brilliant view of Campbell’s burst on to Gareth Whalley’s fine through pass and his delicate lob looked to be going in from the moment it left his foot. In saying that though, it took a hell of a long time to hit the back of the net and signal bedlam amongst the supporters congregated behind and to the sides of the goal. That was it, Howard Webb could have blown his final whistle there and then – although the remaining minutes were played out with many fans in a state of panic, I reckon both teams knew there was no way back for QPR and that City had just edged a game played between two very evenly matched teams who had, virtually, cancelled each other out on the day.

It’s easy now to look back on that day and think something like “if we knew then what we know now” – after all Sam Hammam was out on the pitch talking of the £10 million plus which would be made available to Lennie Lawrence for new players and yet less than two years later we were going through the trauma of Black Friday. However, I recall the atmosphere in Canton when I went out that night as the whole city seemed to want to celebrate what had happened a few hours earlier and I can’t help but think that night was the closest I will come to experiencing what VE night must have felt like – in so many ways, it was the best day I have had supporting the club, I just wish the songs they had played after the game when the players were celebrating with us hadn’t been so naff!

25 May 2003

Cardiff City 1 Queens Park Rangers 0 (after extra time)

City Alexander; Weston (Croft), Prior, Gabbidon, Barker; Legg (Bonner), Kavanagh, Whalley, Boland; Earnshaw (Campbell 1), Thorne; subs (not used) Margetson, Bowen

QPR Day; Kelly, Shittu, Carlisle, Padula (Williams); Gallen, Palmer, Bircham, McLeod; Furlong, Pacquette (Thompson); subs (not used) Culkin, Forbes, Angell

HT 0-0 FT 0-0

Att. 66,096

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