Leaving party politics aside, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer presents such a gloomy picture of the country’s economic outlook for the next five or six years as George Osborne did yesterday, then you know we’re in trouble! Yesterday’s Autumn statement made for dismal listening, but for football fans and, indeed, many of those with only a passing interest in the game, it was still the totally unexpected and, seemingly, pointless death of Wales manager Gary Speed that was the primary reason for any downbeat feelings they might be experiencing.
Well, at least Cardiff City (and by that I mean supporters as well as the team) did their bit to lighten the mood last night with a convincing 2-0 win over Premiership strugglers Blackburn Rovers to make it into the last four of the League Cup for only the second time in their history. With Liverpool, Manchester City and, in all likelihood, Manchester United joining them in the last four, perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking of booking trips to London for the last weekend in February just yet, but this is still an outstanding achievement by Malky Mackay’s rapidly developing team.
Make no mistake about it either – this was a fully deserved victory. Once they had taken a nineteenth minute lead which spelt the end of Blackburn’s only spell in the game where they could have been said to have been the better side, the result was never really in doubt – indeed, there were grounds for thinking that there could have been more goals there for City if they had really wanted them.
In saying that mind, it has to be admitted that Blackburn were not very good – having seen all of our previous Carling Cup matches except for the First Round tie at Oxford, I would say that last night’s game was more one sided than any of the previous four we have played in the competition against Football League clubs. Blackburn didn’t appear to have much stomach for the fight once they had gone behind and never really looked like working their way back into the game after going 2-0 down like Third Division Huddersfield did in Round Two back in August.
Embattled manager Steve Kean talked about “forfeiting” the game afterwards and also tried to say that the second goal should have been disallowed because of a handball by Kenny Miller long before the ball hit the back of the net, but he sounded like a man desperately looking for excuses. Kean chose to rest five of his normal starting line up, but as Dave Jones used to say, the absence of senior players gives those below them a great opportunity to show what they can do – from where I was sitting though, there wasn’t one player in a yellow shirt whose performance demanded inclusion in Saturday’s match with Swansea.
Therefore, perhaps it’s fair to say that the win wasn’t quite as noteworthy as a 2-0 triumph over a Premiership team might look on paper, but, by the same token, this shouldn’t hide the fact that City played well. There was a panache about the side which mocked the accusation that they are just a bunch of fit, hard working scufflers – for example, although he was his normal skilful and influential self, I thought Peter Whittingham was outshone to some extent by his midfield partners.
Conway, Cowie, Kiss and Gunnarsson all put in very good shifts which featured ability to go with their usual industry. The last named was my City man of the match after what was, perhaps, his best game in a City shirt so far. Gunnarsson supplied the pass for the first goal and had a part in so much of what was good in City’s display – he looked more of a Premiership player than many of his opponents last night.
There were plenty of candidates for the best player award mind, besides Gunnarsson’s midfield colleagues (I thought Kiss, especially, did well), Kenny Miller showed in that brilliant piece of play which led to him hitting the post shortly after he had scored that he has more ability than I for one sometimes give him credit for and I thought he gave the Blackburn central defenders a torrid time of it all night.
At the back, Ben Turner continued to show that he offers a lot more than your common or garden big, lumbering stopper, while Anthony Gerrard looked more secure than he was in his two previous matches. Kevin McNaughton was his usual self and will surely get a goal soon, but I thought Andrew Taylor did as well as any of the back four – like Gunnarsson, I thought that was as well as I have seen him play for us. Finally, behind them, Tom Heaton followed up his appearances against Derby and Palace where he didn’t concede a goal with another clean sheet highlighted by a couple of good saves in either half from Dunn and Goodwillie.
So, City end the month which used to cause Dave Jones so many problems with four wins and a draw from five matches – if Malky Mackay can win a Manager of the month award for November as Cardiff City boss, then I think all that’s left for him to prove is that he can walk on water! Actually, last night also saw City do something that they always used to find very difficult under our last manager – they won both matches in a Saturday/Tuesday or Tuesday/Saturday combination of home fixtures (if they could make it three home wins in just over a week by beating Birmingham on Sunday, then we would really be heading into unchartered waters!).
Yes, there is plenty to be upbeat and optimistic about at the moment as far as both the manager and players of Cardiff City are concerned (you can’t help thinking that the job Malky Mackay is doing is not going unnoticed in quite a few Premiership Boardrooms), but last night praise was also due to the club and it’s supporters for the way the pre match memorial to Gary Speed was carried out and observed. After that, the noise levels from the crowd were as good as they have been for some time as frequent songs of support for Gary Speed broke the dank night air. There were plenty of messageboard comments last night about how proud the City team and supporters had made individual fans feel and I’d just like to add my agreement with those sentiments – last night Cardiff City, in all of it’s different components, did itself proud.
Yet, it’s impossible for me to finish without coming back to Gary Speed. Last night’s events (not just at Cardiff City Stadium) offered further proof of how well respected and liked Speed was. I would doubt it if I’m the only person who never met him who has only realised since he died how much I admired the man. This partly explains the goodwill shown to him throughout the country since Sunday’s awful news, but, more telling for me is the unanimous praise he has got from those who knew him – and let’s get this straight, we are not talking about the crocodile tears that are cried at the death of many “celebrities” here (Craig Bellamy was the latest in a series of high profile individuals who have been absolutely distraught at Speed’s passing – we are seeing and hearing genuine grief from so many in the often cynical world of professional football).
If only there was a way that Gary Speed could have known how his death would impact on so many people from ordinary fans, to hard bitten media hacks and to superstar millionaires often accused of being out of touch with reality. If that could have happened, then he would have seen that, even if there were what he thought was an awful secret which drove him to do what he did, there were thousands or even millions who would have forgiven him virtually anything – it’s just so, so sad and so, so unnecessary.