I should start by saying that the title I’ve given this piece is somewhat tongue in cheek, but it’s something that I never thought I’d be writing any time soon about my team!
There’s a serious point to it as well, but before I get into that, I want to talk about Neil Warnock for a while because yesterday’s, ultimately very exciting, 3-2 win at Bristol City was our second in succession in the league (the last time we managed that, back in March of last year, it was also achieved with a win at Ashton Gate) and carried us six points clear of the bottom three with a game in hand on all of the six teams below us, with a goal difference that, although still poor, bears comparison now with more sides than just bottom of the league Rotherham.
We’re nowhere near safe yet, but, more than at any time since he took over in October, our manager looks on course to succeed in the only realistic task he had when he took over – that is, to save us from the relegation that looked to be an inevitability when we lost 2-0 at Burton in what turned out to be Paul Trollope’s last game in charge.
I wouldn’t say that the often used term “the Warnock effect” that we’ve seen applied to us at various times over the past three months is now being justified for the first time (we received a definite new manager “bounce” in his first three matches after taking charge), but it seems more appropriate now than it’s been before because our last two matches have been won in a manner which I don’t think we’ve seen in more than three years.
I’m not talking about team performances here, (although there has been a never say die element about them that has been hard to find in the side in so many matches during the period I refer to), I mean in terms of fan reaction. Against Villa, the home crowd were behind the side in a way I’ve not seen since Malky Mackay’s time and everything I’ve read and seen about the backing the team got yesterday has been positive and full of praise for a travelling support who got the reward they deserved with a finish to the match that they will remember with so much enjoyment in years to come.
I was still advising a degree of caution when I named my piece on the Villa match “Slowly but surely, we seem to be getting our Cardiff City back.”, but, that slow, but sure progress continued yesterday and, at the moment, I would say this is Neil Warnock’s greatest achievement so far at Cardiff – in a way that could only have been dreamed of over the past couple of generally nondescript seasons, he is bringing the enjoyment factor back for City fans.
Warnock is often described as one of those love or loathe Marmite type characters, but that’s not how I see him currently. I think there has been too much water flowed under the bridge during his past career for me to ever love the man, but, generally speaking, I’m not the type to loathe anyone either and, although there have been times when I was extremely critical of him in the past, I wouldn’t say I’ve ever loathed him at all.
I’ve mentioned before that I was mellowing somewhat in my attitude to Mr Warnock anyway before he became our manager and that process has continued to the extent that I now have a genuine respect and admiration for the man on many different levels – all of this despite his Cardiff side often playing in a manner which I have never been a fan of and never will be.
However, even if you are someone who falls into the latter of the love or loathe categories, you cannot help but take note of the fact that, in a time when so many managers talk in cliches and platitudes in their dealings with the press and broadcast media, there are so many elements to a Warnock media appearance that make them essential reading, viewing or listening.
Years ago, my overriding memory of a Warnock interview would be of him railing against some injustice or another his team had suffered at the hands of an official/s. There would usually be a smile on my face while these were taking place because of how I felt about him at the time. However, I must say that there was often a feeling with that smile of “actually, he’s got a point there” and the fact that the words were being spoken by someone who was a qualified referee gave them an authority that was not present in so many other post match rants by managers.
It may be down to Warnock mellowing himself in his old age (I doubt it mind!), but we’ve not seen him really laying into a ref or linesman during his time with us so far. No, as far as I’m concerned, the elements which make his media appearances things not to be missed in his time at Cardiff so far are his honesty and humour.
There was more of both in his pre and post matche interviews for the Bristol City game. If you are a Cardiff City World subscriber, I recommend that you find the time to watch his before game press conference because it contains two moments, one of self effacing and self aware humour and another of classic comedy timing that genuinely did make me laugh out loud.
The humour was there again in his post match interview and features in this snippet from the club website, but, having watched the full interview on Cardiff City World, it was his honesty this time which made the bigger impression on me.
In particular, it was his admission that he may have been to blame for what he described as a dour game in the first half (like so many matches that end up falling into the memorable category, yesterday’s had long periods before it’s breathless finale where nothing happened). The way the team was originally set up with three centrebacks, wing backs who were more concerned with defence than attack and the fit again Peter Whittingham, Aron Gunnarsson and Joe Ralls as the midfield trio screamed out that containment was the first priority yesterday and it was hardly surprising that, with only Anthony Pilkington sometimes offering him support, Kenneth Zohore cut a lonely, and generally ineffective, figure up front for the first three quarters of the game.
I’ll hold my hand up and admit that I predicted an odd goal defeat against a Bristol team boosted by three decent looking signings, so I’m not really in a position to say that a formation like that sent out a signal that we were paying opponents who had lost their last six Championship matches too much respect, but I will do anyway!
More importantly, our manager felt that way himself as he admitted to saying to Junior Hoilett (dropped to the bench yesterday for the first time since he came to the club) during the first half that “we need you out there mate”.
Perhaps, understandably, Warnock decided against making changes while the game meandered along at 0-0 for fifty minutes. When Joe Bryan’s fine long range volley cannoned back off the crossbar and then rebounded into the net off the unlucky Brian Murphy to break the deadlock though, it was surprising that Hoilett did not get his chance for a further twenty minutes or so which City spent being more concerned with how they stopped themselves falling further behind, as opposed to how they could get back on terms.
Warnock admitted that he had not enjoyed the game up until the sixty ninth minute and this only adds to the feeling that it was then that his side were liberated and able to fully show what they were capable of when Hoilett was, finally, unleashed on the Bristol defence.
It wasn’t just the Canadian international who came on though, there was also Kadeem Harris as City went from having one, and occasionally, two genuinely attacking players on the pitch to having, two “proper” attacking wingers and the closest we have to a classic number ten in the squad currently making up a threesome that was to give Zohore the assistance he had been missing previously.
I mentioned in the Villa piece that the three forward thinking players we fielded that day (Zohore, Hoilett and Harris) gave the lie to the frequently repeated (often by myself) line that we lack attacking pace. Having thought about that remark a bit more, I’d qualify it to say that we still need more pace in our central midfield in terms of how quickly support arrives when we attack or counter attack. This applies to sprinting ability, but I would also say that we need to move the ball with more pace when spaces which could be exploited present themselves.
Nevertheless, with the three players I mentioned in the team to make forward runs, the notion that we do not have the players in advanced positions with the speed to inconvenience defenders is a redundant one – I’d back our threesome to match or better most of the combinations of forwards the other twenty three Championship sides could put out in any 3 x 100 relay race.
Hoilett and Harris gave City the cutting edge they had lacked and it only took five minutes for us to equalize. True, neither were greatly involved in the move which ended with Mark Little bringing down Joe Ralls to concede a soft looking, but correctly awarded, penalty that Pilkington duly put away, but I would argue that their presence helped cause a tiring home defence to sit a bit deeper than they had done, thereby creating space that our central midfielders had not been given previously.
Scoring goals has not been a problem for City since Neil Warnock’s arrival, but we are still conceding too many and Harris and Pilkington were among a trio of players (Gunnarsson being the other one) who should have between them prevented Brian from crossing to the far post where Bosnian international Milan Djuric nodded down to Tammy Abraham who hooked home his eighteenth goal of the season from inside the six yard box.
We had only been level for four minutes and the match was going into the final ten, but City responded to this challenge brilliantly. The two subs combined when Hoilett’s pinpoint cross was headed in by Harris on the far post for the sort of goal that wide players should be looking to score when a ball comes in from the opposite flank and if Kadeem could make more of a habit of doing this, then a season which has seen him progress to a regular member of the first team squad from an occasional one may yet end with him in the starting eleven for most games.
Against opponents who had twice lost a lead to further dent their already brittle confidence levels, City had to be favourites to take the three points now and, just as he did against Wolves to clinch a come from behind victory inside the final five minutes, it was Pilkington who got the match winner.
Pilky’s goal against the men from Molineux had been a good one, but this one bettered it by some distance as he hammered in a right footed shot from twenty five yards which was making the net bulge almost before home keeper Frank Fielding had started to dive.
Against broken and beaten opponents, holding on to a single goal lead (we only do wins by that margin this season it seems) in the closing minutes was a simpler task than it is normally, but, nevertheless, it was impressive how City managed it this time.
Although, as mentioned earlier, I had predicted a defeat beforehand, I did qualify that slightly by saying that much would depend on whether we turned up for the derby game in Villa mode or Fulham mode. As it turned out, it was the former and so it is the very poor Fulham performance which looks more like a blip for now.
I’m pleased with that of course, but in a way, it only heightens my annoyance at the performance, but more the attitude, last week. Watching from the Grandstand, as opposed to the Ninian Stand, last week, I got more of a close up view of Neil Warnock than I normally do and, while it would be impossible for him not to show any emotion during a match, I was struck by his general lack of animation – this, together with his struggled to get out of bed remarks, presented a suspicion that our manager may have preferred to be somewhere else and, having spent a substantial portion of this piece praising him, I find that so disappointing if it is true.
In many ways, yesterday’s matchwinner Anthony Pilkington was the biggest culprit when it came to half hearted performances against Fulham. True he scored, but, apart from that, I thought he turned in a careless, distracted and lifeless display which had many thinking that, if he really is one of those we wouldn’t mind selling this month if the opportunity arises, then it would be no great loss.
However, for me what made what we saw from him last week all the more annoying was that, as was shown yesterday, he is capable of much, much more. I’m a fan of Pilkington for all sorts of reasons, but one of them is that he is one of only two players currently on our books who has me thinking there’s a fair chance that this will end up in the net when he gets a shooting chance like yesterday’s – I hope he is still with us next month, because, couldn’t be bothered performances against Fulham notwithstanding, he is a quality player at this level.
Having talked about one of the two players we have with a pretty reliable long shot in their armoury, I’m going to end by paying tribute to the other one. Peter Whittingham had one of those games yesterday which epitomises what I call the Whittingham dilemma which arises because he is now at a time in his career where the team can look better without him in it.
As one of those who made way when Hoilett and Harris came on, yesterday gave a bit more ammunition to his critics, but it’s not his performance against the wurzels that I want to talk about here, it’s that the game was the first one in the second decade of his Cardiff City career.
There were not too many players who would complete ten years with one team when I first started watching the game, but they’re virtually unheard of now and the fact that we’ve not only got one, but also one that fully justifies the title “Cardiff City legend” is something which should be celebrated.
Who cares if, like any thirty two, going on thirty three, year old, he is not quite the player he once was. When he is on his game, he is still worth the cost of admission on his own – well done Whitts, the player who has given me more great memories than any other I’ve seen at the club.
*picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/