Many pundits will tell you that the Championship is the most competitive league in Europe – actually, scrub that, the world. It’s the league where the most humble of sides can beat the recently fallen “Premier League giants” on any given day, a league where nothing can ever be taken for granted.
Well, after the latest round of Championship fixtures, the “most competitive league in the world” is shaping up to be pretty predictable in 2014/15. With the season just over two thirds completed, it’s still a little early to say for certain that this will come to pass, but, as things are shaping up, the teams to be promoted and relegated look to be coming from small groups at the top and bottom of the table.
Things look pretty clear cut to me at the top – Forest fans will be telling themselves that a win over Bournemouth tonight would put them right back in the Play Off hunt, but that ten point gap between themselves and Wolves in eighth looks a very big one to me. At the lower end of the table, there is a pretty widespread consensus that the bottom two are already gone and no one is giving Millwall much of a chance at the moment – Rotherham need to look out for themselves after two heavy defeats and Fulham are still very erratic, but people have been telling me for some time that the current bottom three would be the ones to be relegated and. as of now, I can’t mount much of an argument against them.
This of course presupposes that Cardiff City are not going to become major players in the end of season relegation drama. Such a possibility looked to be well and truly on the cards as January ended, but, with one match to go in the month, February has been a steadying period for the side and last night’s very significant 1-0 win at Wigan means that, besides picking up their first victory since beating Fulham in the back to blue match on 10 January, it’s now five matches since a defeat for Russell Slade’s team.
So, although further dramas at the bottom of the table cannot be discounted completely given the club we are talking about here, all of the signs are that City are going to see out the final couple of months of the campaign in a mini league comprising of about half the sides in the division where the prize for success will be a ninth placed finish and the price of failure will be coming about twentieth in the table.
Even if we end up winning the mid table battle to be “best of the rest”, I’m fairly sure a finish just inside the top ten will be deemed not good enough by many (including owner and Board I daresay) – even with last month’s cost cutting exercise, this is still a very expensively assembled squad.
I’d like to think that the fact I’m not using hindsight would be proved by a look back at some of my pieces on here from earlier in the season when I said that I was never convinced that our squad was as good as many claimed. Truth be told, I didn’t expect the level of performance from them to be as consistently poor as is has been, but I’d like to think that, basically, I had this squad figured out – there were others in the division that I got spectacularly wrong however.
Although it might have not have seemed like it after watching us toil against the likes of Rotherham, Reading and Brighton, it seems that there are worse sides than us in the division. For example, by completing our first double of the season in beating Wigan, we have, surely, shown that they are inferior to us.
Back in August the score was the same when the two clubs met at Cardiff City Stadium, but, back then, the game was seen by many as being very significant because, even then, the three points at stake were seen to be potentially very important at the top of the table come the end of the season. As mentioned earlier, I was not sure that this would prove to be the case for City, but I was convinced pre season about our opponents – I ended my piece about the game by saying “Wigan might have made a poor start, but it’s hard to see them struggling for long” (in fact, they and Norwich were my pre season tips for automatic promotion).
Anyone who says they saw Wigan’s troubles this season coming is a liar in my book – earlier I talked about the Championship’s competitiveness, so seeing a fancied team struggle shouldn’t be too much of a shock, but Wigan are now in real danger of becoming tailed off at the bottom of the league with Blackpool. I’ve looked at their season from afar and thought that they’ve got to start picking up results soon with the squad they’ve got and on the face of it, home matches against Charlton and Cardiff in the space of the last five days represented a great chance to kickstart a revival, but both games were lost without a goal being scored.
In fact, after beating Blackpool and Birmingham at the DW Stadium at the back end of August in the two matches following their defeat here, Wigan have been winless at home since then and it’s now just one point from eight home games after last night’s defeat – teams don’t avoid relegation with records like that.
The home team’s travails should be a warning to City as they, seemingly, face a second season in the Championship following relegation – Wigan had the advantage of another season of parachute payments and, leaving the sort of matters that prompted a boycott of the home Director’s Box by City Board members to one side for now, had an owner who, from a distance anyway, seemed pretty clued in when it came to football in a way that we are not used to at Cardiff. However, at the age of 78, it appears that Dave Whelan’s sure touch has deserted him – the appointment of Malky Mackay was a huge gamble which is just not working.
Settings aside the baggage that appointing Mackay following the nature of his departure from Cardiff brings, I find it startling how his stock has fallen so far in such a short space of time. The clues are there that his relationship with Vincent Tan had broken down when Manchester City were beaten back in August 2013 and so, even at the time of our greatest triumph in the Premier League, the writing may well have been on the wall for him already.
However, go back a few months to the close season and all of the talk was how we had one of best young managers in the game and the persistent rumours about him becoming David Moyes’ successor at Everton were never dismissed as being too outlandish to be true – Mackay to Everton seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Now, less than two years on, whatever it was that marked him out as a manager to watch has gone. Wigan have taken a meagre eight points from his sixteen games in charge and their record under him is far worse than it was under the man he replaced (Uwe Rosler).
Maybe Mackay can resurrect his managerial career yet. I’ve got my doubts about that though on two fronts, will he be able to recapture whatever it was that made him good, but, maybe more importantly, will the desire be there to try again if, as seems likely, it ends in tears for him at Wigan?
After the game, Mackay declared himself to be touched by the reception he got from the City fans before kick off – sure, plenty of bridges have been burned over the last fifteen months or so with large sections of the club’s support and I’m not going to tell those that have no time for the man any more that they are wrong to feel like that, but I look at him and what has happened to us since he left and I can’t help thinking about how things could have been.
We are where we are though and Russell Slade’s side produced more of what we have seen from them in their previous four matches at Wigan – it’s not pretty (apart from a few occasions against Blackburn about which I’m already beginning to question myself as to whether they really happened!), but, built around the solidity of our centrebacks, it’s solid and was able to survive the loss through injury of our two new full backs.
I say it’s not pretty, but it needs to be recorded that we scored one of our better goals of the season last night as a central midfielder burst forward, beat three opponents and slotted the ball confidently home. Even when he was playing his most effective football for City, I’m not sure if I had asked someone who had not seen the goal who the scorer was based on that description, I doubt it very much if I would have got the answer Aron Gunnarsson, but Gunnarsson it was.
Actually, at the risk of falling into a trap I’ve been caught in a few times already this season, I’d say that Gunnarsson is one of two much criticised members of the current squad who have stepped their game up in the last month or so. While the search for signs of the Peter Whittingham that was regarded as the best player in this league once goes on, his midfield partner is looking more like his old self and at the back, Sean Morrison is beginning to provide some evidence as to why we paid so much for him back in August – Bruno Manga’s more eye catching defending is the inspiration behind a record of two goals conceded in five matches, but Morrison’s steady work alongside him should not be ignored either.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/
by The other Bob Wilson with 3 comments
The jacks finished the season halfway up the old Fourth Division and baffled as to why there was such a huge contrast between their performances at the Vetch Field and in their away games as they visited places like Workington, Southport and Stockport.
Their manager at the time Harry Griffiths was at a loss to explain how a team that were blowing away sides at home would become so timid on their travels and, having done some checking, it’s easy to see why he was so frustrated.
Swansea scored fifty one times in winning fourteen and losing just one of their twenty three home matches, but there were only two wins to go with fourteen defeats in away games with a paltry fifteen goals scored.
Swansea in 75/76 is just one example of a problem that tends to afflict at least one team every season and the concern for Cardiff City fans after another feeble away performance in losing 1-0 at Millwall, is that this season there are increasing signs that their team might be the Championship’s number one soft touch away from home.
Having been able to watch (or should that be endure?) six out of our seven away games so far, I suppose it could be argued that there has been an improvement of sorts in the last two of them. Unlike at Blackburn, Wolves, Fulham and Derby, it didn’t look like we could collapse at any time and end up being on the end of a thrashing at Blackpool and Millwall.
However, it wouldn’t have escaped the attention of many of our supporters that we were up against a side who had not won all season and another that had not won in eight in these matches. When all three of your away defeats have been by 1-0, there will be some bemoaning of your side’s luck, but two of them have come in exactly the sort of game where a potential top six team would be expected to make their alleged superiority count.
Sadly, just like Blackpool before them, Millwall wanted the win more than we did and yet this is the same bunch of players who have recovered from a trio of bad results at home by beating a Sheffield Wednesday side that was defending an unbeaten away record, a Forest team that hadn’t lost a game and an Ipswich who scored first while being unbeaten in eight.
Millwall manager Ian Holloway referred both before and after yesterday’s game to the pressure Russell Slade is under because of the high expectations at Cardiff. Yet, with the transfer spending seen since summer 2013 and the current wage budget at the club, I think it’s reasonable for the man who is bankrolling the whole thing and the fans who spend hard earned cash to watch their side to expect a lot more than we’ve seen so far.
There’s a trend developing here I’m afraid – despite our continuing inability to keep clean sheets, we are quite good defensively away from home, but five goals from seven games is a woeful figure for a team that was supposed to have a potent strike force following Ole’s summer spending.
While questions still remain about our midfield on all sorts of levels, it has to be said that our army of strikers do not look quite as good now as they did back in June when they didn’t have to play football – Nicky Maynard is making little impact, his misses yesterday showed that Adam LeFondre is still struggling in front of goal, Federico Macheda still does not convince, Kenwyne Jones is too static and Javi Guerra seems to be on his way out of the club.
Meanwhile, leaving Jones aside for now, Joe Mason, who looked such a great prospect for us back in 2011/12, and Rhys Healey, who has shown himself to be a very good finisher at Under 21 level, have both scored as many league goals as the other four put together in their loan spells at Bolton and Colchester respectively.
With our defence doing a so so job, our midfield looking very ordinary and, Jones apart, our strikers not scoring on our travels, a pattern is emerging in City away games and it is one which needs to be addressed and sorted out as soon as possible if we are going to come close to mounting the bid for a Play Off place that I’m guessing is seen as a minimum requirement by Vincent Tan.
It’s possible that upcoming opponents in away games (particularly of the type we have faced in our last two and will do in our next two) might have looked at our squad and our wage bill and felt a bit intimidated at one time. However, they now know that if they play typical Championship football (i.e. put the effort in) and score once against a team that doesn’t do clean sheets, then they are very unlikely to lose and there’s a good chance they’ll win given our lack of firepower on other team’s grounds.
Taken in isolation, 1-0 defeats at places like Blackpool and Millwall go with the territory in a league like the Championship – the one about anyone being able to beat anyone else in this division may be a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
However, where are those times in away games that you used to get with Cardiff sides of the recent past at this level when you felt the team was in control? There have been the odd few minutes here and there where that has happened this season, but the overwhelming impression I get is of a side that is almost constantly under pressure and struggling for both inspiration and confidence.
So, Russell Slade’s first away game in charge turned out to be as fruitless and flat as the ones under Ole and Gabbidon/Young. Predictably, our manager looked for positives after the match and subsequent results tended to support the view that this defeat had not done any great harm to our cause as the Championship lived up to it’s reputation as a barmy league.
While Bournemouth managing to score almost twice as many away goals as we’ve managed all season in their 8-0 win at Birmingham took the headlines, only Wolves out of the top six yesterday morning won – we just dropped one place and are still only four points off sixth position.
None of this changes the fact though that we have to get out of the routine that was bemusing Harry Griffiths nearly forty years ago. I’ve seen it said that we suffered yesterday because of the effects of playing three matches in eight days. I daresay there is an element of truth in this (after all, Russell Slade has identified a lack of fitness as one of the things he is working on to put right), but, for me, the problems we have in away games are at least as much psychological as they are physical – the belief seems to drain out of us as soon as we leave South Wales.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/by The other Bob Wilson with 7 comments