The arrival of Rick Wright at the back end of the 1990/91 season had transformed the outlook at Cardiff City. Home gates had occasionally dipped below 2,000 during the seasons we spent in the basement when we weren’t chasing promotion and there were constant money worries at a club which I would say was at it’s lowest ebb since it joined the Football League in 1920. The Barry based businessman changed all that though, culminating in what was arguably the most successful season in our history in 1992/93 as, for only the second time, City finished as Champions of their division – the Welsh Cup was also won that year.
The arrival on loan in March 1991 of midfield player Kevin McDonald, who had been part of Liverpool’s double winning team only five years earlier didn’t have the desired effect on results, but it did send out the signal that, for just about the first time in more than a decade, City had the resources to match their ambition. In saying that mind, the summer months of 1991 saw plenty of talk from Mr Wright about what he was going to do do, but nothing in the way of action on the transfer front and a young team featuring the likes of Allan Lewis and Robin Semark were beaten 2-1 at Ninian Park by Lincoln City on the opening day of the 1991/92 campaign.
Wright’s response to this setback was dramatic as first team coach (it was emphasised by the club that he wasn’t the manager!) Eddie May was allowed to spend around £200,000 on three new players by the time the team played again four days later, against Bournemouth in the League Cup. Northern Ireland international Paul Ramsey, an aggressive midfield player who became team captain, arrived from Leicester for £40,000 while another Northern Irishman Paul Millar cost £65,000 from Port Vale with the plan being that he would accompany Carl Dale, bought for £95,000 from Chester, up front but, in the event, while Dale became City’s best striker in years, Millar proved to be more effective as a combative midfield player with a terrific lefted shot.
Although all three newcomers were to prove themselves to be quality players at basement level, results were still patchy with too many drawn games ensuring that the first half of the campaign was spent in mid table. A run of one defeat in fourteen matches in all competitions built up momentum though and when struggling Maidstone United arrived at Ninian Park on new Years Day 1992, City were handily placed in ninth position having been unbeaten in eight league games. However, a few of our our players performed like they had come to the ground straight from their New Year’s Eve celebrations and a 5-0 defeat which, actually, could have been a lot worse than that but for some good saves by young keeper Gavin Ward, ensued.
A 1-0 home win over Hereford (courtesy of a Carl Dale goal well into added time) and a goalless draw at Lincoln went some way to erasing memories of the Maidstone debacle, but City were struggling to create chances so, once again, Rick Wright came up with the cash as a couple of loan signings who would make an instant impact were brought in. The missing creativity was provided by Chelsea youngster Eddie Newton who would become a regular in the Londoner’s midfield soon after his return from Cardiff. With the work ethic to back up his flair and talent, Newton was too good really for the level we were playing at and I would say he is still one of the best loan signings we have ever made, but if it was the Chelsea man who took all of the plaudits, the contribution of the hard working Gerry Harrison, signed from Bristol City on a two month deal, on the flanks should not be ingored.
Newton and Harrison made their debuts on a miserable January afternoon against a Chesterfield team who had no answer to a City side playing with a style and panache not often seen at this level – the 4-0 scoreline being an accurate measure of the difference between the two teams. That win got the locals excited and this was reflected in two more 8,000 + crowds that turned up at Ninian Park to, firstly, listen to a fogbound 3-2 win over promotion contenders Mansfield and then watch a routine 3-0 win over struggling York.
With the team also picking up points away from home, City now had an impetus behind them – they were in fifth place going into the much anticipated home game with leaders Burnley on 29 February. Burnley, managed by ex City defender Jimmy Mullen were destined to win the league by a margin of six points, but there was a genuine optimism around that City could be joining them in the third tier and the biggest home league crowd for eleven years was present to see their team play well and generally have the edge in an absorbing battle.
The visitors were grateful to their on loan from Hearts goalkeeper Nicky Walker for keeping them on level terms on more than one occasion, but Burnley had the resilience of Champions and struck twice in the last five minutes. Adrian Randall silencing the home crowd with a low shot and then, as City piled forward looking for the equaliser, top scorer Mike Conroy finished off an incisive counter attack to inflict a harsh defeat on City – back in those days it was almost taken as read that City would “bottle it” when a big crowd turned up at Ninian Park, but that wasn’t the case on this occasion, they had played well, but come up against a confident and well motivated team.
A 2-1 win over Walsall three days later suggested City had got over what was a big setback, but it’s impact could be gauged by the side then going six games without a win. Harrison had returned to Bristol City now and, by the time City returned to winning ways with a 4-0 home win over lowly Halifax, Newton’s time at the club was almost over as well. His Ninian Park swansong came in a 3-1 win over Barnet on Easter Monday that saw him chaired off the pitch by City fans wanting to thank him for his contribution over the past three months. That win kept us in the chase for a Play Off position, but a 3-1 defeat in Newton’s last match, in front of 12,000 in the reverse fixture at Burnley, left them with too much to do and they finished up three points short of the last Play Off place.
A year later City fans were celebrating promotion and a Championship as, having added the likes of Phil Stant, Kevin Ratcliffe, Nick Richardson and Derek Brazil to their ranks, they powered their way to the title. That word “powered” is significant thouhgh because that was how I thought they ended up winning so many of their games – there can be no doubt that the 92/93 side were the better team, but, when Eddie Newton and co got it right in 91/92, I reckon they played the better football.
29 February 1992
Cardiff City 0 Burnley 2
City Ward; Perry, Baddeley, Gibbins, Searle; Harrison (Griffith), Newton, Ramsey, Blake (Gorman); Dale, Pike
Burnley Walker; Measham, Farrell, Davis, Jakub; Harper, Randall (1), Deary, Eli (Lancashire); Conroy (1), Francis; sub (not used) Bray