A home game against opponents who had just two draws to show from their last eleven away games and three wins from their last sixteen league matches probably looked the easiest of our last ten games on paper, but, as Dave Jones keeps on telling us, there are no easy matches in the Championship and so it proved again yesterday at Cardiff City Stadium. On the face of it, a 3-1 victory with the opposition’s goal coming deep into added time looks comfortable enough, but, in the first half especially, Watford were the better team as, just like so many others, they got on top in the middle of the park and caused City no end of problems from dead ball situations.
Although Gabor Gyepes was able to return after missing the previous two matches, injuries to Kevin McNaughton and Anthony Gerrard as well as a back knock which forced Mark Kennedy off at half time meant that it could be legitimately claimed that City’s second half back four of Quinn – Gyepes – Blake – Capaldi did not include one member of Dave Jones’ first choice rearguard.
Even when the taller Kennedy was on in the first half, Gyepes was the only one in the back four who you would describe as being strong in the air and with the team’s midfield and attack being on the short side apart from Jay Bothroyd, it was understandable that visiting keeper Scott Loach was taking free kicks from close to the half way line so that Watford could pile as many forward as they tried to make their height advantage count. As it turned out, City, relying more on the likes of Quinn, Rae and Whittingham than normal were able to cope pretty well throughout with balls played into the penalty area from in front of them, but Scottish international Don Cowie’s corners caused them no end of problems in the first half.
There was little sign of worries to come though as City scored within the first ten minutes for the second successive league game. However, unlike Jay Bothroyd’s scrambled matchwinner against Middlesbrough, this was a fine goal as Peter Whittingham delivered a perfect ball from a corner directly into Ross McCormack’s path about fifteen yards out and he half volleyed it straight into the net. It was only McCormack’s fourth goal of the season ending a goalless run of eleven games for the Scottish international and when you take into account how light the modern football is, the technique required to drop a corner kick so that it’s target does not have to break stride and then to hit the net with a first time shot using what is considered the receiver’s weaker foot, meant that it was a goal that I believe few other teams in our league could have scored.
If scoring early was supposed to calm things amongst team and supporters then it didn’t work because the remainder of the first half saw the City goal survive all sorts of narrow squeaks before they were able to go in at the interval with a 1-0 lead they barely deserved. As mentioned before, most of the trouble came from Cowie’s corners as Hoskins volleyed just over from close in, Kennedy diverted a goal bound header wide and another header rattled the crossbar with the effort from the rebound being grabbed by David Marshall just as it was about to cross the line. Watford were less of a threat from open play, but when they took advantage of poor referee Crossley’s decision to not let Kennedy back on after treatment for what seemed an age to work an opening down our left flank, it needed some outstanding defensive covering from Paul Quinn to prevent Helguson tapping in an equaliser.
The opening minutes of the second half saw Watford putting more pressure on, but the difference was that whereas City were just hacking the ball clear before the break so that it would, inevitably, come straight back at them, there was now an element of control to their possession as Rae and, in particular, McPhail began to see more of the ball. That said, even if the threat to their goal wasn’t so great, the fact that City looked incapable of adding to their lead meant that things were still pretty fraught at a Cardiff City Stadium which was having one of it’s day when I find myself considering (but not ultimately believing) that those who complain about a lack of atmosphere at the new ground might have a point after all.
As to the reason why everyone was able to enjoy a relatively stress free last half an hour, then I would say that, put simply, the hitherto innocuous Chris Burke became a major influence on proceedings. Burke had been having one of those afternoons when he can look like a lightweight luxury as, perhaps thinking he has to do “something special” on the rare occasions our struggling defence and midfield can provide him with decent possession, he ends up frequently giving the ball away. On sixty three minutes though, Burke his full back and dropped a cross on to Peter Whittingham’s head for the division’s top scorer to double our lead. Watching the goal at the time, I thought it was a pretty straightforward affair, but television pictures confirmed that Whittingham was some distance out and his header had to be very well placed to elude Loach – it was a finish of a player used to scoring and I don’t think the Whittingham of last season would have, firstly, found himself in that position and, secondly, if he had done, I don’t believe he would have been able to score from there.
With City now in control, they began to move the ball about well on a pitch not conducive to good football and Burke helped work Rae clear on the right where his good cross was met firmly by Bothroyd only for Loach to show why he has won England Under 21 caps with an excellent save. The keeper was helpless a minute or two later though when City counter attacked and McPhail fed Burke who beat a couple of opponents in a run down the left hand side from halfway – when the winger’s pass, intended for McCormack, was blocked, the ball rebounded back to him and he coolly placed an angled left shot into the net.
It was just a question of playing out time from then on, but Helguson’s fine volley in added time provided the visitors with a deserved consolation which gave the final scoreline a more realistic appearance. It was a shame that City’s patched up rearguard did not have the satisfaction of a keeping a clean sheet, but all of the players in our back four could feel pleased with their contribution in a team performance which, for me, saw no outstanding individual displays – if I had to pick a man of the match then Gyepes and Burke would be the main contenders and I would just choose the latter, but it was one of those days when we did not have a poor player in the team and, if the same can apply to most of our remaining matches then, it is going to take a ten point deduction to stop us getting that top six place.