Whisper it quietly, but Dougie Freedman did have a point when he talked about Cardiff City being the “nearly men”. To use a comparison from another sport, City sides of the recent past have been like a classy boxer who had all of the moves as well as a knock out punch, but a combination of a glass jaw and a propensity for allowing less talented opponents to bully them into submission has meant that they have not been able to nail that title which has looked like theirs for the taking at times. Where the Palace boss got it wrong though was that his comments implied that the current team also fell into that category. Last night’s stirring win over Freedman’s Palace side proved that this Cardiff City team don’t deserve the nearly men or “scared stiff” tags that he was eager to apply to them.
Now, of course it might well be that we will lose at Wembley on February 25 (in fact, change “might well be” to “probably will be”) and we might well also end up missing out on promotion, but, for me, reaching the Finals of the two biggest domestic Cup competitions within the space of four years for a team from our league is hardly deserving of the nearly men tag. The claim that I heard in last night’s television commentary that we “choked” against Portsmouth in 2008 is a ridiculous one. That City side certainly punched it’s weight and, just as it is this season, getting to a Wembley Final has to be seen as a tangible achievement which should not be diminished because the higher ranked team won four years ago and, probably, will do again in 2012.
Going back to the boxing analogy, it soon became clear that the 2011/12 team liked a scrap. If teams wanted to mix it with them, they found that City were prepared to give as good as they got and in those early games they also showed a pleasing ability to soak up punishment on the way to beating more fancied opponents. However, such victories tended to be recorded as triumphs of spirit over ability – a less talented City side were able to do to some of the high fliers what others had been doing to us over the previous three seasons. Gradually though, there has been a realisation there is more ability and class in this team than had been previously thought, it’s just that when it’s allied to hard work, sound tactics and a solid team ethic it’s sometimes harder to spot.
Last night offered some of the most convincing proof of the team’s skill and style we’ve seen so far this season. In what was, arguably, their biggest match of the season so far, City were able to put together some good football, while also showing their customary zeal when it came to things like closing down the opposition and not giving them time on the ball.
Against this all Palace had to offer in response was the dogged resistance of the outgunned fighter. They rolled with the punches, held on and absorbed the punishment as best they could, but came up with very, very little in the way of counter punching. The pundits said that Palace could cause us problems with their set pieces -they didn’t. The pundits said their pace on the break might hurt us – it didn’t. In fairness, Wilfred Zaha, judged as “easily the division’s top talent” in this selection of the Championship’s top ten players, did show what all the fuss is about at times, but he also missed the only decent chance his side had all night. Credit to Palace for hanging on and seeing out the last forty minutes or so without conceding after the dismissal of captain Patrick McCarthy, but there was a big difference in ability between the two sides – certainly bigger than you would expect in a game between two teams separated by eleven places in the Championship. If that sounds arrogant and condescending towards our opponents, then I apologise to any of their supporters who read this, but I think the game would have been stopped to avoid Palace taking further punishment if it had been a boxing match. Our opponents have shown this season that they are a better side than they looked last night, but I think us City fans have to acknowledge that this year’s side has a superb mixture of hunger, spirit, organisation and ability which makes us a very hard team to play against.
I will say one last thing before leaving the boxing theme behind though and that is that the game offered further evidence that we too often lack a knock out punch when we have our opponents hurt and on the ropes. This was seen on Saturday when Portsmouth should have been out of the game by half time and last night all we had to show for one hundred and twenty minutes of domination was one goal which owed a great deal to our opponents. There was some good passing in the move which led to the early goal and Don Cowie’s cross was a wicked one which asked big questions of the Palace defence, but there was no City player within yards of Anthony Gardner when he diverted the ball in. Yes we had bad luck at times (notably when Kenny Miller and Filip Kiss hit the woodwork), but we also missed a series of good chances. Hopefully the confirmation of a day at Wembley will mean that the Malaysian investors will see fit to give Malky Mackay a bit more to spend in his bid to ensure that we are more able to punch our weight – a team with a record like ours over thirty five matches should be able to point to more than one win by a margin of more than two goals,
Today isn’t a time to spend too long on dwelling on the things that weren’t right about last night though, it’s a time for congratulating people at the club for providing another fantastic occasion in this period which I believe will be judged as one of the three most successful in the club’s history in years to come (and, if we can get to the Premiership in the next few years, then I’d say the current era would outstrip the fifties). It was great to see TG and Vincent Tan so obviously enjoying themselves after the game – there are those who claim that they should be spending more on team building, but I believe such people are losing sight of just how much we as spectators and Cardiff City as a club owe the Malaysian investors already. Therefore, I would like to record my appreciation of our Chairman and our main investor for the part they have played in making never to be forgotten events like last night’s possible.
However, it can be argued that the person most responsible for nights like this and for making this season such an enjoyable one so far is Malky Mackay. Our manager was able to produce a selection and tactical tweak (the deployment of Steve McPhail in front of the back four) which seemed to catch Palace on the hop and a team which was fired up without losing it’s discipline while also refraining from mind games or belittling of our opponents. As well as that though, there were also little touches like the withdrawal of the booked Darcy Blake as soon as McCarthy was sent off to ensure that Howard Webb was not given the opportunity to level things up by showing a second yellow card like some referees are inclined to do. This showed our manager was thinking on his feet (does he ever sit down during a game?). Piloting a Championship side to a Wembley Final is probably the most impressive item on Malky Mackay’s CV at the moment, but, it’s hard to see it as being the pinnacle of his achievements in football management – the problem for us is that I’m sure his work over the past three seasons has not gone unnoticed and there’ll be those who will want to see him adding to that CV at their club. Whatever the future holds though, I’d just like to say a thank you to Malky Mackay for the marvellous job he has done so far.
The other thank you is to the players. It would be very hard to single out one of our outfield men for praise for the contributions during the game when they all did such a fine job, but Craig Conway, Rudy Gestede and Peter Whittingham were able to cope with the pressure of the occasion when taking their penalties. However, the real hero was Tom Heaton who has had his share of flak from supporters since the game at Selhurst Park. Heaton’s save from Pentrebane’s Jermaine Easter was especially important after Kenny Miller’s earlier miss – it’s hard on David Marshall, but Heaton has earned the right to start at Wembley.
Actually, there is one other thank you (Christ, this is getting like one of those speeches at an award ceremony!) and that is to the crowd who created such a superb atmosphere. The Palace fans played a full part in that as well, but I think our support has been excellent over the past two games. The response to David Marshall’s clanger against Portsmouth was superb and, although there was a group sat quite close to me who persisted with the “Stand Up if you hate England” crap, they were largely drowned out by those who were more interested in supporting their team. Finally, congratulations to whoever thought of signing those lines from “Three Little Birds” as the game headed towards penalties – although not worrying about a thing didn’t come too easily to some of us, it was an inspired choice in the circumstances!
* pictures courtesy of Wales online