There are pecking orders in any league, but it seems to me that they are more pronounced and important in the division we’ll be playing in next season. Although the identity of the clubs who fall into the groups I’m going to describe could be argued about, I would say that at the top of the Premiership pecking order is the group of clubs who expect to put in realistic challenges for at least two major trophies (one of which should be the Premiership itself) at the start of each season – for these clubs qualification for the Champions League is considered a must. Next up is a group who feel that with a lot of luck and a following wind, they might end up challenging for a Champions League place and a domestic cup or two.
In my opinion, the two Merseyside clubs are amongst those which fall into that second category and, currently, Malky Mackay is being strongly linked with one of them for the vacant managers job. Now, I don’t care if you have been supporting Cardiff City for half a year, half a decade or half a century, I’m pretty sure that you’ve not seen a manager of this club being quoted as a realistic candidate to take over a side with the history, prestige and talent of the Everton FC of 2013. Malky Mackay doesn’t appear to be a popular choice as Everton’s next manager amongst their support, but it looks like he definitely has his admirers in the corridors of power at Goodison Park – whether he gets the job or not, he is being looked on as a serious candidate for the post.
Therefore, it appears that important people at “bigger” clubs than ours rate our manager even if some City fans appear to be loath to give him much credit even after our promotion. Malky’s critics say that has never managed at Premiership level, but that could be said about so many notable current bosses – it didn’t put Everton off when they went in for David Moyes and he turned out pretty well for them. There was a time when not having much playing experience in the Premiership (Malky only played fourteen times in the top flight during the final year of his playing career) might have been seen as a drawback to someone who was looking to manage at that level, but a look at the playing careers of four of the men in charge of the top five sides for most of this season suggests that this no longer applies (the managers of both Merseyside clubs didn’t pull up any trees during their playing career either).
There are those who denigrate our manager’s achievements this season reasoning that anyone could have got us promotion with the money he was given to spend in the transfer market, but having the money to spend and spending it well ate two different things – Mark Hughes’ spell at Queens Park Rangers springs to mind in that regard and, at a different level, I always thought Frank Burrows was someone who did better in the transfer market with a really tight budget than he did when he had something significant to spend.
However, it is true that our manager had a bigger transfer budget this season than most of his rivals in the Championship and he didn’t do too badly on that front last year either, but, when you look at the twenty nine players Malky Mackay has brought in since he took over nearly two years ago, how many of them can be called duds? Sad to relate, I think Earnie falls into that category and when you consider how much was paid for Etien Velikonja, I suppose he does as well – it’s hard to see the likes of Kadeem Harris and Filip Kiss making an impact next season, but the former is seen as one for the future and the latter showed himself to be a useful performer last season.
The good signings far outweigh the bad ones then for me – a lot of money was paid for the likes of Kimbo and Jordon Mutch and it would have been reasonable to rank those two as dodgy signings without the fine contributions they made from Easter Monday onwards at a time when questions were being asked about whether we were “doing a Cardiff”.
Anyway, bringing in players from other clubs is only part of the manager’s job, for me a good manager also improves the ones he has already at his club. Of the players he inherited, it may well be true to say that David Marshall has had the best two seasons of his career under Malky’s management, Aron Gunnarsson’s game came on leaps and bounds last season, Ben Turner (who I thought was tremendous in the closing stages of the campaign when we were short of experienced centrebacks) continues to develop, Andrew Taylor was a model of consistency and, although his legion of critics will no doubt disagree, Rudy Gestede looked a more complete player to me compared to last year.
Mention of Gestede brings me to my main bugbear with Malky Mackay’s management of the club – we don’t play the sort of football I thought I saw his Watford team play when he was in charge there! Even here though, I wonder if I’m really being fair to Malky – I think you tend to be more critical when you are watching your team play, whereas the “good bits” you see from a game you watch as a neutral tend to stick in your mind, while the dross gets ignored. It’s easy to look at a City team including Gestede or Heidar Helguson and the number of set piece goals we scored and dismiss us as a long ball team (it’s a reputation we’ve got in some places – for example, I’ve seen Malky dismissed as a long ball merchant by Everton fans on some of their messageboards.
I fall into the same trap myself sometimes, but keep on going back to what Malky said at his first press conference after taking over here when he told the media that his Cardiff side will play in a way that causes our opponents most problems. I take this to mean that if the side we are playing are thought to be weak in the air at the back, then we’ll go more direct, but if we are up against a side that are strong aerially, but lack a bit of pace defensively, then we’ll try and exploit that by trying to work the ball into areas where we can cause most damage.
I suppose when you think about it, isn’t it best to be flexible tactically rather than stick slavishly to one method of playing through thick and thin? Although I think it’s fair to say that there weren’t as many instances of us turning on the style as you might expect from a team which topped the league by an eight point margin, it would be wrong to say we only played one way – the two games with Blackburn, Blackpool and Burnley along with Wolves, Brighton, the wurzels and Forest at home are all examples of matches where we’ve passed the ball well which I’ve come up with off the top of my head.
In the two seasons under Malky Mackay, City look to me to be far more professional in terms of training and preparation. Squad discipline and togetherness is much stronger than it was and there appears to be a coherent structure below first team level following the appointment of Dick Bate – Dave Jones used to talk about building a club, Malky Mackay doesn’t, but he seems to be making an excellent job in doing it. Put all of that together with the fact that in each of the two seasons he has been with us, there have been achievements which, arguably, rank in the top five in the club’s history, I’d say Malky deserves to follow his seven out of ten ranking for 2011/12 with a nine this time around.