The obvious benefit of it has been that four sides from each division of the Football League can prolong their season by contesting what is in essence a mini tournament with a final at Wembley played amid tremendous tension with the prize for the winners being a place in a higher division the following season – the difference in financial terms between victory and defeat in the Championship Play Off Final has seen it sometimes described as the biggest game of the domestic season.
What I have in mind in this instance though is how the Play Off system can give sides a sense of purpose in the latter stages of a season that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
Although yesterday’s loss to Wolves makes it the longest of long shots now for Forest, the fact that you can now be promoted by finishing sixth when you once had to come third means their fans can keep on dreaming a little longer. In League One, I’d say even Gillingham down in fourteenth place could still yet end up playing Championship football next season and, in League Two, where a seventh place finish is sufficient, the possible promotion teams include Morecambe in thirteenth.
All of this makes Cardiff City’s 2014/15 season remarkable, even if it is for the most mundane of reasons.
Even now, with only a month of the season left, I’d say there would still be an element of tension in the dressing rooms of at least three quarters of the teams in the Football League because there will be the thought that they could still be going up or down.
At Cardiff though, most supporters were resigned to not going up two months ago (I’d guess it took the players a month longer to give up on it), while I’d say players and fans accepted relegation was not going to be an issue after we won at Wigan and Rotherham – in essence, there has been nothing really on our games for more than a month now and I’m struggling to remember the last time we had two months at the end of the campaign filled with games with nothing riding on them.
This was the reason why when I entered the newsagents yesterday morning to be greeted by a discussion on how City were going to get on at Reading, my first contribution was to say “it doesn’t really matter does it – mid table mediocrity” – I honestly hadn’t given the game a thought since waking up.
There was one thing that excited me about the match beforehand and that was the news that Eoin Doyle and Conor McAleny were going to be paired together up front and that Joe Mason was finally going to feature in a Cardiff City squad for the first time in nineteen months.
I figured that with Kenwyne Jones away at Bournemouth (where he, so predictably, scored within a minute of coming on to salvage a draw at Ipswich) and Alex Revell injured, City would have no alternative but to play to the strengths of strikers who have to rely on stealth, rather than heading ability and power, to get the better of their markers.
City would have to pass the ball to feet and patiently probe for openings against Reading and, of course, I just took it for granted that the team would be able to seamlessly take on what would, despite the better football we’ve seen in recent weeks, be a pretty drastic change of style of play.
On the face of it, an outcome of 54/46 in the possession battle for the team who have come second in that particular facet of the game for about eighty per cent of the time this season suggests that they did, but this was an occasion where the statistics really did lie.
The side which those stats show are only better than tailed off Blackpool when it comes to retaining the ball in this year’s Championship may have had more of it than their opponents, but it seems that, whether we rely on the rapier or bludgeon up front, we find it equally difficult to fashion attacking opportunities when we don’t have a corner, attacking free kick or throw in – I really should have known better!.
Reading scored a simple goal early on and, with them being one of those sides for which relegation is still a theoretical possibility, seemed happy to settle for that against opponents who were unable to fashion themselves even a sight of goal in a turgid first forty five minutes.
City’s lack of attacking punch may have been down to that nothing to play for feeling which I referred to earlier or it might have been that McAleny, Doyle and Mason (who replaced the latter for the final quarter of the game and managed to touch the ball just the twice!) were not as effective as I expected them to be, but, of course, they did have that midfield, which has been such a problem all season long, behind them – for most of our games this season, there’s been a temptation to pin their lack of quality in the attacking third of the pitch down to them not having the ball often enough, but, if anything, having more of the ball will only make that lack of creativity and guile all the more apparent,
City did finally rouse themselves as an attacking force around the hour mark when home keeper Federici had to turn aside Craig Noone’s shot, but this only woke up the Reading attack as City had to rely on the woodwork and an outstanding Marshall save to stay in the game.
A second Reading goal continued to look more likely than a first Cardiff one right up until the game’s eighty ninth minute when someone on the City team came up with one of those moments of quality that they have been so conspicuously lacking all season which can transform a game - McAleny’s snapshot from twenty yards after receiving a good pass by Aron Gunnarsson was past Federici almost before he could move and, all of a sudden, City had a draw which they didn’t deserve to keep their nice little run going as the season winds down.
I must say that I like the look of the two lads who have come in from Everton,- I’ve talked about Matt Kennedy before on here, but McAleny has a touch of class to him, there’s still a suspicion that he’s a bit injury prone, but I’d hope that City would do all they could to get him if there was a chance of his loan being turned into a permanent deal – failing that, it would be great to see him here on a season long loan.
It’s probably just me being daft, but I find it so hard to relate to many of the players we have signed in the last year or so – perhaps it’s because it feels like they are just “passing through” at Cardiff? On the other hand, it seems to me that Kennedy is at a stage of his career that makes this a very important move for him – he has the natural ability to ensure that his next move will be one up the footballing ladder if he puts the work in to go with his skills and I hope Russell Slade’s summer recruiting will see more of a balance between between potential and the “steady Eddie” types than we have had up to now.
Mention of our manager prompts me to end with a slight moan about him. Tom James has been on the bench in recent matches and we have a player on loan in Semi Ajayi who Arsene Wenger thought was good enough to be selected as a sub for Arsenal on four occasions – if James and Ajayi were both fit, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have had one of them on the bench instead of Danny Gabbidon who seems unlikely to be offered another contract by the club?
* pictures coutresy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/