So, three weeks short of a decade after Andy Campbell’s lob hit the back of the QPR net, Cardiff City took their leave of the second tier yesterday, for a year at least, with a 2-2 draw at Hull. I’ve loved our time in the Championship – it’s given us more than a fair share of heartbreak in recent seasons, but it’s also provided some fantastic memories, some tremendous matches (and occasions) and no end of drama both on and off the field. In every one of those ten seasons since 2002/03, there’s been messageboard contributors, bloggers, journalists and ex pro pundits queuing up to tell us that we are in the weakest Championship they can remember, but all I’ll say on that for now is that, almost without exception, it’s been exciting, completely unpredictable and no respecter of reputations.
Can we really say that about the league we’ll be in next season? The easy, and almost certainly correct, answer to that question is no, but I would argue that there isn’t a single Cardiff City fan out there who can say with any certainty what being in the Premiership will feel like. Of course there are those who are able to remember our spells in the First Division in the fifties and early sixties, but I believe that the league we’ll be part of in 2013/14 is a very different animal from the one we played in back in 1961/62.
For a start, our last season in the top flight saw Ipswich Town, a club who had never played at that level until that year, crowned Champions. Sixteen years on from 1962, Nottingham Forest were Champions after getting promoted the previous season and five years after that Watford were runners up in their maiden season as a First Division club – the notion of Cardiff City finishing first or second in the Premiership next season may invite the response “stranger things have happened”, but I’m not sure they have.
Certainly on the pitch, and probably off it as well, the old First Division was a democracy in ways that the Premiership isn’t – supporters of promoted sides could genuinely believe that their team might secure a place in Europe with a high league finish, or, if they were really lucky, they end up playing in the old European Cup and winning it like Forest did in 1979. Even if we had Manchester City like riches to spend on new players during the summer, we couldn’t put together a side capable of challenging at the top of the Premiership next season because nearly all of the players good enough to turn a club like ours into title contenders will not sign for a team which cannot offer Champions League football next season.
It looks like Malky Mackay will be given a budget which should be big enough to enable us to attract players who would make us competitive next season, but our “newness” as a Premiership club will put us at a disadvantage against many sides who, like us, will just be looking to stay in the division. For example, we can claim we are a bigger club than the jacks as much as we like, but if we are in with them for the same player, the fact that they are seen as an “established” Premiership club (not to mention the lure of Europa League football) will surely make them favourites to get him.
At a guess, I would say that the closest era from my City supporting past to what it will feel like in the Premiership is the time we spent in the old Second Division in the period 1972 to 1984. At the start of each season during that time, you’d kid yourself that City could be up the top challenging for promotion, but, in reality, you knew that yet another relegation scrap was much more likely and that some time in our last two or three matches of the season we could, hopefully, celebrate staying up as if we had won something! Back then, seasons like 78/79 where we spent six or seven months trying to stave off the drop, only to storm up the table in the last six weeks of the campaign and finish ninth and 79/80 where we spent the whole season in safe mid table and ended up fifteenth were regarded almost as triumphs – I daresay that’s exactly how a finish of fifteenth next season would be viewed.
However badly it might turn out, I’m sure I’m going to enjoy the Premiership next season and, if we do survive, I’d like to think that my enthusiasm will still be there the following year, but I’m fairly sure that if we go into a third campaign where finishing seventeenth will be regarded as a success, I’ll be casting an envious eye at the less refined, but far more interesting, poorer relation living below us.
The Championship and unpredictability have gone hand in hand during our latest spell in the second tier, but 2012/13 was just mad. For a time yesterday, it looked like a side would be relegated with fifty seven points – you get that much by winning nineteen games! Going into the last minute of the season Bolton, Peterborough and Hull supporters were getting ready to party and, although things eventually worked out after an agonising wait for the latter, it was abject disappointment for the other two as a late goal by Knockeart enabled a very lucky Leicester (you watch them win the Play Off’s now!) to pip Bolton for sixth spot, while a Palace goal following a controversial free kick decision consigned Peterborough to relegation.
On the subject of Darren Ferguson’s side, I’d like to offer them my commiserations – they were right up there with the best sides to visit Cardiff City Stadium in my opinion and unlike the wurzels and wretched Wolves did not deserve to go down. Now, think what you like of Kevin Ratrcliffe as a radio pundit, but when he was asked which side had played the best football he had seen in the Championship this season, he answered Peterborough – based on what I saw against us last December, I can see where he was coming from, it’s incredible that a side which can play as well as that got relegated.
As for the incredible events at the KC Stadium, congratulations to Hull, but it has to be said that if Dave Jones thinks we limped over the line, how on earth would he describe what they did! Before the game I didn’t really want Hull to go up because I found myself thinking that it would devalue our achievement somewhat if a side as awful as they had looked against the wurzels, Wolves and Barnsley were to be promoted automatically. Fair play to them though, they upped their game a couple of levels when it counted and although Steve Bruce showed typical football manager’s hypocrisy in criticising the penalty decision for our late equaliser (I wonder what he would have said if Hull had missed out on promotion by not being given a penalty for an identical incident?), I was pleased for them by the end – especially their supporters who reacted superbly when their side went 1-0 down.
As for us, I thought it centred on four players. Firstly, there were the three strikers – I felt sorry for Etien Velikonja who, after finally being given a first team chance spent forty five minutes chasing lost causes and generally getting nowhere before being replaced by Fraizer Campbell who showed the sort of predatory instincts which probably would have been enough to have got a City player into double figures in the goalscoring stakes if he had not had to miss those games after the injury he got against Blackburn. Finally on the striking front, it was great to see Nicky Maynard not only return to the side, but also score his first goal for the club by nervelessly converting the penalty which, under different circumstances, could have cost Hull £100 million. The other player to mention is David Marshall who kept up the excellent standards he had set since August right up to the very end of the campaign with his penalty save – off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single City player who has been as unlucky as Marshall has been to miss out on selection for a PFA divisional select team.
If Marshall was able to maintain his consistency right until the end, the same could not be said of most of his team mates as, having competed well against Burnley and Bolton, they helped Hull’s cause by letting their standards drop. It might be a bit harsh to say a majority of the side were already on the beach mentally, but there was an unusual carelessness about much of what we did – for example, the goals we conceded were very soft by the standards of the past nine months. However, unlike some of the messageboard critics who want to bomb certain players out of the club based on what they did or didn’t do in a game which was meaningless to them when all’s said and done, I’m not going to be too critical . Truth is, I was pleasantly surprised by how competitive the team remained against Burnley and Bolton, it would have been so easy for them to have rested on their laurels and ended the season with three defeats – once again, I’d like to thank Malky Mackay, the coaching staff and the players for a fantastic and unforgettable season.
Photos courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/