There’s not been many City games that I’ve left the ground angry at under this manager – Wigan maybe, Norwich possibly, but I was after yesterday’s 1-1 draw with Birmingham. I was angry at our general performance, but, more particularly, how we let opponents who had generally been second best for about eighty per cent of the game to get on top in the last fifteen minutes.
I was angry about our attacking play for the majority of the game, at the lack of substitutions, the way we avoided using the flanks and, of course, yet another late goal conceded which had cost us points.
Most of all though, I was angry at how an opportunity to entice supporters back to Cardiff City Stadium had been wasted. Credit to the club for another end of season deal aimed at boosting attendances, but you have to think that if waverers were not tempted back by last season’s free tickets for the last four home games offer, they are unlikely to be by one of tickets for a fiver like we had yesterday.
Last season, over 28,000 turned up to watch a good 2-1 win over promotion chasing Derby in early April in the first of the free admission matches. The response yesterday wasn’t as dramatic, but a crowd of 20,334 (which looked a bit bigger than that to me – my guess was about 22,000) is not to be sneezed at and yet how many of them will have been tempted to invest in a season ticket on yesterday’s evidence? Not many I would have thought.
Subsequent events made me adjust my opinion to some degree. However, I still feel disappointed that yesterday’s game had a flat, end of season feel to it and there’s a frustration that, for the third time in a row (fourth actually, when you consider we were leading against Fulham going into the last twenty minutes), we blew an opportunity to get to, or near as damnit to, the fifty point mark which should be enough to banish any thoughts that a late collapse could see us plunging down the table again.
The fine run of results through January and February is not being maintained in March and, having edged into the top half of the table, we appear to be heading back towards the fourteenth to seventeenth range which I suppose is a fairer reflection of where we deserve to be when considering our level of performance as a whole so far this season.
However having heard what Neil Warnock had to say in his post match press conference yesterday, I feel more sympathetic towards him and his players. Apparently, there has been a bug doing the rounds at the club – we knew about Aron Gunnarsson being not quite right in the last week as he was forced to miss the Blackburn game, but Kadeem Harris’ strange looking absence from the action until after Birmingham’s equaliser was explained by him being another illness victim and there was some talk that Craig Noone (who was on the bench, but did not get on) was another sufferer.
Probably more unsettling for a squad which is certainly on the small side after a January transfer window where the main object of the exercise appeared to be to get as many players as possible out on loan has been the amount of injuries they’ve been suffering.
There’s good news in that Bruno Manga’s injury picked up in the African Nations Cup is not the season ender that it was originally thought to be, so, with him now back in training, he may be available soon.
However, there’s no chance of Lee Peltier and Rhys Healey playing any time soon, Matt Connolly was missing again yesterday, Rickie Lambert is only available very rarely these days, Greg Halford talked a few days about a potentially career threatening injury that he is still not over yet (he says he is only operating at something like 70/75 per cent fitness levels at the moment) and Fred Gounongbe appears to have vanished off the face of the earth!
Others such as Jazz Richards (very good again yesterday), Joe Bennett and Anthony Pilkington have missed chunks of the season and so it was little wonder to hear Warnock express concern at the number of muscle injuries his squad seem to be prone to – the manager hinted that it was something which would be looked into in the coming weeks.
Under the circumstances, Neil Warnock’s comment after the game that his team would “limp over the line” this season seems to be true in terms of how far we are going to finish behind those at the head of the field and there’s also a factual element to it as well as we appear to be having to use players who wouldn’t be risked in bigger squads because of injury concerns (e,g Halford).
Would we have been able to have kept on pushing on towards that always very unlikely top six finish which some were beginning to talk about after the 5-0 win over Rotherham three weeks ago with a clean bill of health though?
My own answer to that question is no for a couple of reasons. First, operating with similarly sized squads ten years or so ago always tended to see us succumb to tiredness in the last month or two of a forty six game campaign and I don’t see why that should be any different this time.
The second reason for me thinking we may have seen similar results in our last four games even if we had more senior players fit is that we aren’t as good as we looked at times during the winter months. So many sides at this level have pretty long spells where they never look like losing and then others where it’s hard to see where their next point is coming from, before they eventually have to settle for a place in that mid table league where about ten sides who never convinced their fans that they were genuine promotion contenders or had them worrying that too much about being realistic bottom three finishers fight for the honour of finishing ninth or tenth.
Of course, it reflects very well on Neil Warnock, his coaching team and the players that for most fans there was that fear about us being realistic bottom three finishers for half of this season at least and yet they had us thinking for a while that they might be too good for the “also rans” league which the sides who occupy that area around the middle third of the table compete for.
In my case, I put our improvement which, essentially, took place from November to the end of for February down to the introduction of attacking players who enabled us to play at a tempo not reached by a City side for half a decade or more. Suddenly, I was beginning to observe how some opposing defences had been unable to cope with our attacking pace.
The signing of Junior Hoilett played a big part in this process, while, recently, Craig Noone had played his part in us becoming more of an attacking force in this league. However, it has been the emergence of two players who were here long before Warnock arrived in Kenneth Zohore and Kadeem Harris that was the biggest factor in this process.
Three months ago, the notion that Neil Warnock would be using the words “we missed Kadeem really” as he tried to explain away what he saw as a lack of “that little bit of zip around the box” would have been laughed at by some, but it was true about yesterday where, for most of the time, our attacking play was akin to the slower stuff we’d become used to since our relegation in 2013.
Anthony Pilkington has attracted some stick on the messageboards after the game. I think Pilks is a good footballer who can be clever with his passing and movement on the edge of the opposing penalty area, but there’s no doubt that Warnock was right to mention our lack of that little bit of attacking zip that we were becoming used in recent months and the fact that it was Pilkington there, rather than Harris, had something to do with this.
That said, for me, Hoilett had one of those games that he is prone to now and again when hardly anything he tries comes off. He was very effective in a more central attacking role against Huddersfield in November, but it didn’t work against Birmingham and he only improved when he moved out to his, more normal, wide position.
When Kenneth Zohore (who was called into the Danish Under 21 squad last week) started off on that run which led to his great goal against Preston, Neil Warnock has said that his Assistant Manager Kevin Blackwell said he was a “greedy ……….” and once or twice I found myself thinking much the same yesterday.
Over the last few months, I’ve been made to feel proud about Zohore’s progress because I stuck with him when so many others had given up on him, but, yesterday he looked at times like that very raw looking performer of last season who mixed up the odd bit of attention grabbing ability with a lot of wrong options taken and general naivety in and around the penalty area.
Maybe it was a case of the very big workload that has been placed on him in the last few weeks catching up with him, but, in contrast to recent matches where Zohore has been a seven, eight or nine out of ten performer for City, I thought he only merited a six, at best, yesterday.
In other positions, I’d like to think that those who were suggesting Allan McGregor could have kept out the equaliser will get to see a video of it and accept he had no chance with it. Lukas Jutkiewicz should really have buried his header, but instead, it hit McGregor, hit Jutkiewicz on his shin and rolled into the net. The City keeper made a couple of good saves in either half from Craig Gardner and remains a reassuring presence at the back.
I’ve already mentioned Jazz Richards who besides making a great last ditch block on Jutkiewicz also got forward as much as I’ve seen him do for City – Birmimgham’s three man central defence and their wing backs were partially responsible for this, but it also was probably a sign of his confidence these days. Joe Bennett did pretty well also, while Sol Bamba turned in a typically solid performance, as did Sean Morrison who also won our penalty.
So, pretty good at the back, and, with them playing a part in us actually having more of the ball (52/48) than our opponents, the midfield did okay as well. Gunnarsson was not quite his usual self for this season and Halford kept things simple, but Joe Ralls has really stepped up to the plate in recent weeks and was one of my two Man of the Match candidates – Richards just shaded it for me though.
Was the extra applause that greeted Peter Whittingham’s introduction and much longer and louder clapping that he received as he came over to take a corner in my part of the ground perhaps an indication that many feel this great servant of the club is not going to be with us much longer? Maybe it is and, sadly, I have to say that Whitts did little get City to think of maybe upping the contract offer already on the table – there were the usual delightful touches now and again, but we didn’t improve as an attacking threat with Whitts on instead of Halford – indeed, we probably did less going forward after the substitution.
There was a moment very late on when a few Birmingham players rounded on Harris after they, presumably, took offence about the way the ball was returned to them after one of their players had been treated for cramp, but generally this was a “nice” end of season encounter between two teams who knew they were not going up and were very unlikely to go down – I hope we don’t get too many more of them between now and 7 May!
*picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/