A year ago this weekend City gave an abject and clueless performance in losing 1-0 at home to Swansea City and I don’t think I was the only supporter who realised then that the 2010/11 season was not going to be the nine month long promotion party that I had, perhaps, been allowing myself to believe it would. Now I’m not going to get ahead of myself here and make any rash predictions about promotion or anything like that, but I wonder if yesterday might have been the day that some of those who had seen us a bunch of mid table scufflers whose aim for this season was no more than consolidation, realised that we are a bit better than that?
If anyone had said back in August that a win over Crystal Palace would signal that there might possibly be something special happening at Cardiff City this season, they would, I’m sure, have been given short shrift – indeed many would have thought they had taken leave of their senses (they might have put it a bit less diplomatically than that though!). After all, Palace were widely tipped for another season of struggle weren’t they and I’m sure the overwhelming opinion back then was that yesterday’s was a game we should be winning if we were to be producing any sort of promotion challenge. However, the intervening three months have gone much better than predicted for the Sarf London side and, with a place booked in the last eight of the Carling Cup and an unbeaten eight match run based on them having gone more than ten hours and six games without conceding a goal, Palace represented a formidable challenge to the team’s chances of continuing the fine form that had proved too much for Derby in midweek.
I was three or four minutes late in getting into the ground yesterday and just about the first thing I saw was Kenny Miller send a header not too far wide, but City weren’t to come as close to scoring again for some time as the visitors started in a manner which said much about their belief and spirit. Although there was not much in the game, I thought Palace edged the first half an hour or so as Tom Heaton (in because David Marshall had not recovered from his illness) was forced into action a couple of times. With Palace matching our 4-5-1 formation, space was at an absolute premium in the first half and the fact that they were playing with three defensive midfielders meant that even though Scannell, Zaha and Murray were, increasingly, left to fend for themselves on the attacking front, sheer weight of numbers was going to make them very, very difficult to break down.
For most of the first seventy minutes, the game looked like one of those that would be won by a moment of inspiration or an awful error and Peter Whittingham almost provided the former around the half hour mark, when his twenty five yard shot came back off the crossbar. That effort signalled the onset of a phase where City began to seize the initiative from Palace, but, truth be told, apart from a few fairly routine saves from Speroni to deal with shots from outside the penalty area, there was little in the following thirty minutes to indicate that a goal was coming. It was then that the pass of the game ripped open the Palace rearguard and all, of a sudden, Kenny Miller had beaten the last defender and was in on goal only for Julian Speroni to show why he is so highly regarded by making a sprawling save to deny the striker.
In the past when matches have been as tight as this one was, City have managed to create a chance and you knew that, by missing it, they had consigned themselves to a 0-0 draw or worse – suffice it to say that you just knew we weren’t going to score. However, maybe it was the fact that the great pass to Miller came from the very unlikely source of Kevin McNaughton (I’ve not seem him play a better one in his City career) or not I don’t know, but, this time, the miss did not deflate team or supporters, instead they drew inspiration from it – it was a real turning point in the match and City were not going to be denied after it. Within minutes Whittingham had fired in a shot which looked to have beaten the keeper but flashed just wide – it didn’t matter though because shortly afterwards, City broke the deadlock with an outstanding goal. I’ve not seen the build up to the goal again, but, at the time, it seemed to me that we had made ten or more passes before the excellent McNaughton neatly set up Miller to fire instantly into the far corner from about eighteen yards.
Again, I’ve not seen pictures to confirm it yet, but my impression was that every outfield player rushed to Miller to congratulate him – this was, obviously, a reaction to what was a very important goal, but it also showed an awful lot about the spirit that Malky Mackay has engendered in the side. Once they were ahead, City this time gave very few signs that they were going to surrender their lead as the manager made what at the time seemed a very brave call to substitute Aron Gunnarsson (who had put in another very effective shift) with young Joe Ralls. Now, I have read that Ralls was very nervous before the Huddersfield game that he started back in August, but those nerves didn’t show that night and there weren’t any sign of any yesterday either as he fitted in seamlessly to what was now a dominant midfield five. Indeed, I don’t think Ralls lost possession once and he also pinged a glorious pass into the path of the marauding McNaughton who was instantly brought down by Palace sub and former Pentrebane resident Jermaine Easter about twenty five yards out to the left of Palace’s goal – there was an air of inevitability about what happened next.
From the sort of range he scored from in that Play Off match against Leicester, Peter Whittingham judged the pace and direction of his free kick to perfection. There are those who have been critical of Speroni for not keeping out a shot he was able to get a hand on, but I thought the ball was always just out of his reach – whatever the truth, it was another to add to the large collection of Whittingham free kick goals at Cardiff and capped what I thought was a brilliant display by our most gifted player. If Whittingham’s influence on the game wasn’t as apparent in the first half as it was in the second, he was still never less than than neat and perceptive in his passing and, when an extravagant attempted ball with the outside of his foot went wrong for his only poor pass of the match, he revealed his newly acquired desire to win the ball back. With that sort of attitude to back up his Premiership level natural talent, Whittingham is fast becoming the complete midfield player at this level and I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that in forty years time the teenagers watching us now will remember him with the sort of affection that people my age have for someone like Ian Gibson.
If Whittingham and McNaughton were, in my opinion, the stars of the show, then there were plenty of others worthy of a mention – Heaton again showed that goalkeeper is one position where we shouldn’t have to worry about strength in depth, Mark Hudson and Ben Turner were commanding at the back, albeit against opponents who never looked to push too many men forward, and Miller was an increasingly irritating adversary for Palace’s central defenders McCarthy and Gardner who, by the end , were probably looking as ragged a combination as they have done for months.
Finally, one of the reasons why Dave Jones’s sides were never able to take that final step into the top flight was that their record against the teams around them at the top wasn’t good enough – there would be the odd inspiring victory and there were plenty of hard fought draws, but, generally speaking, the defeats outnumbered the victories. This is not happening under Malky Mackay – I know the final league table may end up looking a lot different, but, as of now, our record against the top sides makes for very interesting reading. We have played five of the current top seven (three of the matches being played away from home) and our record reads;-
P 5 W 4 D 1 L 0 f 9 a 2 Pts 13
as long as we can continue with our newly rediscovered habit of winning away from home, there seems to be plenty of reasons to be optimistic at the moment.
* photos taken from Cardiff City.co.uk