Some of the “experts” who contribute to Cardiff City messageboards during games may have thought we should have been putting a team like Barnsley to the sword with scintillating attacking play right from the first whistle, but yesterday’s hard fought 2-1 win represented an initial step on the path to rehabilitation from the malaise that has made City so much more vulnerable on the road than they have been in recent seasons.
I say “initial step” there because the traumas they have been through on their travels will not be banished by one win (they weren’t after the victory at Ipswich were they), but at least some of the demons will have been exorcised. City went 2-0 up at Millwall (what a great result that is looking at the moment by the way) quite early in the second half back in September and saw the rest of the game out in a professional manner, but four defeats in five away matches since then had to have an impact on the psyche of the team – especially when you consider that they had led 2-0 in a couple of those defeats and 1-0 in another.
It was instructive to read that some others had followed my example of finding something else to do rather than listen to the game as soon Barnsley halved our lead with just under a quarter of an hour to go – I had a sense of foreboding that we were going to throw it away again and, obviously, I wasn’t alone in thinking that. Those of us who couldn’t handle listening to those closing minutes had the option of, effectively, shutting the game out, but the team had to front up when, surely, some of them must have allowed thoughts such as “oh no, here we go again” to go through their minds – even if it was for only a few seconds. When you consider that City had Simon Lappin (making his debut after signing on loan from Norwich on Wednesday) sent off for two yellow cards offences with around four minutes left, and that a further six minutes of added time were played, then praise is due to the ten remaining players for seeing things out.
Before anyone says “but it was only Barnsley”, City sides have been going up to Oakwell on a pretty regular basis over the past thirty years or so and, although they’ve had their fair share of victories during that time, I can’t ever remember the winning margin being by more than a single goal. Recently, some managers (including Malky Mackay) have got into the habit of saying “it’s not an easy place to go to” before virtually every away match their side plays. Sometimes that’s, obviously, rubbish, but, traditionally, Oakwell is a tough place to go to and seemingly superior sides often end up involved in a war of attrition there which sees them come away without the three points.
Similarly, the line that a side that has spent £10 million in the summer should go to a team with far less resources and walk all over them (which I have used from time to time in recent months!) tends to hold less water when they have so many missing through injury. Malky Mackay has said that he was forced to rely on kids too often last season and that the summer’s recruitment had given him a depth of quality which made that less likely to happen this time around. However, although Joe Ralls has done enough over the past year or so to justify his inclusion on merit, he was joined on the bench yesterday by 17 year old Declan John, while Ben Nugent (who will be 19 on Thursday) was in from the start.
Ben Turner, Andrew Taylor, Kevin McNaughton, Don Cowie, Tommy Smith and Nicky Maynard were all missing yesterday, while Jordon Mutch and Craig Bellamy were feeling their way back into things after injury absences with short substitute appearances – I would say that six of those players, at least, would be in Malky Mackay’s first choice eleven if everyone was fully fit and available. While Maynard’s is the only really long term injury out of that lot, all of the others have had absences that lasted weeks rather than days and to return to the top of the table yesterday after having so many key players absent at different times over the past few months is no mean achievement.
That City were able to return to first place (is is significant that out of the seven sides to have topped the Championship so far, we are the only ones to have returned there after losing first place?) by taking nine points since the season’s low point so far at Charlton is down in part to the contribution of the aforementioned Nugent. Thrown into his first team debut by playing a full part in what turned out to be something of a heroic rearguard action last week against Middlesbrough, he started at Barnsley and planted a firm downward header past Luke Steele to give City the lead after twenty two minutes. Even if Nugent does not kick another ball for the first team this season, I think he has now made enough of an impact on the campaign to justify claims that the Academy has already reached the one player per season target to reach the first team which is often asked of it. However, with McNaughton, Taylor and Turner all likely to miss out at Derby on Tuesday and Lappin due to be serving a suspension, Nugent’s season at first team level is, almost certainly, not over. Malky Mackay has talked in glowing terms about Nugent’s composure and has predicted that, if he continues to listen and learn as much as he has done so far, he’s a Cardiff City captain in the making.
What needs to be said though is that Nugent, Matt Connolly and Aron Gunnarsson would not have found scoring so easy in our last two matches if it had not been for Peter Whittingham’s continuing excellence (which now tends to be taken for granted) from set piece situations. I’m sure both Tony Mowbray and Keith Hill were critical of their sides defending from the corners which cost them goals – Barnsley would, almost certainly, have put in extra work to counter Whittingham’s corners and free kicks in the build up to the game, but even they must acknowledge that when the corners are so good that Connolly and Gunnarsson barely had to move to get their heads on the cross, you can only do so much in the face of such pinpoint accuracy.
I suppose it’s too early for any claims to be made that we over reliant on set pieces for our goals, but, with our last three, and five out of our last nine, coming from Whittingham corners, they do play a very big part in our attacking play. Indeed, when you consider that the other four goals in those nine I mentioned earlier have come from either headers from crosses or long balls flicked on by Rudy Gestede, then I would suggest that, for the moment at least, our attacking play is looking a bit one dimensional. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it seems to me that we are going to need more than just an aerial threat to maintain a position in the top two and, hopefully, a return to full fitness of the likes of Bellamy and Smith will give us a bit more of the attacking guile that we may have become over reliant on Whittingham and Craig Noone for in recent games.