We all did our best to find ways we could beat West Ham to clinch yet another trip to Wembley in the Play Off Final, but, at what is effectively half time with the Hammers 2-0 up, it’s looking like Championship football for another season for City. I’m pretty certain that I’m not the only Cardiff fan who believed that if West Ham played at their best, they would be too strong for us whatever we tried and, for most of the first half in particular, I’m afraid they were a level better than us.
So much depended on the West ham frame of mind going into last night’s match for me – if they were feeling sorry for themselves after missing out on a top two finish, then I thought we had a real chance and we could have cashed in on an over confident approach from the Hammers as well. Fair play to Sam Allardyce though, he sent his team out in exactly the right frame of mind because, after surviving a fast start for City which saw Whittingham and Miller go close, they took a vice like hold on the game by imposing themselves both mentally and physically on the City team.
I wouldn’t have thought that there would be much argument about West Ham having better quality players than us and that showed all too obviously I’m afraid, but what was surprising for me was how hard they worked to close us down when we were in possession and how they were able to outmuscle us so easily all over the park. Even our physically strongest players (Hudson and Turner) came off very much second best to the impressive Carlton Cole, who gave our centrebacks more problems than any other target man I’ve seen them up against all season. With our two big men at the back struggling to compete, it wasn’t too much of a surprise that we did the same in other areas as well – I’ve thought we’ve been fighting, and sometimes winning, a battle against tiredness for the last three months and I’m sure that was a factor in why we looked sluggish and off the pace for much of the game, but I think it also has to be said that West Ham were simply bigger and stronger than us.
In saying that, it must become easier to impose yourselves like West Ham did when your opponents have only really got one player with the sort of creative and technical skills to open well drilled defences. Although this isn’t really the time to go into any great detail on this, the biggest task I see facing Malky Mackay and his scouting staff this summer is how they can get more “game changers” into the squad (as of now, I’d say only Whittingham and Joe Mason, on a good day, fall into that category) without diminishing it’s spirit and work ethic.
Although Liam Lawrence does have his moments (there weren’t many of them last night mind), it’s only Whittingham who has the vision to consistently come up with the pass which can unlock a well organised defence and he was harried mercilessly by the Hammers last night with the result that we had no one in the first half who was able to come a bit deeper to pick up the ball from our centrebacks and progress us further up the pitch with a controlled pass. I mentioned after the Leeds match that David Marshall’s first instinct now is to roll the ball out to one of our centrebacks, but often in recent home matches at least, the ball is then played back to them by a harassed midfield player and Turner or Hudson are then, effectively, put in the position of “play makers”. Turner can hit a good long diagonal pass, but sides have cottoned on to that lately and Hudson has shown an ability to pass the ball decently out from the back (he did so at times last night), but they are being asked to do a job for which they are not really suited and it played a part in one of the goals last night when Hudson gave the ball away in a dangerous area. If Whittingham is going to be a target when he tries to get the ball off our centre halves, then someone else (McPhail if he’s playing) has to make himself available as well – West Ham did well in the closing down stakes, but we made it easy for them.
There were times when the gap in ability between the teams was a big one, but it was when you looked on our bench that the major difference between the two squads was seen. We have played all season with four strikers to pick from – one of those has scored once in twenty odd matches, another is a player that the manager clearly doesn’t fancy, another has spent as much time on the physio’s table as he has in the match day sixteen since October and the other is a promising youngster who looked a little lost at times last night. You look at the West Ham squad though and you have an ex England striker, who looked as if he could play for his country again on last night’s form, a player who had scored ten times in thirteen matches before this game and a couple of £2 million + young forwards who would both, almost certainly, walk into our starting line up.
Once we had gone 2-0 down, the lack of options that would worry West Ham amongst our substitutes was thrown into sharper focus – Earnie improved things a little when he came on I thought, as did McPhail, but when a team needs goals, there’s wasn’t much on our bench to suggest they could come from there. In fact, when we had a go at West Ham in an improved second half display, there were quite a few presentable chances for us – Hudson’s unhappy evening continued with a header wide from a great position and Turner had a looping header cleared off the line by Cole (in fact if anything confirmed the lack of a goal threat from our strikers, it was the fact that Ben was probably our most dangerous forward in the second half!).
All of this tends to reiterate to me that our real achievement this season is that we are still playing in May and, although I can’t see West Ham slipping up from here, an early goal for us at Upton Park on Monday might maken things very interesting indeed. It’s also why you won’t find me being too critical of this manager and his team even if the second leg is the rout it could become if it’s West Ham who score early on Monday – increasingly we are swimming against a tide which favours clubs in our division fortunate enough to have sampled what we have not for the last half a century.
It’s too early to come to any firm conclusions yet, but is it just a coincidence that we find ourselves contesting the Play Offs this season with the three sides in our league who were playing in the Premiership last season? Time was when relegated sides got £16 million for each of the two years after they went down, but now it’s increased to £12 million for four years – how on earth can these figures be justified? To use West Ham as an example, they got into serious financial trouble after some barmy spending by their then owners from Iceland, the current owners (Sullivan and Gold) spent a fair bit last season in a doomed attempt to keep them up despite their debts and now, when those running the club have cocked up, they get another £50 million or so – a good portion of which has gone towards giving them a spending power that, Leicester and, possibly, Southampton apart, their Championship rivals are unable to match.
Next season Wolves and, almost certainly, Blackburn will be playing in the Championship. The first named made themselves a laughing stock by sacking their manager with a couple of months of the season left and then making a complete mess of the job of appointing a replacement, while the owner’s of Blackburn appear to have read the book “How not to run a Premiership club” from cover to cover and decided the author had got it all wrong! Now, if these two are joined by QPR (the club who signed a bunch of players in January on contracts which do not include a clause about taking a pay cut if the club is relegated), then we have three clubs who have been very poorly run this season being given a huge advantage at the lower level before a ball is kicked.
I realise of course that for a Cardiff fan to be bleating on about Boardroom incompetence is a bit rich when you consider what has happened at the club over the past decade or so, but I know myself well enough to confirm that I would be saying the same thing about the unfairness of the present level of parachute payments (actually, make that parachute payments full stop) if it was us who were benefiting from them. I’ve already talked about the gap in quality between our squad and West Ham’s, but when you also add in the amount of help they have got on the financial front it becomes almost impossible for sides like us, and the five other clubs in this season’s Championship never to have played in the Premiership, to entertain hopes of beating them . I use the word “almost” there because the Championship is such an unpredictable league, but the make up of this season’s play off sides may be an early sign that the Championship is heading the same way as the Premiership with it’s leagues within a league – it is to the credit of all of those involved at the club this season that we are the best placed of the six to buck the trend, but what justification is there for the odds being stacked so heavily against us?
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/