There’ll be those who’ll probably take me to task over this, but I do feel sorry sometimes for Cardiff City’s beleaguered manager Russell Slade. No sooner had he finished saying how much more resilient his squad had become after a fine Conor McAleny (absent again yesterday, presumably with yet another injury) goal got his side a point they didn’t deserve at Reading on Saturday, than they cave in completely as soon as they conceded a goal in what was a pretty strange 3-0 home defeat in the Easter Monday sun by Bolton Wanderers!
I say strange because I don’t think that at half time anyone would have predicted how the game would finally turn out. Yesterday saw my brother and his son, who live in Birmingham, come along for their once a season game at Cardiff City Stadium – as an aside, their last match was the 2-1 loss to Newcastle in October 2013, the game which, in my opinion, saw the start of the downward spiral we show no sign of coming out of yet.
I daresay other City fans who have friends/relatives who only get to watch one home match a season hope that the team put on a bit of a show for them so that, firstly, they enjoy themselves and, secondly, you are spared the pitying looks which convey what is not being said – “you turn up every week to watch THIS!!”.
Well, at half time yesterday I was telling the pair of them that they had just watched one of the more entertaining halves of football seen at the ground this season, but, when, with about ten minutes to go, my nephew was asked if this game had been better than the Leicester v West Ham game he had been to on Saturday, he just smiled – no words were necessary.
End of season matches between two sides with nothing to play for tend to go one of two ways in my experience. The large majority of them develop into boring affairs as the two sides, to be frank, just go through the motions as they wish they were somewhere else, but, sometimes, you get two teams who are sent out with not as many orders about what they should be doing defensively as normal and you end up with a watchable match in which the sides both look more interested in attempting to score themselves than trying to prevent the opposition finding the net.
That’s how the match seemed to me in the first half and a combination of the game being so open and Bolton fielding the geriatric pairing of Emile Heskey and Eider Gudjohnson along with Craig Davies up front meant that there was more room than normal for a certain Cardiff player to strut his stuff.
Peter Whittingham attracts more comment than any other in the current side I reckon and, for a while now, it’s fair to say that, whereas in his middle years at Cardiff it was nearly all complimentary, now it’s at a stage where there is more negative reaction than positive. Yesterday’s match though was set up to give Whittingham the chance to show what he still can do and for thirty five minutes or so he obliged – unfortunately, he disappeared without trace in the second period as his individual performance mirrored that of his team.
Most noticeably, there were far more of the raking, and very accurate, long passes he used to hit so often in his “quarterback” period when he would sit deep and spray defence splitting passes to the likes of Chopra, Bellamy, Bothroyd, McCormack and Burke, It’s a moot point as to whether it’s having the likes of Kenwyne Jones as a target that has brought about the current situation whereby we don’t tend to see anywhere near as many of those sweeping balls from Whitts as we once did, whether successive managers have drilled into him that they see him more as a “continuity” player who is there to, largely, keep his passing shorter and more simple or whether it’s a confidence thing down to playing in front of supporters who are much quicker to respond negatively to a pass from him which goes wrong than they once were.
Before giving my opinion on this matter, I’d just like to draw attention to this piece from last week which highlighted City’s woeful passing accuracy figures over the course of the campaign which I believe needs to be borne in mind when considering Whittingham’s role and effectiveness this season. It came as no surprise at all to me to see Whittingham’s 82% pass completion rate being higher than any of his team mates, but these are the figures of a player who, whether under orders or not, generally takes the “safer” passing option now, so, when you consider his better than average technique, especially when compared to many of his team mates, you would expect him to have such high figures now that there are less longer passes, which carry the risk of losing possession, than there once were.
Anyway, the passes Whittingham was spraying about in the first half an hour yesterday suggested that he’s not lacking for confidence, so my guess is that we saw more of the sort of passes he used to hit because of a combination of him having more time to play them against opponents who, whether through age in some cases, or attitude on the day, were not as quick to close him down as most have been this season and more mobile players in front of him to play those passes into space for than he has been used to this season.
By opting for a largely immobile target man in Jones, often up front by himself or, as has sometimes been the case with Slade, with another target man alongside the Trinidad international, our managers this season have, to some degree, taken Whittingham’s ability to open up defences with his long passing out of the equation. On the other hand, it could be argued that Jones would have been better served by a central midfielder (e.g. Tom Adeyemi) more adept at running beyond him to benefit from headed flick ons than either Whittingham or Aron Gunnarsson are – it all smacks of muddled thinking where teams are not selected in a manner designed to make the most of the talents of the individuals within it.
Yesterday, there was the mobility in front of Whittingham that there often hasn’t been before. Unfortunately, what wasn’t there was the technique in terms of a good first touch to go with that mobility – in that phase when Whittingham was most influential, Eoin Doyle, Alex Revell and, disappointingly, Joe Ralls were all on the end of passes which had opened up the Bolton defence only for them to waste the opportunity because it took too long for them to get the ball under control.
City’s encouraging first half showing wasn’t just down to Whittingham rediscovering his long passing, they moved the ball around in an enterprising manner and created space down the flanks at will – it was all a such a contrast to the awful fare that was being served in the months either side of Christmas. At half time, it was difficult to understand how City had not scored, but, then again, it had certainly not been one way traffic because Bolton had fashioned their fair share of promising situations as well.
The benefit of hindsight now has me thinking that, despite all of their pleasing build up play, City did not force Adam Bogdan in the Bolton goal into a serious save throughout the whole ninety minutes, let alone the first forty five. Doyle had an effort cleared off the line by Barry Bannan, but, in truth, the striker should have buried that opportunity and Whittingham almost ended his two and a half year long scoring drought from free kicks when his shot beat Bogdan but flew just wide, but, for all of the perceived threat of a goal, there was a real lack of a cutting edge up front. Our strikers have, by and large, been spared criticism for our pretty poor goalscoring record because it’s been thought that our misfiring midfield were not giving them the opportunities, but on, yesterday’s evidence, there have to be some doubts as to whether we would have scored more with a more dominant midfield.
I mentioned Bolton’s “geriatric” strikers earlier and I suppose there is no way that such a word can be seen as anything else but uncomplimentary given the context in which it was used. However, while neither of the two players are anything like the forces they once were, Gudjohnson and Heskey were both far more impressive than our strikers on the day.
In terms of trophies won and impact made on the world stage, Gudjohnson has to be the best player to appear at Cardiff City Stadium in a club game this season and his beautifully taken opening goal turned the whole game yesterday. Heskey was never as much of a critics or fans favourite as his strike partner yesterday was, but he was always a real handful for his markers and I thought he gave our central defence (which I believe has been the most effective part of our misfiring team this season) as uncomfortable an afternoon as they’ve had in a while.
Bolton’s team selection was certainly an interesting one, with Welsh international Davies up front alongside his more illustrious colleagues. I’ve always thought of Davies as a player who will look back on his career and think he could have done better with all of the natural attributes he was given – he could have been the centre forward Wales have been lacking for the last decade under different circumstances. Although he showed a City like poor first touch in the lead up to his second goal, he was, criminally, given time to recover the ball and then fire in an excellent shot to complete the scoring – the finish for his first goal was also a good one and when put with the fine technique shown in Gudjohnson’s half volleyed shot, had me thinking that we don’t currently have strikers capable of scoring any of those goals.
Only a fine save by David Marshall denied Davies his hat trick against dispirited opponents in front of a disinterested crowd and the game ended with Bolton fans “oleing” away as Bannan went through some of his party pieces. Bannan is a very talented footballer whose career has been blighted to some degree by the sort of thinking that is all too prevalent in the British game which preaches that players who aren’t above a certain height will not make it in the game. Bolton, one of a very, very short list of Football League clubs with a debt to rival ours have chosen to add a player of that quality to their squad despite the fact that, like us, their season has been effectively over for a few weeks now.
However, unlike us, they have chosen not to loan out first team players for “business reasons” and, when you see the way, supporters shuffled out of the ground in a resigned manner at the final whistle (many had long since departed by then of course), you really do have to wonder where this club is headed.
Despite them being so clinical in their finishing yesterday and being pretty impressive in other parts of the game as well, the league table says Bolton are nothing special this season and yet we were beaten 6-0 by them on aggregate over our two games. On the day that Blackpool were relegated, we were given a vision of a future in which it doesn’t take too big a leap of imagination to see us going the same way as them unless those in charge of the club start thinking in a clear headed, joined up and mature way. Yes, there is a need for financial prudence, but the current try to flog or loan out anything that moves approach is as wrong for a club in our situation as the spend, spend, spend philosophy before the summer transfer window was closed – always assuming that the man at the top is still interested in his club’s well being of course.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/