On 2 January 2012, Cardiff City, with an eighteen year old Joe Ralls turning in a precociously assured display in the middle of the park, blew away that season’s eventual Champions Reading to the tune of 3-1 to move to third in the table.
A manager with little to work with in the way of transfer funds was inspiring both players and supporters alike in providing a watchable and successful team that would soon be booking yet another Wembley appearance after another one of those penalty shoot wins that took five years of your lifespan that we were becoming used to.
Although the penalty shoot out went against us next time in the League Cup Final which followed, City made their supporters feel proud in that game with mighty Liverpool as a late, late equaliser scored by a player who appeared to know what playing for a club like Cardiff City was all about, gave many supporters what they still say is the best moment they’ve experienced in all of their time following the club.
City lost their earlier momentum as a lack of squad size and not having quite enough firepower up front told towards the end of the campaign, but, even so, making the Play Offs and reaching a Cup Final with a budget which was dwarfed by many of their rivals confirmed that Cardiff City were a vibrant club that looked to be going places – then it all changed because our owner imposed his rebrand and we became a completely different entity.
It would be unfair to blame Vincent Tan entirely for the years of disconnect which followed. To use his words, he “kept his end of the bargain” by providing the funding that was probably the main reason for the comfortable title win which came in the season which followed.
However, although it would be wrong to say that it wasn’t an enjoyable experience at the time, the promotion to the top flight that supporters like me, who were just too young to remember the last time it had happened, had been waiting fifty years to enjoy, was not quite what we had expected it to be. This was because we had done it while wearing red – as much as that might seem unjust and harsh in some respects, I can only say that it didn’t feel like it should have done to me and I’m sure tens of thousands of others.
Of course, red shirts or not, that never to be forgotten afternoon when we beat Man City in our first ever Premier League match at Cardiff City Stadium was a tremendous experience, while beating the jacks a few months later in the first ever Welsh derby at that level was also an occasion to be relished. However, the truth is that they were just fleeting glimpses of what competing in the top flight should have been like – for the vast majority of the time, there was an undercurrent of discontent which had it roots in Tan’s rebrand, but was also being fueled by the fact that the club were making such an almighty mess of what was the best opportunity it had been presented with in decades.
For many, the manager who had been an inspiration was also losing his lustre and, although there was little doubt who commanded the vast majority of the affections of the supporters when he became the loser in the civil war that had broken out between him and the owner, there were, and still are, those who believed we were going down if Malky Mackay had remained as manager.
The fact that we still went down anyway under his successor only served to increase the sense of anger and frustration that was building up in so many of the club’s fanbase as more and more opted to join those who had severed their contact with City as soon as the change to red was announced.
Mackay had gone, but the damning indictment of those who had chosen to sack him was that the men they chose to replace him with were proving wholly incapable of getting the feelgood factor, which had sometimes been there under Malky even when we playing in red, back – Cardiff City matches had become occasions to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Even when we won, it tended to be done in a manner that was so dull that it was never going to get the fans back on board. Not even our owner’s tacit acknowledgement that he didn’t know best as he gave up on his red shirts and agreed to a return to blue helped matters much. The damage had been done and a manager in Russell Slade. whose underdog attitude always had me thinking he was in the Championship with a club like, say, Burton Albion, rather than one that had done very nicely thank you for a decade or more, together with a squad of players who appeared incapable of resurrecting that link with the fanbase which had always been a feature of successful Cardiff sides only tended to emphasise the malaise around the place.
Last season there had been a play off challenge of sorts, albeit about as uninspiring a one as it’s possible to imagine, and the odd sign that the club were finally beginning to get a few things off the pitch right. However, a managerial appointment which just didn’t work out and further justification of the club’s transfer committee’s reputation for incompetence only served to strengthen the feeling that we were a club in decline with a set of fans who were looking on with a sense of resignation.
I’m convinced that the decline I refer to would have been confirmed by the evidence of us playing in a lower league next season if there had not been a change of manager and, of course, it may be that this will still happen. However, to quote a previous Chancellor of the Exchequer the last few months have seen a few signs of the “green shoots” of recovery at Cardiff City.
As I say, it’s too early to say for certain that those green shoots will prosper and grow, a frost could easily come along and kill them off before they can take hold, but yesterday’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa represented the best evidence yet that we may, just may, be getting our old club back under a manager who recognises what Cardiff City is really all about.
Yesterday was the eighth home match played under Neil Warnock and I can genuinely say that I’ve enjoyed all bar the one against Wigan in their own way – the idea that I would find seven out of eight games played at Cardiff City Stadium under the management of any one of Messrs Solskjaer, Slade or Trollope enjoyable is a ludicrous one and, to be honest, I would have said the same about Warnock before his appointment.
However, actually having this man, who I’d spent much of the thirty years before his appointment here despising, in our corner feels right and feels good. Yes, the football his side plays is direct, it is physical (more on that later) and much of it is very pragmatic, but there is also the knowledge that this is a man who knows this level of the game like the back of his hand, he has the ability to spring tactical surprises that actually work and, despite that pragmatism mentioned earlier, he is giving us a City team much more willing to play on the front foot in front of their own fans than his two predecessors ever provided.
So, as I’ve mentioned in one or two earlier pieces, home matches have become more enjoyable under Neil Warnock, but, five years to the day since that Reading game I mentioned at the start and with Joe Ralls again to the fore, the beating of this expensively assembled Villa team moved things on to a different level – this was what supporting Cardiff City used to feel like on one of those very good days that we had become used to experiencing on a fairly regular basis between the years of 2000 to 2012.
There had been a couple of matches (Bristol City and Wolves) under Warnock already which were a considerable improvement on what we had got used to in terms of atmosphere over the past three years. These two occasions had justified the theory (which I subscribe to) that floodlit matches tend to provide the best atmospheres, but there are always exceptions to any rule and yesterday took things on to a different level.
Probably the biggest contingent of travelling support that there has ever been for a game at Cardiff City Stadium certainly helped, but I’d like to think that there would have been a very good response to a game like yesterday’s even with a far smaller away following because we had a team giving everything for the cause playing for us.
If the best atmospheres tend to come in floodlit matches is one of my pet theories, another on the same subject is that Christmas/New Year matches often have a better atmosphere to them compared to “normal” games and, very appropriately, this particular one had a pantomime villain that the audience (or most of them at least!) could boo to their heart’s content.
Most of the post match comment after Villa’s 3-1 win in November concerned Jack Grealish, who was involved in an argument with Neil Warnock about the way he reacted to City’s attempts to deal with the threat he posed.
Now, the methods we used were largely condemned by a local media in the Midlands and the Villa faithful as being “typical” Warnock (i.e we were long ball cloggers) – Steve Bruce was also not backwards in coming forwards either about the “treatment” Grealish had received from us and, to be fair, it did seem pretty obvious that we had targeted him.
So, with that previous meeting between the sides, only having taken place five weeks earlier, ensuring that memories were still fresh regarding the controversy, it was certain that Grealish would be getting a special reception from the home crowd.
I need to say here as well, that Jack Grealish is one of my least favourite modern footballers anyway. Based on what I’d seen of him on the telly and on video, he’s a Fancy Dan player who goes missing when the going gets tough and, for all of his undoubted ability, seldom influenced a game at Premier League level.
That said, in a team which, I feel, badly missed the ill Mile Jedinak and contained too many of those Fancy Dans for this division, Grealish did not disappear from yesterday’s game and was still showing for the ball right up until the end.
It was what he did after he got the ball though that meant that, despite him showing more courage than I thought he would, having now seen him play in the flesh, Grealish remains high on my list of players I don’t like.
Yes, City once again targeted him and there were some tackles on him which drew justified yellow cards, but it seemed to me that referee Andy Davies (a new name to me) officiated in a manner which was influenced by all of the furore that had erupted over Grealish in the first game between the teams.
I thought Davies looked out of his depth and constantly made poor decisions which affected both teams, but there were free kicks he awarded to Villa as a result of so called challenges on Grealish when he had gone to ground far too easily, In fact, watching much of his performance, I’m not sure if Grealish sees his main function in the team as using his skill and vision to create chances for his colleagues or to keep on falling over to gain his side free kicks.
After the game, Steve Bruce accused City of kicking Grealish from “pillar to post” in both matches, but he did also say that his reaction to what was happening was not what was required as he took his protests too far – in fact having already been booked for sarcastically applauding the ref after being given a free kick, Grealish should really have been red carded late on when he blatantly dived when “on the end” of a non existent Craig Noone challenge.
I mentioned earlier about Neil Warnock’s tactical nous and it was again apparent after his unexpected decision to deploy the available again Sol Bamba in front of the back four. Grealish did go past him once as if he wasn’t there in the first few minutes, but after that the man who has made himself an indispensable member of the team since he arrived in October was master of all he surveyed in that so important few square yards where good modern day number tens can wreak so much havoc if not handled well.
Bamba was one of the main reasons why Villa, for all of their attacking talent on paper, never really created a great deal from open play. In fact, they compared very poorly to Barnsley, who looked so dangerous going forward, in their recent 4-3 win here in an attacking sense – Albert Adomah threatened to be a problem in the first half at times, but Ross McCormack (who in what I was praying was not a case of mistaken bravado, I pronounced had never done anything against us since his move from Cardiff to Leeds) was comfortably kept in check.
When McCormack did make an impact of sorts with a free kick from twenty five yards, goalkeeper Brian Murphy again showed the shot stopping ability that had been apparent at Brentford by tipping the ball on to the bar and there were a couple of other good stops by the veteran from sub Gabby Agbonlahor as we came under pressure in the last quarter of the match.
Before that though it was City who were forcing the issue and they really should have been further ahead after a dominant first half performance. Everywhere you looked in the City side there were performances brimming with commitment, pride and, in many cases, no little skill – Kadeem Harris (who along with Kenneth Zohore and Junior Hoilett was part of a starting attacking trio that made a mockery of that old line about us lacking attacking pace) had, arguably, his best game in a City shirt, scorer Ralls offered reminders of why he looked such a great prospect in that Reading match, Bruno Manga, in what may well be his last game for the club, was a class act, Joe Bennett, who I had been critical of after Brentford’s late equaliser on Boxing Day, but was very good here and Zohore, in the first half in particular, caused the Villa centrebacks plenty of problems as he continued his attempt to pocket the most improved player at the club trophy at the end of season awards,
Best of the lot for me though was another link with that Reading match, Aron Gunnarsson who personified the reasons why we just might be seeing the start of something that will lead to our club again becoming the Cardiff City that we feared we had lost forever – you know, the one which used to make you feel proud to be a supporter of them. Well, five years to the day since one such performance, they came up with one to match it yesterday.
A Happy New Year to all readers of this blog.
*pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/