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.ukby The other Bob Wilson
I’ve only seen a couple of match reports on yesterday’s 2-0 win over Doncaster Rovers, but the word “routine” has featured in both of them – funnily enough, it was the very word that was on my mind when as I left the ground. City’s performance didn’t hit any great heights, but it was good to start the run of six matches until the next international break with a win because it would have been tough going into what looks a testing quintet of fixtures starting at Blackpool next week on a run of four league games without a victory.
I must admit to fearing for my second favourite Championship team’s chances of staying up though – Doncaster were neat and tidy in possession as always, but carried very little threat going forward and their defence creaked every time City put them under any pressure. In many ways, the game reminded me of another match we won 2-0 that featured a goal by Anthony Gerrard at the Canton End. When Peterborough, who were destined to finish bottom of the league, came here in February 2010 they had quite a bit of possession and pressure, but, despite a pretty ordinary City performance, there never seemed a chance that the match would end in anything but a home win. The low key nature of the game allied with the fact that City were up in court (again!) for non payment of taxes the following day were probably the reasons for a flat atmosphere that night and it might well have been a reaction to what happened before the game at Wembley on Tuesday that caused it yesterday, but neither match had a “normal” feel to it for me.
However, I’m not sure that our win yesterday deserved the sort of panning it has received from many on the messageboards. Some of the comments seemed well over the top to me considering that we got the job done without conceding against the league’s bottom team. If that doesn’t sound much to get excited about, it might well be a good time to point out how last season’s team, that so many still want to compare so favourably with the current side, got on at home against sides at or around the bottom of the table. Scunthorpe were only beaten by a single goal scored five minutes from time, Sheffield United left with a 1-1 draw despite having to play the last hour of the game with ten men, Preston were only denied a 1-0 win by an Andy Keogh goal four minutes into added time at the end of the match and Palace got a 0-0 in a match in which we barely had an attack worthy of the name.
Therefore, maybe those making comments like “It’s the most bored I have ever been watching Cardiff in 30 years” should stop and really think about what they are saying. For me, the quality of Peter Whittingham’s free kick, which made scoring a formality for Anthony Gerrard, alone provided more interest and excitement than anything I saw in the whole of countless matches during the 80′s and 90′s in particular. To be fair, the first half offered little apart from the first two minutes which saw a shot against the post by Earnie and an intervention that almost led to an own goal as a through ball by Gerrard caused problems in the Doncaster defence so, yes, with Donny also struggling to create much, it was boring at times. For all of their problems with injury and poor results though, Donny were never going to lie down and make things easy for us and it’s difficult to avoid the impression that we have all become a little spoilt lately after years of chasing a top six finish.
Wins are no longer enough it seems, now there needs to be style and flair as well and yet I’d say that, without playing anywhere near as well as we did against the wurzels, we didn’t do too badly in the second half yesterday. True, Doncaster had long spells of possession after going 1-0 behind and we did get ragged at times with long balls played out of defence as the gap between our midfield and attack became too big, that handed possession back to our opponents, but we could have had a hatful of goals after the break. Besides the two we did get, Earnie and Hudson, especially, wasted good chances inside the first couple of minutes and keeper Woods made fine saves to keep out efforts from Whittingham and Gestede, while, as Malky Mackay observed, there were quite a few times when a better final ball would have put us in on goal.
After twice coming so close to scoring, Earnie secured the points when he netted from close range after being teed up, at the second time of asking, by Whittingham and, if a strike rate of three in six matches could be continued over the course of the campaign then we would have one of the top strikers in the Championship on our hands. However, once again, there was little sign of any cohesion in his partnership with Kenny Miller, who, in a mixed overall performance, saw some great runs go unnoticed by his colleagues. As has been the case so often substitutions seemed to improve the side – this time, this wasn’t just down to the introduction of Rudy Gestede, but also the comeback of Aron Gunnarsson and Filip Kiss after injury. Gunnarsson, who started off the move that led to the second goal, in particular added more midfield craft and know how when he replaced Darcy Blake (who did okay, but no more than that in the holding role), while Kiss showed his eagerness to get involved with a series of attempted tackles, which didn’t always come off, and one or two decent and clever passes.
Best player for City for me was probably Kevin McNaughton. After the game, Malky Mackay compared him to Peter Whittingham in that, like Whitts, super Kev is someone who can still make improvements to his game at this, relatively late, stage in his career. Certainly, we are seeing more of McNaughton in advanced positions and, although I wouldn’t say there is anything too subtle about his attacking play, it is growing in effectiveness. Yesterday there was some forceful running past defenders and one or two good crosses, one of which should have resulted in a goal for Hudson, at the end of it. This is not a natural part of McNaughton’s game, but is something that our manager wants encourage and it it was funny to hear Malky talk about our “Stanley Matthews” on the wing who he wanted to stop bombing forward in the closing stages!
Finally, although there have been plenty of times when the behaviour of some Cardiff fans have made me ashamed to be a supporter of the club, yesterday was a reminder that there is also a lot which is good in our fanbase. The tributes, in the form of flowers, flags and banners, to Mikey Dye outside the ground and the minute’s applause inside it were a fitting way to remember someone who died last week because he decided to go to a football match, while the recognition of the imminent passing of Brendan Roger’s father, as well as the response of so many jacks fans to the week’s events, offers hope that the rivalry between the two clubs can continue, but on a more mature basis.
* photographs of yesterday’s game courtesy ofby The other Bob Wilson