Yesterday lunchtime Cardiff City brought the curtain down on their home programme for the regular league season with a 1-1 draw with Leeds United which was fairly typical of the fare served up at Cardiff City Stadium in 2011/12 in that you went away from the game with no complaints about the team’s attitude, but ruing their lack of a cutting edge and their inability to kill opponents off when they were on top in games. This time though, the penalty for dropping home points was more severe as Middlesbrough’s surprising 2-1 victory over a very disappointing Southampton team a few hours later meant that our four point lead over them was whittled down to two and Tony Mowbray’s side had ensured that the race for the last Play Off place will go into the final match of the campaign.
As is the case at every club I suppose, there’s a lot of talk at Cardiff at the start of each season about turning our home ground into a “fortress”, but, especially in this most competitive of leagues, it’s one thing to talk about such matters and another to actually manage it. I don’t feel we’ve achieved this aim in any of the nine seasons since we returned to this level, but, given the excellent start we made, the failure to do so this time around makes it feel all the more disappointing.
When we beat Birmingham on December 4, we had taken twenty three points out of thirty from our home matches. Seven wins and two draws from ten games is automatic promotion, let alone Play Off, form, so to end up with a record that has us winning less than half of our matches at Cardiff City Stadium has to be seen as big let down. Eleven wins and seven draws from twenty three home matches isn’t a bad record I suppose, but I believe a side pushing for a top six finish would expect to do better than that. Twenty nine goals conceded is much too high a figure and yesterday was the seventh time we had held a lead in home matches which we ended up not winning – it’s inevitable that comparisons will be made between Dave Jones and Malky Mackay as Malky’s first season in charge ends and, in many ways, I’d say our manager comes out of such comparisons well, but I’m pretty sure both of those figures tended to be a fair bit lower under our former boss.
Ironically though, the display in the game that completed our home programme was, in my opinion, our best at Cardiff City Stadium for some time (as far as league matches go, I don’t think we’ve played as well since beating Reading on January 2). If any two games proved the truth of the old adage that it’s results and not performances that count at this stage of the season, it was the ones seen at Cardiff City Stadium over the past five days. We played much better yesterday than we did against Derby in midweek and yet the Play Off place that had looked a virtual certainty is now down to the ranks of a probability – still not bad at all, but, given the precedent of 08/09, we all know that nowhere near as much has to go wrong now as it did then for us not to make the top six.
I was listening to Wales coach Osian Roberts talking about City on the way to the game and he was saying that he was impressed by how Malky Mackay had gradually ingrained his way of thinking into the way we play. As an example he said that David Marshall was far more inclined to belt the ball upfield in the early months of the season, but now when he has the ball, our centre backs split and he invariably gives it to one of them as we try and build from the back. I had been vaguely aware of this over the past few months, but paid particular attention to it yesterday and, it’s true – it’s not very often the keeper kicks it long now. We have become more of a passing team (albeit one which retains the option of going long if and when we can get Rudy Gestede fit) and, although it’s not always been the case, yesterday that approach was working for us – we generally passed the ball pretty well and, although we were never completely on top, I thought we were looking as comfortable as any team can do at 1-0 up until Leeds’ out of the blue equaliser.
I used the word “generally” in relation to our passing there because in the most important area of the pitch, it didn’t match what we saw elsewhere. For me, Joe Mason had an excellent first half, but I’d say overall Liam Lawrence (who I criticised a fair bit earlier matches, but he’s been very good recently) pipped him for City’s man of the match and yet both players wasted excellent second half opportunities, which saw them get to the Leeds byeline, with poor crosses. In Lawrence’s case, his pass was hugely over hit and I’m afraid the same description could be applied to too much of Peter Whittingham’s shooting (particularly from free kicks) and passing lately – we were careless at times when we got into the final third of the pitch.
To be fair to the man who deservedly won the Supporters Club Player of the Year award last night, Whittingham was more influential than he has been recently – just as he did with Michael Chopra’s winner last season when the two teams met, he played a glorious long pass to open up the Leeds defence that allowed Mason (who, for some reason, doesn’t seem to like scoring at the Canton Stand end!) to lob in our goal. Not long afterwards, Whittingham was at it again as he put Kenny Miller through on goal – this was the sort of chance Miller was gobbling up earlier in the season, but, unfortunately, his goal against Watford has not completely restored his finishing touch and he never looked that convincing as he allowed Andy Lonergan to save.
The keeper’s fabulous second half save to deny Andrew Taylor’s sweetly struck volley was mentioned by Malky Mackay after the match, but, for me, Miller’s miss was as much, if not more, of an important moment in the game because, far from being the highly motivated, snarling and snapping outfit that I was expecting them to be, Leeds seemed pretty tame to me. Disinterested would be too strong a word to use to describe them, but I couldn’t help thinking that there would not have been much of a response from them to going 2-0 down before half time if Miller had scored and the opportunity would have been there to record a big win. Instead of that though, that inability to kill off sides in home matches that I mentioned earlier resurfaced and the visitors were able to get a foothold in the match, which eventually enabled them to score a well worked equaliser.
City’s response to being pegged back to 1-1 was pretty impressive – Filip Kiss’ introduction gave us some midfield urgency (something we tend to lack in our normal starting line up midfield) and we did put our opponents under a fair bit of pressure, but the lack of precision when we got into dangerous areas haunted us to the end. Just as we have had to do too many times at Cardiff City Stadium lately, we had to settle for a draw against the sort of side that the league table tells us we should be beating.
As to what the league table tells us about next week, well Middlesbrough’s away record (and their high energy display yesterday) suggests they can win at Watford despite the fact that Sean Dyche’s team have only lost one in twelve. To my way of thinking, we have to assume that Boro will win, but, with us having spent virtually the whole season drawing on the grounds of teams in the lower half of the table and Palace’s home record exactly matching our away figures of won seven, drawn eleven and lost four, it seems to me that yet another draw has to be the most likely outcome – if only there weren’t those demons from 08/09 hovering in the background tormenting us though!
pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/by The other Bob Wilson
The days leading up to City’s visit to Oakwell to take on Barnsley saw Malky Mackay stating on more than one occasion that his side had momentum going into their final four matches of the regular season. The longer our manager has been in charge, the easier it has become to see why so many Watford fans said he reacts to adversity by criticising officials, but not his team – in fact I can’t recall him saying a single bad word about a Cardiff City side since he took over. It appears to be a deliberate policy on the part of our manager to keep the tone remorselessly positive (in public at least), even when there is little apparent justification for such optimism.
I’m sorry, but anyone who has suffered through our past six, winless, home matches surely must find this talk of us having momentum to be somewhat odd. For me, Reading have momentum and, because they have had it for around four months now, they’ll almost certainly be celebrating promotion and, probably, winning the title within the next seven days. However, after yesterday’s hard fought 1-0 win in Yorkshire, I believe that it is fair to say that we do have momentum when we play away – three wins and a draw in our last four away games is automatic promotion, not just top six, form. When you also consider that since our “wobble” started after we reached the League Cup Final, we have played on the grounds of four of the current top eight teams in the division and we have won once and drawn three times, it could be argued that our away form has never been a problem.
I still say we have drawn too many games at the homes of teams in the lower reaches of the league (it’s beginning to look likely that we will not record an away win over a relegated side this season), but, our late run of victories has gone a long way towards putting things right in terms of an overall points haul on our travels. Only four sides have now picked up more away points than us – even if we lose at Palace. and miss out on the Play Off’s, there is a strong possibility that we will at least be a top six team on our travels this season.
The concern has to be though that, having won what might turn out to be a season defining victory at Middlesbrough on Easter Saturday, there were few signs two days later that any momentum gained by that great win was carried into our home game against a Watford side which could, easily, have left Cardiff City Stadium with all three points. If winning at one of our Play Off rivals cannot lead to an improvement in our attitude, performance and results in home games, then why should a victory over the most of out of form side in the Championship, apart from relegated Doncaster, make us expect anything else but what has become the usual frustration when Derby and Leeds turn up for games next week?
Well, there was no scintillating display or big win that might have had our promotion rivals thinking Cardiff are the side to avoid in the Play Off’s, but, then again, did anyone really expect there to be? You’ll have to take my word for this because there’s nothing on here or on City messageboards where I mentioned this beforehand, but yesterday’s match turned out more or less exactly as I expected it to – it was always going to be a real battle with goals and goalscoring chances at a premium. I fancied us for a 1-0 win, but did have concerns about us having to defend such a narrow lead in the closing stages – as it turned out though, we were able to see the win out with few alarms (oh for us being able to do that in a home game, but, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that even a team as toothless as Barnsley proved to be would have had opportunities to equalise if we had been playing at Cardiff City Stadium).
The goal we scored was of a quality out of keeping with so much of what went on before or after it. If we had a couple of full backs who combined Kevin McNaughton’s attacking urgency and pace with Andrew Taylor’s passing and crossing ability, we’d be celebrating a top six finish already, but, at least, when the latter gets into a position to deliver a cross from pretty close to the opposition’s corner flag, you know that most of the time, he’ll come up with a quality ball. That’s what Taylor did yesterday – there was still quite a bit for Liam Lawrence to do when the cross reached him though, but the on loan midfielder, who has hardly impressed with his aerial ability up to this moment, came up trumps with a textbook far post header back across keeper Button and into the corner of the net.
It was Lawrence’s first goal since January of last year and broke a scoring drought that made Kenny Miller’s recent one look like a tiny distraction by comparison – Lawrence may have had his critics (myself included) since his arrival from Portsmouth, but I thought he played well at Birmingham and Boro and feel that, although he’s not really showed this in home games so far, he is now beginning to make the sort of contribution that most people expected from him when he signed for us.
It’ll be interesting to see if Malky Mackay continues to have one of Lawrence or Steve McPhail starting on the bench for our remaining matches. Having Lawrence there on Monday didn’t work because he had to come on so early into a game in which McPhail was a peripheral figure and he made so little impact that he was eventually replaced himself. However, having McPhail come on for the injured Don Cowie yesterday seemed to give City a degree of control that they hadn’t had beforehand and it may be this could be the best way to deploy his talents from now on.
Looking ahead to the next seven days, I said on here after the Watford match that I couldn’t see us winning another home game this season, but it would be foolish not to accept that our situation has changed for the better since then. For a start, Reading’s win at Brighton last Tuesday night meant that, in truth, we were in a stronger position after our stuttering display against Watford than we were before it. On top of that, three points yesterday has, effectively put quite a few of the sides who were still fancying their top six chances a week ago out of contention – for example, although it’s still mathematically possible for Derby and Leeds to reach the Play Offs, the reality is that it’s going to be Championship football for the pair of them next season.
Therefore, although you can talk about Nigel Clough wanting to end a run that has seen his side concede fourteen goals in their last three visits to Cardiff, Neil Warnock hoping to put one over us and Dougie Freedman wanting revenge for the League Cup Semi Final (and those chants!), the truth is that all of our matches from now on are against sides who have no promotion or relegation issues. Only Blackpool out of our rivals in the top ten are in the same position, but they do have a tricky local derby against Burnley to tackle.
I’m sure sides like Birmingham, Middlesbrough, Leicester, Brighton and Hull would swap their run ins for ours. Finally, if you are talking about momentum, we might not have much of it following our struggles at home over the past couple of months, but, perhaps the best way to look at it is that, when you consider their form and remaining fixtures and add in the fact that, when all’s said and done, we’ve not lost in seven and have only one defeat in ten, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of our rivals are saying something like “I wish we had Cardiff’s momentum” this weekend!
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/by The other Bob Wilson