Some facts for you. In the nine previous seasons we’ve had at this level since our promotion in 2003, we’ve been remarkably consistent in terms of home games won. The 2008/09 bottlers are out in front with fourteen and then we have the 07/08, 09/10 and 10/11 sides with twelve each, one behind that are 06/07 (the season we started like a train and ended like a penny farthing) and 11/12, while our first three Championship campaigns saw us end up with ten victories each time. Yesterday we added the scalp of the side currently placed eighth to a list of beaten teams at Cardiff City Stadium which includes six of the current top nine (we’ve not played the other two at home yet). In beating Millwall we took our number of home victories to twelve before 2012 was out and so, already, we have beaten or matched the figure for eight out of nine of the Cardiff sides who have played in the Championship since Andy Campbell’s lob hit the back of the QPR net at the Millennium Stadium.
Why is it then that some of the 24,000 + Cardiff supporters in the ground decided to start having a go at the team during yesterday’s match? The grumbles started in the first half, but were at their peak during the visitor’s best period of the game around the hour mark. Usually the crowd tends to react to how the team are playing before the moans start, but it seemed different to me yesterday – we had a great chance to double our lead within seconds of the restart and yet a few minutes later there were audible groans every time we lost possession.
Thankfully, we are all different and I appreciate that there are always people who show their backing of their team by giving it stick for the entire ninety minutes because they care so much, but there was an edginess in the crowd yesterday that I hadn’t noticed in previous games this season – even those (and there have been quite a few of them) where we were not playing too well and struggling to hold on to a lead, break down stubborn opponents or get on level terms. It seemed to me that, for a spell at least, the edginess in the crowd got to the players (although there had been little to justify such nerves up to then) and we went through a dodgy spell where the visitors must have really fancied their chances of equalising. Thankfully, the team were able to ride out the storm and, although it was not particularly attractive to watch, were able to cruise to victory in the last fifteen minutes or so by retaining possession well while giving the lie to those who claimed that all we did after the break was hoof the ball forward.
Back in February or March I can remember visiting a Reading messageboard for some reason and reading that many of their supporters were a bit surprised by their position near the top of the table because they didn’t think their level of performance had been that good. It was only towards the end of the campaign that Reading showed the quality of Champions as they realised it was going to be their year and by the end of April had proved themselves worthy Championship winners. However, although the quality wasn’t always there, Reading churned out the results from November which kept them in the chase because the majority of matches at this level are not won by playing Champagne football, they are won by the one out of two evenly matched teams who don’t blink first.
Even though we have been a strong Championship side for the last four seasons, we have often been the ones that showed weakness by blinking first in tight matches. We have turned in some very good performances (Wolves, Blackpool, Burnley and Blackburn spring to mind) at times this season, but there have been far more where we have got the three points because we held our nerve and belief for longer than our opponents did and with that in mind, I’m reminded of a couple of promotions in the past twenty years.
I’ve always thought that the Eddie Newton side of 91/92 were the better side to watch when they were going well, but the bigger and more physical 92/93 team was better suited to getting out of the basement – they also had that belief which said they were stronger mentally than their rivals. Go forward ten years and from about November onwards the expensively assembled 2002/03 team never did anything to suggest that we were on our way to the Championship – the 2001/02 outfit looked much more like a promotion side than their successors did in the closing weeks of their respective regular league campaigns.
Mind you, maybe the moans from the crowd came because they had seen their team play like Champions for twenty minutes or so before reverting to the more prosaic approach that we have become used to seeing in recent home games especially. City played as well as I’ve seen them at home this season during that early spell of dominance and I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one who felt we were on for a big win as we took our opponents apart with some fine, high tempo, passing football which was typified by Rudy Gestede’s eighth minute goal after some good work by Peter Whittingham and Craig Noone.
However, such thinking showed a lack of respect for a Millwall team with just two defeats in their past seventeen matches. Furthermore, by having their “Boxing Day” match at Brighton shifted forward a week, Millwall had not had to put in a huge physical effort to win one of those ultra tight Championship encounters only three days earlier – after watching the work the players put in to wear down a Palace side with one loss in their twenty previous games on Boxing Day, was it any wonder that some in the team struggled to turn in a ninety minute performance yesterday?
Not for the first time this season, City’s strongest performers tended be their goalkeeper and defenders – Marshall’s save from Henderson’s first half header deserved to be a match winner and. although Millwall showed why they have scored a healthy number of goals this season by knocking in a series of dangerous looking crosses, I thought all of our back four generally had the measure of their opponents. If fatigue tended to be a factor, then it was seen more in front of them with Whittingham and Bellamy’s performance levels dipping in the second half – Gestede and Noone also faded somewhat after very good starts and Craig Conway’s best work was done in defensive situations as his crossing slipped below it’s usual standard. The withdrawal of Aron Gunnarsson probably didn’t help matters either, but I thought his replacement Jordon Mutch gave his best performance since his early season injury and Don Cowie played his part in helping us regain control late on after he came on for Noone.
Unlike those who groaned their way through much of yesterday’s match, wins like that one make me more confident about our chances this season. In saying that, mention of the 08/09 bottlers in my first paragraph only emphasises that no Cardiff fan should even consider taking things for granted at this time. What I do say though is that neutrals and those who make money out of predicting such things are saying that our chances of playing Premiership football in 13/14 are much better than any of the other twenty three sides in our league. There’s plenty that can go wrong yet of course, but three ground out wins against promotion rivals in the past eight days tells you that they might be right and this squad possesses the belief that makes promotion winners.