I’ll tell you what, defeats like last night’s 3-0 capitulation (I should really look that word up in a Thesaurus to see if there are any alternatives I can use – “capitulation” has been done to death under this manager and group of players!) to Reading in the Championship Play Off Semi Final second leg at Cardiff City Stadium becomes so much easier to take when your expectation level beforehand is virtually zero.
Much of yesterday was taken up on the messageboards with pleas for positive thinking before a game which truly merited that over used term “most important game of the season”. That was perfectly understandable and I’m not going to knock anyone who took part in it, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only City supporter who felt that they couldn’t join in with all of the pre match optimism because it didn’t represent how they actually felt. For me it was a classic case of the old heart and head analogy, you want something with all of your heart but cold logic tells you it’s just not going to happen – not with this manager and group of players.
Now our season is over and that voice in the back of your mind that kept telling you “despite it all, this can be our season” has been silenced (again!), can I ask if I am the only supporter who, essentially, lost faith in this manager and the team he had put together after the home match with Swansea back in November? To be more precise, although the selection and tactics used that day still baffle me, it was more how Dave Jones and the side responded to that defeat which was so telling – I’ve had some serious hangovers in my time, but never one that lasted nearly two months!
That run of two wins in ten matches said so much about how this manager and his team reacted to the pressure of big games (one point from twelve in November against sides that would finish in the top six) and how they reacted in adversity – I’m afraid it screamed out “this is not a promotion team”. It would be wrong of course to say that we weren’t a good side by the standards of this division and fine runs in the New Year inspired by Aaron Ramsey (we went back to not having a proper midfield as soon as he left of course) and then, almost single handedly, by Craig Bellamy (who should not be included in any characterising of this manager and his team as chokers) proved that. However, a last four matches which would have earned the title “the mother and father of all implosions” if it wasn’t for the even more spectacular one that occurred two years earlier, really brought it home that Dave Jones, having been given the financial backing in January that he had been denied in previous seasons, had put together a squad that had too many players with Premiership tastes (in the worst sense of the term) and Blue Square Bet Premier standards of professionalism.
Our manager may not have too much time for Cardiff City supporters because most of us have never played the game professionally, but a lot of us (especially those who have been following the team for a long time) have an almost subliminal feeling for the spirit or essence of the club and it’s very interesting to read so many people say since last night’s match that something just didn’t feel right this season because that’s precisely what I have been thinking for months. It’s hard to put into words, but, in my case, the lack of faith I mentioned earlier was a factor, there was also a lack of empathy towards the players (to use an in vogue term, it never felt like we were all in this together), the impression our manager gave out that we were somehow different from anywhere else in the country because we had high expectations of the team (expectations he helped foster with his public pronouncements in the autumn) was another part of it and, finally, although I think we made great strides forward off the field on the whole, it did all feel a little bit too corporate and Americanised at times for me.
Anyway, it’s about time I said something about the game and I have to start with two moments that I believe defined our season. The first one occurred twenty eight minutes in when we went one nil down and, realistically, there was no way back for us after that. I’ve had a few e-mails overnight and one of them talks about it being like watching parks football – funnily enough, that was precisely what I said when Shane Long’s lob hit the net. I had underestimated just how shambolic and inept our defending had really been though because it wasn’t until I saw it later on the television that I realised the part Dekel Keinan had played in the “creation” of the goal. City somehow contrived to go from what should have been a position of safety about ten yards inside their own half to one where they were presenting Long with an empty net to aim at just outside the penalty area without a Reading playing touching the ball! All of this was done in just four touches from City with each one of them being progressively more dangerous than the last. Kevin McNaughton was blameless with his unwitting header, but Keinan and Steven Bywater were both guilty of panicking and, in the latter’s case making a wrong decision to come off his line.
The second of them occurred with about ten minutes to go when Jay Bothroyd chased a through ball as Reading keeper Adam Federici advanced. It looked a genuine 50/50 and Federici wasn’t going to hold back, but, with City’s whole season on the line, you would have expected a wholly committed challenge from our player, instead of which we got Bothroyd ducking out of the collision – forget about the fact that Federici handled the ball outside of his area and wasn’t punished, our player didn’t fancy it when it looked like he was going to take a whack. Going back to something not feeling right, this is another case in point – Bothroyd is possibly the most naturally talented striker I have seen play for us, but there are so many others I have watched down the years who would have gone for that ball and thought bugger the consequences.
The evening got worse for Dekel Keinan when he gave away one of the most obvious penalties you are ever likely to see as he grabbed Matt Mills’ shirt when they contested a corner. Now, this offence is hardly something that is unique to Cardiff City, but it did set me thinking about just what our players are told to do in these situations in training – you get so many managers and coaches condemning shirt pulling in the media, but if they feel that badly about it, why not just tell their players that they must not do it and fine those who persist with it? The truth I suspect is a bit like with diving, managers, coaches and players line up to criticise it, but then talk a few minutes later about a player “going to ground” as if that is some sort of acceptable face of diving – people in the game probably feel shirt pulling is okay as long as it is not so obvious as Keinan’s was.
If I’m right in thinking that, then Keinan was, again, guilty of rank bad defending and I thought it was in this department that you saw the main difference between the two teams – Reading were always getting blocks in at vital times and they conceded very few free kicks in dangerous areas whereas there was an air of desperation about City’s defence which, when you consider that McNaughton and Darcy Blake were two of our stronger performers, shows just how bad Bywater, Keinan and the surprisingly recalled Jay Lloyd Samuel (he was turned inside out in the first two minutes and didn’t improve much after that) were. In front of them, Peter Whittingham gave a superb first half performance which established him as City’s best player over the two games by some distance before becoming less of an influence after the break, while Chris Burke played as well as he has done in any of the five Play Off games he has been in over the last two years, but, truth be told, he still wasn’t the player he was last season, while all I’ll say about Olofinjana and Emmanuel-Thomas is that we got more of the same from the first leg.
I’ve already mentioned Bothroyd who, generally speaking, has been as poor in the second half of the season as he was good in the first, but alongside him Michael Chopra faded badly after a bright start. I wouldn’t have taken Chopra off myself because we needed goals, but, to be fair to Dave Jones, the way the player performed after the first half an hour did have me wondering about his fitness and conditioning (it also makes you think about the current state of the relationship between player and manager). Chopra’s substitution was one of three made as, in what might well be his final game in charge, Dave Jones told Adam Matthews to put the book he had been reading all season while he has been spending ninety minutes sat on the bench down and get on the pitch – after six months of getting splinters in his backside, is it any wonder that the poor lad look confused when he wandered on!
Despite the changes Dave Jones finished up playing the same old 4-4 f*cking 2 as another season ended amid charges of he and his team bottling it. So did they do that and are he and his team serial chokers? Well, it can be argued that this is a harsh way to look at last night’s match because, up to a point, we played quite well – I thought we were well on top when Reading took the lead and we certainly had the chances to score in the second half especially as indicated by a shots on goal tally of twelve – five in our favour. Unfortunately though all that stat does is show that our finishing was sub standard once again with too many efforts going straight at Federici while Emmanuel-Thomas (twice) and sub. Parkin were guilty of missing the target with good opportunities in the second half. Therefore, throw in a scoring record of two goals in the last five matches with the disastrous defending in our last two home matches and put it with the finish to 08/09, the chucking away of a two goal lead against Leicester last year and, in the manager’s case, Wolves’ finish to 01/02 and, sadly, I have to say that, yes, Cardiff City and their manager are serial chokers (in big league games at the end of the season anyway) - what would you say about any other team and manager with a record like that?
Last night certainly had the feeling of an end of an era to it to me even before Dave Jones gave his after match reaction and the rumour mill ground into action. It seems that many feel the same way as well with a complete overhaul of playing staff to go with the change of manager being called for – I agree with that. More than at any other time in the past fifty years we are a club that is ready for the top flight, our ground, training facilites and current fanbase say we would not be out of place at the top level and Dave Jones has to be applauded for the part he played in that process. I’m afraid though that over a period of six years he has proved that he isn’t the man who can take that final step for us – for me we need someone who can impose a coherent and modern tactical approach on the team as well as freshening up a club that has, on the playing side at least, gone stale whilst also distancing itself from it’s supporters.