Around this time last year, a high profile manager from Scotland proclaimed that he hoped his side didn’t do a “Cardiff” in their upcoming, very important, match in their pursuit of Rangers for the Scottish Premiership title. Celtic promptly went on to do exactly what Neil Lennon didn’t want them to as they lost 3-2 at Inverness and the silverware was as good as in the Ibrox Park trophy cabinet.
Celtic had done a “Cardiff” and, although it wasn’t a pleasant experience as a City fan to hear your side being referred to in such a manner, the sad truth is that most people knew exactly what Lennon was talking about when he mentioned us. Two days before that Celtic match was played, City were beaten 3-0 by Middlesbrough at home in embarrassing fashion when a win would have taken them into second position in the Championship with one game to play and when we were taken apart by the same score in the home leg of our Play Off Semi Final by Reading, it was just one more instance of Cardiff “doing a Cardiff”.
In case you are one of what must be a tiny minority of City fans who are unaware of what “doing a Cardiff” means, it is a way of describing a horrendous loss of form on important, season defining, occasions. Sadly, City teams have made a habit of doing this in recent years – to use a more common term, City have acquired a reputation for bottling the big occasion.
Being a generous soul, I do not believe we “did a Cardiff” in the 2008 FA Cup Final or the 2010 Play Off Final (on both occasions we were beaten by a better team in my opinion and there was no shame in defeat), but there are those who will tell you that we did – particularly against Blackpool. However, the capitulation to end all capitulations at the end of the 2008/09 campaign certainly qualifies, so that’s at least two of the past three seasons which we have ended as something of a national laughing stock.
Now, the present team might end up making a fool of me by folding pathetically in the two upcoming matches with West Ham, but they would be flying in the face of all the evidence we’ve seen so far this season if they did do that.
Yesterday lunchtime, Malky Mackay faced the latest “massive” match of his first season with us and, just as they have done on almost every one of these big occasions, City rose to the challenge and produced a performance above the level they had been showing in the fixtures leading up to the big occasion.
You only have to look at a record of ten points out of a possible twelve against the two teams who were promoted automatically to see we have not been daunted by the top sides in the Championship. Our record against the sides immediately below Reading and Southampton is pretty good as well and when you add our last four performances in our League Cup run to that, there is little evidence that can be found of us freezing on the big occasion.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the Cardiff City we all know and, usually, love if they didn’t do something to send the blood pressure rocketing and, in going behind quite early on at Crystal Palace in the match they needed to avoid losing to guarantee a top six finish, they frazzled the nerves of their long suffering fans – we are, after all, talking about a team who had yet to win after conceding the first goal this season.
In saying that though, although they weren’t exactly carving Palace open in the first half, City were generally in control of proceedings and, for long periods, it did look like exactly what it was – a team unbeaten in nine matches up against opponents who had not won in eight. Indeed, if it wasn’t for what was at stake influencing our thinking, I reckon there were more than enough signs for confidence that we could, and would, get on terms if we kept plugging away like we had done in the first forty five minutes.
There have certainly been times in recent home matches where City’s apparent superiority was not reflected in terms of efforts on target and there was an element of that yesterday, but, just when it was really needed, our best player rediscovered his dead ball “mojo”. When someone scores from the sort of angle that Peter Whittingham did with that free kick, then there is a temptation to say that it was something of a fluke, but our talisman has provided sufficient proof of his special talent down the years to be given any benefit of the doubt as to what his intentions were – for me it was a shot hit into an area where he knew that the merest touch on it could easily end up in the net.
City turned the screw after that and their season long ability to score from dead ball situations was re-emphasised when Aron Gunnarsson’s long throw was flicked on by Mark Hudson into the path of Don Cowie who ended a personal goal drought which had lasted more than six months, by volleying in a superb right foot effort from around the penalty spot.
Shortly after that, Middlesbrough fell a goal behind at Watford and it was possible to breathe a bit easier. News of a Boro equaliser was followed virtually straight away by confirmation that Watford had scored again and so, with Palace only threatening sporadically, the last few minutes were nowhere near as nerve racking as I for one, had expected them to be.
In saying that, when this City squad get in front (in recent away matches anyway), I find that I have quite a bit of faith in them seeing things through. To only lose four away matches out of twenty three is an absolutely tremendous achievement – we did only lose three times on our travels during our 1959/60 promotion season, but that was in a twenty two team league and so we played two fewer away matches that year.
So, our season is to be extended by another nine days, at least, with two matches against the team that were generally considered to be the strongest in the division back in August (and for most of the months which followed as well). If I’m being honest, a two match tie favours West Ham with their bigger squad of players who feel more at home in the Premiership than the Championship and the fact that they have rediscovered the knack of winning at Upton Park only makes our task all the more difficult – to my mind, the real achievement for us has been making the top six.
Thankfully, our manager, coaching staff and playing squad will have no truck with such thinking. One of the benefits of having a squad which may not be as naturally talented as some of our recent ones, but has a real spirit and togetherness about them (the situation that so many of us said we wanted after the “galacticos” of last year) is that they tend to be strong mentally. This City squad won’t be intimidated by West Ham and if our opponents show any signs of feeling sorry for themselves after missing out on a top two place or are as arrogant as their manager sounds at times, then City can beat them – even if we end up being well beaten over the two legs, this City squad has shown over the past nine months or so that they do not deserve to have the insult of them having “done a Cardiff” thrown at them.
+ a thank you to City fan Nigel Harris (Nigel Blues) for this picture.