A busy week at Cardiff City Stadium saw a player departing, another, seemingly, on his way to leaving after turning down a new contract and another arriving. The departure was Anthony Gerrard who will, in all likelihood, be facing his old club next Friday when Huddersfield visit Cardiff City Stadium for the first Football League fixture of 2012/13. Gerrard signed for the Yorkshire side for a reported fee of £350,000 which seems about the right sort of valuation for someone who has established himself as a Championship quality centreback in the three seasons since he joined us from Walsall, but was in the last year of his contract. I believe Gerrard to be a better player than he is generally regarded as being by many messageboard critics, but he definitely fell out with Dave Jones after his first season at Cardiff and there were certainly some signs that all was not well between the player most effected by the arrival of Ben Turner and Malky Mackay as last season built to a climax – throw in a Twitter account which hardly suggested he was happy at Cardiff as well and it seems best for all concerned that Gerrard ply his trade elsewhere.
Another player who has found himself more out of the side than in it is Darcy Blake. Many of Malky Mackay’s comments about Blake during the first few months in particular of his time in charge at Cardiff contained references to how the player conducted himself off the pitch. Dave Jones had expressed concerns about Darcy’s eating and drinking habits in his time as manager and it would appear that Malky Mackay shares these reservations. However, this didn’t stop Blake being a permanent fixture on the bench for City last season (the reduction in the number of subs allowed to five made his versatility even more of an asset in that respect) and, unlike Gerrard, there appears to be a genuine desire to keep the player at Cardiff – as is evidenced by the contract extension offer made to player this summer. However, Blake has refused this offer and, with reports of an interest in him from Crystal Palace, supporters have been quick to assume that this means Blake will be leaving sooner rather than later. There has to be at least a chance here that people are adding two and two and making five here though – there’s got to be a possibility that the offer was just an initial one and both parties will be continuing their discussions with a view to overcoming any difficulties. That said, the fact has to be acknowledged that Blake needs to be playing every week to give himself the best chance of continuing what has been a very successful international career so far and this does seem more likely elsewhere than it does at Cardiff at the moment – whether it be by Blake deciding to stay with us or go elsewhere, a quick resolution to the situation would appear to be best for both parties.
As for the arrival, well if there was an award for the worst kept secret of the summer, Craig Bellamy coming back to Cardiff would have to be a strong candidate. In saying that, I admit that I was sceptical when the rumours of this happening first surfaced around the end of last season, but for the last six to eight weeks there seemed to be an inevitability that the man reckoned by many to have been Great Britain’s best player in the recent Olympics football tournament, would be coming home. Seemingly, it’s those words “coming home” which were the deciding factor in ensuring a two year deal in which City do not pay a fee and Bellamy takes a big wage cut (sweetened by a bonus payable on promotion) went through. Indeed, so strong was the player’s desire to be reunited with his family that in one interview he said that he would have considered retirement rather than play out the remaining year of his contract at Liverpool. His former club were therefore in a position whereby they were not going to get the best out of Bellamy for this season, but the player, along with Malky Mackay, were both quick to express their thanks to Liverpool and in particular manager Brendan Rodgers, for their assistance in enabling the deal to go through.
It’s practically certain that if it weren’t for his desire to live with his family, Craig Bellamy would be playing Premiership football in the new season. Therefore, there’s no doubt that Cardiff City’s chances of finally getting the promotion to the top flight they have been genuine candidates for over the previous four seasons have improved with Bellamy’s signing. The evidence of the last few years suggests the player is better able to cope with the knee problems that have haunted him throughout much of his career and there is little sign, even at the age of thirty three, that he is losing the pace which has been such an asset to him over the last fifteen years or so. In fact, I would suggest that Bellamy is still learning about the game even in the autumn of his career and, in much the same manner as another of our veteran signings this summer, Heidar Helguson, he is a better player in important areas as a thirty something than he was was during his twenties.
Speaking of Helguson, he scored his first Cardiff goal as City won 2-1 at Bournemouth on Tuesday (Peter Whittingham added to his collection of quality pre season goals for our first) and a side mostly made up of young pros and Academy scholars were victorious by the same score twenty four hours later at Barry – Dekel Keinan (who deserves an end to what has become something of a nightmare spell at Cardiff) and Kevin Sainte-Luce scoring on this occasion. So, despite the embarrassing 1-0 loss to Forest Green just over a fortnight ago, City’s pre season record of four wins from five games looked an impressive one ahead of yesterday’s final, and biggest, test before the serious stuff starts – a home game against a Newcastle team which finished fifth in last season’s Premiership. Now, before going on to give my opinions on yesterday’s match, it should be pointed out that with no Papiss Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba, Newcastle were nowhere near their strongest as an attacking force, but, with their first choice back five and regulars like Tiote, Guttirrez and Ryan Taylor in their midfield,this was still a strong enough Geordies team to make City’s 4-1 win look a very impressive result indeed.
As I’ve already gone on more than I intended to about Messrs Gerrard, Blake and Bellamy, I’ll limit my comments about what was the best pre season showing I’ve seen from us in ages to these ten points regarding our performance against a team which still had Champions League ambitions on the final day of last season;-
1. Our midfield performance in the first half was amongst the best I’ve seen from a City team since Malky Mackay took over.
2. Newcastle were completely over run in the first half an hour and Alan Pardew’s side struggled to cope with the runs from deep of Ralls, Mutch and Gunnarsson (the latter two’s performance being particularly impressive when you consider that they have both missed a significant portion of our pre season with injuries) and the Newcastle manager was forced into bringing on a second holding midfielder (Perch) for the more attacking Ryan Taylor when his side went 3-0 down after twenty six minutes.
3. I’ve already mentioned Mutch (who, one or two stray passes apart, had a very good first forty five minutes in a City shirt), but all of the new signings on show impressed. Helguson not only won all of the high balls played up to him, but also linked up play well in the lone striker role before being forced off with a cut to his head after thirty minutes and his replacement Etien Velikonja did better than I was expecting as his replacement.-I’d heard and read comments about Velikonja maybe struggling to come to terms with the physical demands of the British game, but he showed impressive strength in the build up to his well taken first goal for the club and he looked a clever and quick front runner during his time on the pitch (which came after City’s best period of the game). Finally, Joe Lewis only saw ten minutes or so of action, but he made two great saves during that time as he showed impressive speed off his line to foil a couple of one on one’s.
4. Just in case I haven’t said it before, Peter Whittingham is a fine player. I think most expected Mutch to be the holding midfielder for City this season, but, on this evidence, he’s going to be used further forward and Whittingham will be continuing in the “quarterback” role – his pass to Gunnarsson for the first goal was sublime.
5. Malky Mackay’s “favourite” Don Cowie may well be struggling to make the starting line up next Friday. He didn’t play too badly when he came on at half time, but I’d say that Craig Conway (effective and hard working yesterday) and Ralls (surely too good to be loaned out this season as some have suggested?) have a better chance of starting against Huddersfeld than him.
6. Leading on from that, such is City’s strength in depth in midfield, I can see Malky Mackay becoming the first Cardiff City manager to be able to indulge in some genuine squad rotation next season if everyone in that area is fit. A five of say, Cowie, Kiss, McPhail, Ralls and Conway would be more than a match for many midfield’s City would come up against at Championship level and whose to say that youngsters such as Wharton, O’Sullivan, Sainte-Luce and Harris won’t get the occasional first team chance as well.
7. In total contrast though, our lack of options at the back is a concern (especially considering both Blake and Keinan could be going). I had been thinking we could get by with one full back cum centreback coming in on loan, Gerrard’s departure had me believing two more defenders might be best, but, having seen us with only Blake and Ben Nugent on the bench as defensive cover yesterday, I’m thinking maybe we need three more!
8. Newcastle may have not had their strongest side out, but we were without Bellamy, Kim Bo-Kyung (who was included in a recent Olympics best eleven selection – it was by Garth Crooks mind!) and the player who has become something of a forgotten man at Cardiff in the past few weeks, Joe Mason (as well as back up tergetman Rudy Gestede). A few short months ago, Mason had been given a four year contract and was being described by many (including myself) as our most potent attacker, but, now he’s almost an afterthought. Last night I found myself saying “oh and there’s also Joe Mason” when trying to pick my best City side. I’m sure I’m not the only City fan who has said that lately – it’s no fault of Joe’s whatsoever though, he’s just been unlucky to have picked up an injury.
9. It’s been remarked upon already on the messageboards, but I was surprised to see how many adults were wearing red shirts yesterday – perhaps Malky Mackay wasn’t just toeing the party line when he said the club has sold plenty of the new shirts at Friday’s launch of Cardiff City Stadium as a football only ground?
10. Although I’ve said the change of colour didn’t bother me too much, I couldn’t be totally sure of that until I had actually watched us play in red at home – maybe I wouldn’t celebrate a Cardiff goal in the same way as I used to? Well, although it was only a “meaningless” pre season friendly, there was plenty of chances to celebrate City goals yesterday and they felt as good in red as they would have done in blue – others feel differently of course, but yesterday finally confirmed what I already knew.
* – pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/