A tale of two Cities
If a week is a long time in politics, then three months is an aeon in football.
Cardiff finished the 2010/11 Championship season under a cloud, play-off failure for the second successive year condeming Dave Jones to the sack on the very same day that arch-rivals Swansea made it to the Promised Land of the Premier League – £38m substitutes, 4-0 drubbings and all – and heralding the break-up of arguably the division’s most illustrious first team. The future, frankly, looked bleak.
And yet just three months later, 36 sun-soaked minutes into their first home game of the new campaign, the feelgood factor was back: returning hero Robert Earnshaw spinning away to celebrate his side’s third goal without reply with a trademark gymnastic flip, new boss Malky Mackay doing the Ayatollah at the jubilant crowd’s behest, Bristol City ‘keeper (and, more importantly, former England number one) David James booting the ball onto the roof of the stand in anger, Cardiff cruising to the top of the table.
The illustration of Mackay on the front cover of the match programme depicted him as some kind of Soviet leader, staring out boldly and aspirationally. The challenge he faced after arriving at the Cardiff City Stadium was not so much one of perestroika (restructuring), though, as of complete rebuilding. Most obviously, the much-feted three-pronged attack had dissolved, with Craig Bellamy returning to his neglectful parent club Man City, the out-of-contract Jay Bothroyd escaping into the Premier League with QPR and Michael Chopra opting for a change of scenery in Suffolk. Chris Burke, charged with supplying much of the threat from midfield, also left, while other loanees – Seyi Olofinjana, Jason Koumas, Jlloyd Samuel, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas – slunk off home. Cardiff’s biggest problem wasn’t a lack of quality but a lack of cohesion – put simply, the individuals hadn’t clicked as a team often enough. But now Mackay had no team left at all. Incredibly, just two of the fourteen players who saw action in that play-off defeat to Reading – Peter Whittingham and unrepentant Massey-flattener Kevin McNaughton – were in Sunday’s side.
So, where to begin for Mackay? Watford fans, already smarting at the Scot’s defection to Cardiff, will have been dismayed (if not entirely surprised) that he inflicted more damage on the Hornets by going back to what he knew and luring compatriot Don Cowie into swapping Vicarage Road for the Cardiff City Stadium. The energetic midfielder was at the heart of the opening weekend victory over West Ham, and once again more than proved his worth against Bristol City.
Another face already familiar to Mackay, Andrew Taylor, who spent time on loan at Watford from Middlesbrough last term, was recruited to occupy the left-back position and is already showing signs of forming a dangerous double-act with two-footed former Dundee Utd winger Craig Conway, the pair taking it in turns to whip crosses in from the left. Conway it was who arced a perfect ball to the back post for skipper Mark Hudson to head his side into the lead on 18 minutes before doubling the Bluebirds’ advantage himself five minutes later with a precision finish that flashed across James and into the bottom right-hand corner. (Taylor’s curious habit of backing off to allow Robins flyer Albert Adomah more space won’t have pleased his manager, mind.)
Earnshaw’s goal may have been a tap-in, but it was the most rapturously received strike of the three. While supporters may yet be hoping to see Ely boy Bellamy back in blue, Earnie fits the homecoming hero bill to a tee – as well he might, with a staggering 105 goals from 205 appearances in his first spell at the club between 1998 and 2004. By contrast, strike partner Kenny Miller had a quiet afternoon – but then he proved at Upton Park that that’s exactly when he’s at his most deadly, popping up in injury time to piss on Fat Sam’s proverbial chips. Earnie’s second-half replacement Rudy Gestede – another new signing – didn’t have the same game-changing impact as in east London (though he didn’t need to), but if he learns the offside rule he could be a real find.
The early loss of midfield anchorman Aron Gunnarsson, poached from Coventry, to injury could have been costly, threatening to disrupt and unbalance the side, but – unfortunately for the Icelandic international’s prospects of getting back into the team when fit – it actually had the exact opposite effect. Whittingham’s move infield allowed him to dictate the tempo and flow of the game, while young substitute Joe Mason – offered an escape route from the insanity and uncertainty of life at Plymouth – was electrifying, attacking from all angles and terrifying Bristol City defenders into conceding a succession of unpleasantly cynical fouls.
As for the visitors, Adomah looked sprightly in flashes and things could have turned out differently had Brett Pitman pulled a goal back in the first half rather than battering the Bluebirds bar from point-blank range. But defensively they were atrocious, offering James the same scanty level of protection that had allowed ex-Cardiff man Chopra to plunder two goals at Ashton Gate on the opening day. At times it looked as though Welshman Lewin Nyatanga had convinced his colleagues to do Cardiff a favour…
It was only in the second period, when Mackay’s men had shifted down to third or even second gear, that Bristol City started to play. Nicky Maynard’s neatly taken goal was a classic consolation strike, and the fear for Robins fans is that their gert lush star man won’t be around for much longer, with an assortment of vultures rumoured to be circling hungrily.
As ever, perspective is important. The sun won’t always be shining literally or metaphorically, and Cardiff will certainly face much tougher challenges than this. It’s also worth noting that their downfall in recent seasons hasn’t been a slow start but a sluggish end, slumping over the finishing line without the necessary form, morale and momentum to carry them through the play-off semis to Wembley and beyond. But the signs are good – not least because the new players, complete strangers just a couple of months ago, are already looking more like a collective unit than Dave Jones’ loose assemblage of egotists and mercenaries.
Leaving the stadium and walking underneath the arch onto Sloper Road, you’re confronted by the shiny new residential development where Ninian Park once stood. The past has been erased, for better or for worse, and now it’s the present and the future that matters. Sometimes it’s best to move on and start afresh.