Great Football League Teams 48: Cardiff City 2002-3
The first point that needs to be made in this article is remarkably counter-intuitive for one emblazoned with the heading Great Teams: objectively speaking, Cardiff City’s 2002-3 season represented one of underachievement. The division’s pre-season title favourites could only stumble to a disappointing sixth place finish, despite a team expensively assembled due to Sam Hammam’s backing (by which of course I mean his pre-hadron collider physics experiment which ultimately succeeded in creating a voracious black hole in the middle of the club’s finances). This, however, is why the play-off system is simultaneously brilliant, inherently unfair and completely narrative-defining. Had the Bluebirds suffered a second successive defeat at the post-season stage, manager Lennie Lawrence would almost certainly have been sacked and the year written off as something of a disaster, not to mention the far different emotions stirred for fans reminiscing about the season more than a decade on. As it is, the campaign stands as an almost epoch-defining success, with stories still fondly retold and players revered by those who remember it.
The team was led by captain Graham Kavanagh, a £1 million signing from eventual play-off nemesis Stoke at the beginning of the previous campaign, going on to be that season’s top scorer. Kavanagh proved an inspiration in the centre of the pitch, with both his ability and leadership regularly driving his side forward. He would form a bond with club and fans so strong that it saw him openly weeping upon his return to Ninian Park a few years later with his new club Wigan, having been sold by a panicked club weeks earlier to stave off financial Armageddon. Alongside him for most of this season, either in the centre or later on the right, was fellow Irishman Willie Boland: a popular and combative midfielder, never a star but always something of a fans’ favourite. The left wing was occupied in the main by Andy Legg, the tireless Welsh international whose whole-hearted performances saw the almost unthinkable occur – an ex-Swansea player becoming universally revered at Cardiff. These three midfield stalwarts would be supplemented throughout the season by new signing Gareth Whalley, the tenacious Mark Bonner as well as talented and popular wingers brought in on short-term loans at different points in the season: Alan Mahon and Gareth ‘Wild Thing’ Ainsworth.
This midfield depth formed an important part of what was on paper an already fearsome side at that level, and wins in the opening two fixtures seemed to confirm this. However, a run of only one win in four followed, beginning with a 2-1 defeat at Ninian Park to Northampton Town, thanks to two Marco Gabbiadini strikes. The ex-Sunderland and Derby striker’s first goal – a swerving, dipping volley from fully 35 yards – remains possibly the best goal I’ve ever seen live. A narrow win at Swindon and two dour draws followed, before Cardiff travelled for a rather mundane looking League Cup tie away to Boston United. This seemingly innocuous fixture would prove critical not only to this season, but arguably those that followed and the entire career of one of the most popular players in the club’s history.
After his goal-scoring heroics at the tail-end of the previous season, new £1 million permanent signing Andy Campbell had unsurprisingly and deservedly kept his place in the Bluebirds’ starting line-up, scoring twice in the team’s first 6 matches. This came at the expense of highly rated academy product and scorer of 12 league goals during the previous season, Robert Earnshaw. Earnie’s chances to that point had been restricted to substitute appearances, so the cup tie at Boston was seen as an opportunity for him to get some match practice and possibly stake a claim for a first team place. Come the end of that Wednesday night, Cardiff had romped to a 5-1 victory thanks largely to a stunning 17 minute first half hat-trick from the diminutive number 10.
Lawrence had little choice but to hand the Wales forward a starting berth in the next league match, and he was rewarded with a goal that began an astonishing run of 8 goals in just 6 league games for Earnshaw. This merely represented the first trickle of what would become a seemingly endless stream of goals for Earnie that season. His tally would eventually reach an astonishing 31 in the league and 35 in all competitions, breaking club records that had stood since 1947 and 1927. There were all sorts of goals: poacher’s efforts from inside the six-yard box, classy lobs, penalties, headers, acrobatics, turns and tricks that left highly-rated opponents gasping, all celebrated with his trademark somersault and ‘digging for gold’ celebration. His feats left him adored by older fans and idolised by the younger generation who could not helped but be swept away by his goals, style and the joyfully infectious enthusiasm of a local boy who seemed to be enjoying himself as much as any fan would. As a member of the latter age group, but one who’d been going to Cardiff games long enough to remember his debut in 1998, it was this magical season that moved the man who was already my favourite player into untouchable status in my mind, a position he still holds and I suspect always will.
Earnshaw’s devastating form saw Cardiff propelled towards the upper reaches of the table after only suffering one defeat in eleven league games. This included his decisive brace in a late, come from behind victory at home to promotion rivals Crewe and a penalty in the 4-0 demolition of Tranmere Rovers broadcast on Sky, which seemed to serve as a warning to the rest of the division. If the sloppy 3-2 defeat at Barnsley that ended this run revealed worrying weaknesses in the side, it was not immediately apparent, as the team responded with a win over Chesterfield before humbling QPR 4-0 at Loftus Road, thanks largely to a superb Earnshaw hat-trick. The Bluebirds seemed supremely confident – not only was the Barnsley fixture the only one of the previous six that they had failed to win, it was the only one in which they had conceded a goal. This owed much to the solid back 5 including Neil Alexander in goal, ex-Arsenal youngster Rhys Weston an energetic presence going forward from right back, Gary Croft a solid performer on the other flank (with Chris Barker an able deputy), while Spencer Prior provided experience in the centre. Prior’s partner was Welsh international Danny Gabbidon: composed and classy on the ball as well as quick enough without it to cover for his colleagues, a superb player who would never fulfil his considerable potential due to the injuries that sadly blighted his career.
Gabbidon and Weston were absent for the pre-Christmas derby clash with fierce rivals and fellow promotion candidates Bristol City. Their absence was keenly felt as the Bluebirds – with Chinese international Fan Zhiyi at the heart of their defence – were outplayed by the Robins who deservedly took a 2-0 win back across the Severn Bridge. The second goal was scored by Cardiff-born former Bluebirds trainee Christian Roberts, who refused to celebrate despite the mystifying and undeserved booing from many of the home fans (and whose autobiography detailing his struggle with alcoholism is a brutally fascinating read). The Bluebirds form did not collapse, with only two defeats following in the next 13 league games, but frustrating draws such as the ones against Barnsley and Plymouth at Ninian Park prevented a concerted charge towards the automatic promotion places. Though squad players such as club stalwart Scott Young, mercurial talent Jason Bowen and the once-expensive now largely forgotten forward Gavin Gordon chipped in with a few goals, the team was increasingly reliant on Earnshaw’s heroics in front of goal.
The player who did most to ease the burden on the Zambian-born poacher was his striking partner, Peter Thorne, who would end the season with 14 league goals. This respectable total does not fully illustrate his importance to both the team and Earnshaw, whom he would often selflessly tee up rather than go for glory himself (particularly admirable if rumours about his contract at the time are to be believed. Thorne’s goals in a disappointing home defeat to QPR and comfortable away wins at Wycombe and Chesterfield in April initially masked what would soon prove a major problem during Cardiff’s run-in: Earnshaw’s goals finally stopped. Having broken one club record three days earlier, the only goal of the game against Mansfield on March 21st that drew him level with the other would prove to be Earnie’s last until the final day of the league campaign in early May.
Their star forward’s uncharacteristic profligacy – combined with the realisation that automatic promotion was going to be unobtainable – saw Cardiff endure a calamitous run from mid April, losing three consecutive games without mustering a single goal in response. This included a 3-0 home defeat to Colchester; a performance so abject it remains vividly etched in my mind more than a decade on, as well as another demoralising defeat to Bristol City that mirrored the reverse fixture; as an outplayed Cardiff lost 2-0 to a Brian Tinnion penalty and another strike from Christian Roberts. A dour 0-0 draw at Ninian Park with champions Wigan belatedly secured the Bluebirds play-off place, before a dead-rubber final game at already promoted Crewe was notable only for Cardiff and Earnshaw finally breaking their goal drought; the forward setting his new club record in the process. With one goal, three defeats and no wins in their final five matches, the Bluebirds stumbled into the play-offs and the prospect of facing Bristol City again, comfortable victors in both league meetings between the two sides that season, was not one particularly relished by fans in the Welsh capital.
Nevertheless, it was a raucous Ninian Park that greeted the two teams for the first leg of the semi-final, the fevered atmosphere an expression of the extremes of excitement and nervous terror unique to play-off ties. On the pitch, after a pulsating and frenetic opening, it seemed the latter of these emotions gained the biggest hold on the players; with the game a tight, combative and frankly dull affair, producing few chances for either side. Cardiff had the better of it, but with the midfield tightly packed they struggled to break the Robins’ well-organised defence down. That was until Boland crossed from the right for Thorne with about 20 minutes to go; the forward towering over a defender at the back post to nod home, earning Cardiff their first league win over their rivals in 32 years and sending the home crowd into delirium. For a brief spell Bristol City looked rattled, with Earnshaw racing through minutes later only to be denied by a smart save from the visiting ’keeper. The Robins settled however, with both sides looking content with the 1-0 score line: the Bluebirds having the lead while their opponents were confident of overturning the deficit at Ashton Gate.
Come the second leg, it was the Robins who initially looked like they felt the weight of the expectation on them, as Cardiff attacked from the off with both Earnshaw and Kavanagh close to extending their lead. The home side struggled to gain any momentum going forward, with Chris Barker performing excellently to nullify the threat of the dangerous Scott Murray. The second half did produce the expected onslaught, with Bristol City pinning the Bluebirds back with wave after wave of attack. In a manner that had perhaps been frustratingly absent at times throughout the regular league season, Cardiff’s backline stood firm, repelling everything thrown at them and limiting their increasingly desperate hosts to few chances. One superb opportunity did come their way though, as a cross from the right found Brian Tinnion charging onto it at the back post, similar to Thorne’s goal days earlier. Like Thorne, the midfielder powered his header downwards, seemingly destined for the bottom corner. Somehow, to Tinnion’s horror and amazement, Neil Alexander flung himself to his right, turning the ball wide with a quite stunning save. Despite hurling everything at their visitors; that was the closest Bristol City would come and the full time whistle sparked devastation in the home crowd and unadulterated delight for those travelling from South Wales. Cardiff, as Sky’s commentator noted, were going to Cardiff.
May 25th 2003 was a gloriously sunny day, as 66,096 converged on the Millennium Stadium to watch the Bluebirds take on Ian Holloway’s QPR. Those thousands were not treated to a classic contest – once again the game was tense, with a congested midfield offering little space and each side’s defenders performing admirably to keep their opponent’s forward players starved of opportunities. Rangers’ best chances fell to Furlong and Thompson, but they never really threatened to beat Alexander, who was on his way to being part of the first team to complete a play-off campaign without conceding a goal. The Bluebirds were similarly stifled, with tame efforts from Thorne and Whalley, while Earnshaw was effectively shackled by the Londoners’ defensive duo of Clarke Carlisle and Danny Shittu. With 10 minutes of normal time remaining, Lawrence replaced his tiring star with that season’s forgotten man – Andy Campbell. Having started the season the club’s leading striker, the ex-Middlesbrough man had been usurped by Earnshaw’s brilliance, and his career both with Cardiff and elsewhere would go on to sadly peter out over the following years. But on this day, he ensured his name will never be forgotten by those associated with Cardiff City. With just 6 minutes to go of extra time, he chased a hopeful Gareth Whalley lob forward behind a tired and wrong-footed Shittu. Time seemed to slow to a stand-still as he waited for the ball to drop, bounce, before following its rise with a left footed strike. It went up, up, above the despairing clutches of the QPR goalkeeper before dropping just as suddenly and nestling in the back of the net. With one swing of his left foot, he had won the match. With one swing of his left foot, he had sent Cardiff into the second flight of football league pyramid for the first time in 18 years. With one swing of his left foot, he had turned a good but frustrating team into a great one.