Semi Final Memories: Cardiff City 2008
This Saturday, Reading will take the field against Arsenal in the club’s first FA Cup Semi Final since 1927 against a team that has scored no fewer than 16 goals against the Royals in the three most recent meetings between the clubs and famously overturned a 4 goal deficit to win 7-5 in the first of these. Nevertheless, to reach the final 4 of the country’s most storied cup competition is very much something to be proud of and, in anticipation of the big day, we shall be running a series of posts this week looking back to previous appearances at this stage from clubs outside the top flight . First up is Joe Harrison, former co-editor of The Seventy Two website and a supporter of Cardiff City, the club that ended the erstwhile Biscuitmen’s run 88 years ago. Joe can be followed on twitter at @joe_harrison1 and here looks back to the Bluebirds’ double trip to Wembley in 2008.
Ledley scored. Odejayi missed.
As time passes, most football matches are forgotten, some remembered in a vague haze and some crystallised forever in one or two moments. Seven years on from Cardiff’s FA Cup semi-final victory over Barnsley, I have only two memories of the match itself. One is that Ledley scored. The other is that Odejayi missed.
The 2007-8 season marked a decade since my first Cardiff City season ticket as a 6 year old, 10 years in which the club had risen from scrapping at the foot of the Football League to being on the verge of earning a reputation as the Championship’s perennial play-off failures, with controversial owners, court cases and impending financial disaster never far away. Seeing them play at Wembley, though, was never something I had really considered. Obviously, the play-offs made it a possibility (indeed, in 2003 they would have played there had Wembley not been being rebuilt), but big FA Cup clashes were simply games that happened on TV and involved other teams. The FA Cup had always been about getting to the third round and hoping for a glamour tie, as when Premiership leaders Leeds were beaten 2-1 at an electric Ninian Park in 2002.
So when Cardiff were drawn away to Chasetown, the lowest ranked team ever to reach the third round, in January 2008, my reaction was mainly the hope that what should be a relatively straight-forward tie would lead to a bigger draw in the 4th round (mixed, of course, with the terror of the publicity produced should Cardiff succumb to an upset). The Bluebirds overcame media narratives of romance as well as a Kevin McNaughton own goal to prevail comfortably enough with goals from Peter Whittingham, teenager Aaron Ramsey – making his FA Cup debut – and Paul Parry.
Another uninspiring tie saw Cardiff head to Hereford in the 4th round, securing a 2-1 win thanks partly to a completely out-of-character blockbuster volley from Kevin McNaughton. Again, the 5th round brought disappointment for hopes of a plum draw, but at least the hope that a home game against fellow Championship side Wolves was winnable. Two early goals, including a gorgeous, rolling back the years, left-footed curler from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were enough to put Cardiff through to the sixth round, a game away from Wembley.
My pessimistic reaction to drawing Middlesbrough away was that it seemed the worst of both worlds. Then a mid-table Premiership side, Boro did not produce the excitement of a game against Manchester United or Liverpool, but were still on-paper a team easily capable of beating the Bluebirds, particularly at home and with the prospect of a semi-final with a win. However, a moment of Peter Whittingham genius in the box (set up by a clear but thankfully ignored Stephen McPhail handball) sent Cardiff on their way to a comfortable and impressive win at the Riverside and on course for Wembley.
If Cardiff’s route to England’s national stadium could be accused of lacking any real romance for a neutral, the exact opposite was true of the team they would meet. Barnsley had quietly progressed to the 5th round by beating Blackpool and Southend, before stunning the previous season’s Champions League runners-up, with a remarkable 2-1 over Liverpool at Anfield. Not satisfied with this giant-killing feat, Oakwell would then see the Tykes claim a 1-0 victory over that season’s eventual Champions League runners-up, with a second half Kayode Odejayi goal enough to see off Chelsea. The Yorkshire side’s heroics unsurprisingly saw them head to Wembley as that season’s poster-boys for the much-discussed ‘magic of the cup’; leading a semi-final, betting-slip-ruining quartet that also including West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth.
It was the second season for the new Wembley, with the semi-finals now taking place there as well as the final, as the FA attempted to justify and claw back some of the vast expense laid out on their stadium. I’m firmly of the opinion that the semi-finals should be held at other neutral venues elsewhere, but there is no denying that a trip to Wembley is always going to excite more than one to Old Trafford or Villa Park. The scramble for tickets begun and plans were drawn as tens of thousands from Wales’ capital prepared for a day out in England’s.
With the hindsight of knowing that Cardiff would visit Wembley a remarkable 3 more times in the following 4 years, it is easy to forget the ‘once in a lifetime’ feel surrounding this semi-final. The Bluebirds had not played at Wembley in the 81 years since the legendary Fred Keenor captained them to victory over Arsenal in the 1927 Cup Final, and it was therefore something the overwhelming majority Cardiff fans had only ever dreamed of seeing. The identity of the opposition, however, made the occasion so much more pressured than simply a day to be enjoyed, as may have been the case if a more illustrious name had lain in wait.
This mixture of excitement and nervousness is what I remember most about the day, from setting off from a service station in the early morning to the raucous moments before kick-off as the atmosphere built. There was a feeling that win or lose today, their giant-killing exploits meant Barnsley had their fairytale, but that Cardiff needed a Wembley win or else see the entire cup campaign as a huge missed opportunity. I remember being part of the massed ranks of blue cramming into the Cardiff end of the stadium, the noise rising and rising as the as thousands of people exercised their nerves and excitement with chants and songs and ayatollahs, before finally the teams arrived: with Barnsley, the nominal ‘home’ team playing in red.
Cardiff’s black away shirt clad a squad that featured a host of stories characteristic of a Championship team: the ageing stars seeing out their playing days at a lower level (Hasselbaink, Trevor Sinclair and the permanently ‘injured’ Robbie Fowler), those pros playing on the biggest stage their careers would see, and even, in Aaron Ramsey, a youngster already showing the breathtaking talent that convinced you this was the first of many such games he would take part in.
None of these stories would dominate this game, though. There are two that would, in two moments upon which the game rested, during which time seemed to slow and then stop, briefly, before exploding back to full speed in a wave of noise and emotion.
Joe Ledley, born and raised in Cardiff and a product of the club’s academy, moved towards the penalty spot in the 9th minute as Tony Capaldi attempted a long throw from the left of the area towards Roger Johnson. The ball was flicked on before being headed by a Barnsley player at the back post. Up, but not away, as Ledley watched it drop over his left shoulder, swivelling to strike a looping volley with his left foot. Nearly an hour of playing time later, Odejayi shot from a few yards to the right of where Ledley had swivelled. As Cardiff’s high line failed to play offside, the man whose goal had defeated Chelsea had the pace to race clear from just inside the Cardiff half. One touch was enough to get the ball out of his feet and rolling invitingly into the area. As Enckelman waited on the edge of his six yard box, for a split-second the noise seemed to evaporate from the packed stadium and time froze as the striker took aim with the side of his right foot.
Looking back, all the noise, all of the tackles, passes and fouls: none of them mattered, ultimately. None of the previous rounds, the upsets avoided, the upsets caused, decided that semi-final. Barnsley’s momentous wins were as irrelevant as Cardiff’s 81 year Wembley wait. Despite all of the narratives, emotions and memories we attach to football, however big the occasion, when looking back only one or two moments seem to have mattered in games, to have decided them. As time passes and all other unnecessary memories fade, these moments become the entire game.
Ledley scored. Odejayi missed.