Should the rest of the Football League be proud of Cardiff City?
In his first post since taking on the role of co-editor on the site, Cardiff City fan Joe Harrison asks whether the nature of Liverpool’s Carling Cup triumph last weekend provided plenty of pride for the Football League.
About an hour after Anthony Gerrard had swept his penalty wide, I tweeted that I’d “never been more proud to be a Bluebird”. This prompted a number of responses, commiserating and congratulating in equal measure, largely from fans of others teams. A number of these messages made reference to Cardiff being “a credit to the Championship”.
This leads to a question: were Cardiff representing more than just their own club in the Carling Cup Final? This is not to say that all fans of Championship teams supported Cardiff out of some sort of solidarity – or should be expected to – but there were specific and concrete reasons for those outside the Premier League to take heart, beyond merely the fact that Malky Mackay’s side pushed the Premier League giants so close.
At the most basic level, Cardiff’s team can be seen as very representative of the Championship, in which they are currently 6th. Of the starting eleven, only two – Rudy Gestede and Kenny Miller – were not playing in the Football League last season. Whilst just four of these starters were at Cardiff last term, many are familiar names to fans throughout the Championship: the likes of Ben Turner and Aron Gunnarsson spent previous years at Coventry City and Don Cowie proved himself at Watford. Of course, this is also true of their manager, Malky Mackay, who spent years in the Championship as a player before becoming manager at Vicarage Road in 2009.
The Bluebirds’ star player, Peter Whittingham, is also in many respects an advert for the opportunities dropping out of the Premier League can provide. After emerging as a promising youngster, making a number of first team appearances (and enjoying loan spells at Burnley and Derby County), he found opportunities difficult to come by at Aston Villa so moved to Cardiff in January 2007. Since then, he has established himself as one of the best players in the Football League and is proof that technically adept individuals can thrive and achieve their potential outside of “the best league in the world”.
Perhaps the prime example of this representation of the Football League was the man who opened the scoring on Sunday: 20 year old Joe Mason. Signed for a relative pittance (£250,000) this summer from Plymouth Argyle, Mason has impressed throughout his debut season in South Wales and was brought to international attention on Sunday. Similarly, earlier rounds of the tournament saw other Football League youngsters thrive on the big stage, none more so than Wilfried Zaha in Crystal Palace’s stunning 2-1 victory at Old Trafford – arguably the single most impressive result and team performance of the competition. These instances served as proof of what fans across the country already knew: that clubs throughout the Football League are capable of producing players with a great deal of talent and potential. Sadly, this may not be the case for much longer if EPPP has its way.
There was also encouragement to be taken from Cardiff’s style of play. While they did play relatively directly towards Gestede for periods of the game, they also proved themselves capable of impressive possession-based attacks, with the movement and interplay of their midfield and forward players causing Liverpool serious problems – most obviously in the period of possession leading up to Mason’s opener. This passing style has become a feature of Mackay’s team this season, but Cardiff are hardly alone in this respect. Throughout the Championship, the likes of Blackpool, Brighton, Middlesbrough, Peterborough and others are seeking (and indeed finding) success through attractive, passing football.
Nor does the success of this policy necessarily stop following promotion. Swansea and Norwich are currently proving that players can not only adjust to the step up from Championship to Premier League but can do so following a tactical template based on technical ability rather than just organisation and competitivity. The almost mythical divide between Premier League players and those in the divisions below them certainly seems to be a lot smaller than is often perceived.
Finally, Cardiff were not the only team at Wembley to prove how valuable Football League experience can be. Six of Liverpool’s eleven starters have previously appeared in the Championship, with Glen Johnson, José Enrique, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll amassing 165 Football League performances between them (insert joke about this evidence counting against the Championship here). For three of these players, this experience consisted merely of short-term loan deals, but for the other three it could be argued that their time in the Championship played a vital role in their development.
For Enrique; a full back yet to fully establish himself as first choice in two Premier League seasons and Carroll; a young forward eager for a chance, Newcastle’s relegation and season in the Championship provided the opportunity to make themselves important parts of the Magpies’ team, taking the form and momentum gained into the following season, earning both moves to Anfield. Similarly, Charlie Adam’s career seemed to have stalled at Rangers before a move south to Blackpool transformed his fortunes. The left-footed midfielder became the fulcrum of Ian Holloway’s attacking side, leading the Tangerines to promotion (after another Wembley event including Cardiff City), before impressing in their exciting but ultimately doomed attempt to avoid relegation, causing Kenny Dalglish to bring him to Liverpool.
Sunday was Cardiff’s day, Cardiff’s time in the limelight. Yet be it because of the background of their players, their style of play or even the personal histories of the opposition, perhaps the Bluebirds were not the only ones with cause to be proud of their excellent performance at Wembley.