Unexpected Rivalries 7: Stoke City and Cardiff City
Last month saw Cardiff triumph in the Premier League’s first South Wales derby. Tonight, the artists formerly known as The Bluebirds will reacquaint themselves with another old foe – yet their grudge with Stoke City, which stretches back to the two clubs’ dark days in the third tier, has its roots not in geography but in betrayal, bitterness, and one enigmatic man’s backside…
Pitching up in the Valleys early in the new millennium, Sam Hammam had big plans for Cardiff City. With the club returning to what is now League One at the first attempt under his hand-picked manager Alan Cork, the ever-flamboyant Lebanese businessman made it clear he would settle for nothing less than back-to-back promotions, with the Premier League being his ultimate goal. Sanctioning a significant shopping spree, over the course of the season Cardiff would spend around £7 million (an astronomical sum for a club at that level in 2001-2) to add experience to talented home-grown youngsters like Robert Earnshaw and James Collins. Hammam’s Crazy Gang shtick, still alive and well, was box office in the third tier, and was soon back in the headlines – a prime example being his insertion of a clause into the contract of defender Spencer Prior, captured from Manchester City, that he must ‘have a physical liaison with a sheep and eat sheep’s testicles’.
Stoke, on the other hand, were in danger of stagnation. Two successive play-off failures had left the club’s Icelandic owners reluctant to continue their generous investment in the side, hoping instead to begin recouping some of that cash. This did not go unnoticed in South Wales.
In the summer of 2001, Cardiff moved for the Potters’ main playmaker, Graham Kavanagh, and the Irishman made it clear he was keen on the move, suggesting that the Welsh side had more ambition, and that such a switch would be better for his international career. In truth, Kavanagh had gone stale at Stoke, and the £1 million fee was seen as pretty generous; nevertheless his parting shot struck a raw nerve with the club’s support, and he suddenly had a lot of enemies in ST4.
Cork hadn’t finished shopping, however, and his next purchase would really kick things off. At the end of September, he splashed out £1.7 million on Peter Thorne, Stoke’s top scorer for three of the previous four seasons (Kavanagh being the other). While Cardiff revelled in their capture, there was uproar in the Potteries that the Icelanders had sold the club’s undisputed main man. Many fans boycotted the next home game.
Yet it was Stoke who made the brighter start to the campaign. With the creativity of free signing Peter Hoekstra (part of the Dutch ‘Euro ’96 squad) spurring the team, November’s thrilling defeat of Steve Coppell’s Brentford put them within spitting distant of the summit. This would prove to be the first false dawn of a campaign littered with them however, as a 6-1 thumping at Wigan gave Gudjon Thordarson’s men an almighty reality check.
Consistency was also proving a problem for Cardiff. The move had reinvigorated Kavanagh and, taking the captain’s armband, he would be the team’s inspiration, not to mention a regular source of spectacular goals. But for every win he orchestrated, such as the entertaining vanquishing of Port Vale and the triumph over Wrexham in the North-South Wales derby, there were also humbling defeats to the likes of Cambridge and Bury.
Stoke saw in the new year atop the table but again it wasn’t long before the wheels started to fall off. Souleymane Oulare had been signed two days into 2002 to provide some extra fire power. Like Hoekstra, Oulare had been a top player – a Guinean international who’d starred in Belgium, Turkey and Spain before falling on hard times due to injury. Thordarson likened him to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Yet Oulare’s luck would only get worse. After just one substitute appearance he collapsed with chest pains and severe breathing difficulties and was rushed to hospital amid fears for his life. He was diagnosed with a blood clot on his lung, a condition doctors suggested may have developed on the flight to England. Thankfully he would make a full recovery, but Stoke’s big scoring hope seemed destined never to kick another ball in England, if at all. Shell-shocked, they won just two of their next 10 games, with a gutless showing in the Potteries derby sandwiched between damaging defeats to rivals QPR and, in the biggest indignity, a Kavanagh-inspired Cardiff.
Yet the Welshmen, despite that victory and a memorable scalp of Premier League leaders Leeds in an extraordinarily bad-tempered FA Cup third round game, were in danger of falling out of the promotion hunt altogether. Hammam had become increasingly dissatisfied with the return on his considerable outlay, and the appointment of Lennie Lawrence as Director of Football in January acted as a Sword of Damocles hanging over Cork, which duly fell in February after the Bluebirds, like Stoke before them, received a tanning at Wigan. Lawrence was appointed the very next day, and one of his first moves was to lavish £1m on young Middlesbrough striker Andy Campbell. It yielded instant results, as Campbell struck six times in his first four games. With a fearsome complement of strikers in Campbell, Earnshaw and Thorne, and Kavanagh (who outscored them all) scheming behind them, Lawrence’s Cardiff did not lose again in the league for the remaining two and a half months of the season. Notice to the rest of the division was served with March’s 7-1 demolition of fellow contenders Oldham, as the Welsh juggernaut surged back up the table to finish fourth – overtaking Stoke en route.
The Potters would finish the season strongly themselves, with a run of seven wins from their last 11 games enough to secure fifth spot and book yet another crack at the play-offs – where they would meet Cardiff City.
In the build-up to the first leg at the Britannia, Kavanagh again stirred the pot, declaring in the media that “Cardiff City is far bigger than Stoke City. That’s a fact.” That earned him the full fury of the Boothen End on the day, but his words had a ring of truth about them as Earnshaw’s brilliant brace saw Cardiff run out convincing 2-1 victors.
The mood was low in the Potteries. Once again they seemed to have blown it. Comprehensively outplayed by the team who’d taken two of their star men, with rumours swirling that Thordarson was at odds with his countrymen on the board and that there would be no more money available for another challenge next season, promotion seemed further away than ever. Still, a healthy away following made the journey from Staffordshire to the Valleys for the second leg, more in hope than expectation. There, a glance at the teamsheet revealed the name ‘Souleymane Oulare’ listed among the substitutes. Eyebrows were raised.
Stoke put up a spirited fight but hadn’t managed to break through as time ebbed away. A desperate Thordarson threw on Oulare, but by the 85th minute the home fans had engaged party mode, the imminent goalless draw enough to see them through to a final on home turf at the Millennium Stadium. Earnshaw was subbed to rest up for the final, ‘doing the ayatollah’ as he came off. The stadium announcer implored supporters to stay off the pitch to allow Cardiff’s heroes to do a lap of honour. But that lap never came. Launching the ball down the right hand channel, Stoke pressed and manager’s son Bjarni Gudjonsson whipped in a low cross that the terrier-like James O’Connor connected with about six yards out. The ball slowly…agonisingly… trickled goalwards, through the legs of a despairing Cardiff player and into the net. That Cardiff player was one Graham Kavanagh.
Things would get even better for Stoke in extra time. With five minutes remaining, they won a free kick on the edge of the box for a foul by Prior, whose over-zealous protests earned him a second booking. O’Connor curled a pacey one into the thronging mass of bodies in the area, where the ball cannoned off the right buttock of Oulare (who’d barely touched the ball up to that point) and in. Suddenly Ninian Park was awash with two very different senses of disbelief. Stoke’s great roll of the dice had paid off in the unlikeliest of ways. Oulare was never heard from again.
The Potters would return to Cardiff a fortnight later to sweep aside Brentford, finally ending their play-off hoodoo. Cardiff would join them in the Championship 12 months later, again via the play-offs, Campbell’s goal against QPR belatedly giving them a happy ending of their own.
The rivalry would be dampened by the two clubs’ status as Championship also-rans, though each side would hugely enjoy the occasional drubbings they would mete out to the other. Thorne’s hat trick at the Britannia in 2003 would prove particularly sweet revenge for the Welsh side.
Both teams have enjoyed their fair share of success in recent times, but memories of the miracle of Ninian Park – be they cherished or painful – remain undimmed 11 years later. A winning goal via the bottom of a man back from the dead is more Viz than Roy of the Rovers, but Stoke fans wouldn’t have it any other way.