Are Cardiff City "doing a Cardiff" again this season?
Cardiff City are one of several teams that don’t seem to want to secure their place in the Championship play-offs any time soon. Joe Harrison examines whether this is the same old Cardiff, bottling things again at the business end of the season, or a set of overachievers who are unfortunate to be following a familiar pattern.
On 2nd January, Cardiff beat Reading 3-1 at the Cardiff City Stadium, completing a double over the Royals with the scoreline reflecting an impressive performance. That result saw Cardiff go third in the Championship, two points behind the top two of Southampton and West Ham United, as well as moving six points clear of their fifth-placed opponents. Three months on, and while Reading are four points clear in second after an impressive win at Upton Park, Cardiff are in eighth; 15 points behind the team from Berkshire. In the 15 games since that victory over Reading, Cardiff have picked up just 16 points from a possible 45.
To put this run of form into context, had they been picking up points at the same rate all season, the Bluebirds would currently be just six points from the relegation zone. The fact that they remain only two points from the play-offs is due to similar losses of form from teams around them, which is testament to either the competitiveness or the mediocrity of the top half of the Championship this season, depending on your generosity.
For many casual observers of the Football League, seeing Cardiff pushing towards the higher end of the table came as no great surprise, as they have been something of a constant in those positions in recent years, finishing fourth in both of the last two seasons. However, seeing the Bluebirds falling away from such heights is no shock either.
A horrendous loss of form saw Cardiff miss out on the play-offs by a solitary goal in 2009; an insipid performance in the 3-2 defeat to Blackpool in the 2010 play-off final; and finally dropping out of the automatic places before losing comfortably to Reading in the 2011 play-offs. It is this anthology of disappointments that has ensured that the phrase “doing a Cardiff” has become part of the Football League lexicon.
Watching the team from the Welsh capital has taken on the traits of a classic Greek tragedy: a protagonist who tries everything possible but is ultimately unable to avoid their inevitable fate (though same may argue this particular story is more of a farce than a tragedy). So, is this season writing a new script? Or is it simply a case of the director and cast changing but the play staying the same?
In short, describing Cardiff’s season as yet another doomed to follow a well-established pattern is both overly simplistic and unfair. The raft of changes seen at the Cardiff City Stadium last summer saw expectations for this season hastily revised and lowered compared to the promotion ambitions of previous campaigns. Out went manager Dave Jones, along with 12 players including the likes of Jay Bothroyd, Michael Chopra, Chris Burke and Craig Bellamy as contracts and loans expired.
In came Malky Mackay from Watford, bringing with him the likes of Don Cowie, Kenny Miller, Joe Mason, Ben Turner and more. With a squad overhauled at such short notice (probably with a reduced wage bill too), playing under a manager new to the club, sensible fans were expecting a season spent in the mid-table positions, with a play-off push viewed as a potential bonus if things progressed more quickly than expected.
Though ‘transition’ is a term regularly used by teams seeking to explain seasons of mediocrity, it is a tag that can only truly be applied with hindsight, as ‘transition’ implies progress towards something. Nevertheless, it was the watchword for Cardiff fans in August, with the team’s high position for much of the campaign surprising and delighting in almost equal measure.
Playing a vibrant, attractive style of football, Mackay’s side surged towards the upper reaches of the Championship, and when Brian McDermott’s Reading were defeated many were questioning whether a push for the top two was a realistic aim.
However, the recent downturn has dampened hopes once more. For all the praise Mackay has deservedly garnered so far this season, there are equally valid criticisms to be made regarding recent form. The transfer and loan windows saw a failure to add significantly to the squad, with only Haris Vuckic and then Liam Lawrence brought in on loan deals. Vuckic has already returned to parent club Newcastle, while Lawrence is yet to make the impact Cardiff fans hoped for. March’s eight league fixtures have seen just 13 players used in starting line-ups: the lack of rotation is baffling, particularly as those players seem tired, losing the urgency and energy that made the midfield such an explosive threat earlier in the season.
Despite the disappointing drop in form though, when considered as a whole, the current position of eighth place represents a positive season so far for the Bluebirds. Factor in the context of the club’s first ever League Cup Final appearance — with the heroic and heartbreaking performance against Liverpool being offered as a reason for subsequent poorer performances (a factor no doubt, but one that has perhaps been overstated) — and it has hard not to argue that Mackay’s first season in charge has been a successful one.
With six games remaining of this campaign, Cardiff lie two points away from the play-off positions, and an improvement in form could see them finish in the top six for the third consecutive season. Even if the Bluebirds do eventually miss out this time, enough clear progress has been made for the summer to be viewed as the interval in Mackay’s performance, with hopes raised that the following acts will build to a denouement far more uplifting than the ones Cardiff have become accustomed to, perhaps finally evading their seemingly inescapable disappointments.