Cardiff City 0 Reading 3: The inquest has already begun
The play-offs are amazing, astonishing, tense, thrilling and, perhaps above all of these things, unfair. Not just in the sense that a team can finish twenty-odd points ahead of their eventual conquerors during the league season, but also that they can define a manager who wins more games than he loses as, essentially, a complete failure.
This is the label that surely awaits Dave Jones, the longest-serving manager in the Championship, following Cardiff City’s latest inability to gain promotion to the Premier League. It is a harsh verdict in many ways, especially given the costly injuries suffered at the worst possible time of the past two seasons by Cardiff’s two most important players. Jay Bothroyd was forced to leave the action earlier in last year’s play-off final defeat to Blackpool and Craig Bellamy limped out of the first leg of this tie with Reading, last night enduring the return game from the stands.
Last season, their attacking threat was built around Bothroyd. This year, although not always their main weapon, Bellamy has often proved the difference. If either had stayed fit until the last, perhaps things would be different. As it is, they didn’t, they’re not and Cardiff City fans must wait to see whether their bitter rivals to the west will go one step further than the Bluebirds managed by winning at Wembley later this month.
It is easy to overreact to play-off defeats, calling for the manager’s head or seeking a complete overhaul of the playing squad when, in reality, a decision here or there would have altered the course of the tie completely. On Monday evening, luck was with the Welsh as Swansea City were fortunate to escape penalty appeals and relieved to see the ball thud away off their woodwork. In the capital twenty-four hours later, it was Reading and Brian McDermott who enjoyed all the fortune.
This is not to say that Reading did not deserve to win – they did. Nor is it to say that referee Howard Webb got the big decisions wrong – he didn’t. But there is still that element of luck that Webb failed to agree with any of Cardiff’s increasingly desperate claims for a spot kick and the fortuitous bounce of the ball that left it at the feet of the Royals’ top scorer Shane Long with an empty net in front of him.
Of course, things are never that simple. The reason the ball was there? Stephen Bywater’s doomed attempt to deal with a situation in which he should never have become embroiled. Dekel Keinan’s concession of a clear penalty, duly dispatched by Long with icy coolness, rubbed salt into the wounds. Cardiff made their own luck here – they gave goals away in a manner that you cannot expect to get away with in a game of this magnitude.
From an outside perspective, this has been the appearance all along – that Jones has invested heavily in his attack and left the defensive side of things as an afterthought. Jay Bothroyd, Michael Chopra, Jason Koumas, Jay Emmanuel Thomas, Chris Burke, Jon Parkin and Peter Whittingham all found themselves on the pitch at one point or another during this encounter – leaving Seyi Olofinjana as the only player among the front six who might be expected to be better when the opposition have the ball than when Cardiff had it. The defence looks more like it has been cobbled together than carefully and thoughtfully assembled. Let’s not even mention the goalkeeping situation.
Jones’s substitutions made the team demonstrably worse last night, Koumas and Parkin looking out of their depth in such an occasion. The overall impression was of a team whose heads went down a lot sooner than they should have done. With fifteen minutes to go, Cardiff already seemed to have reverted to plan C rather than retaining faith with their preferred system. Alternatives are often good when the breakthrough is not forthcoming, but not when they are executed as poorly as they were here.
Both the scoreline and the pattern of play were eerily reminiscent of Cardiff’s capitulation at home to Middlesbrough, the final nail in the coffin of their automatic promotion hopes. After every goal conceded, the ensemble of attacking talent at the other end of the pitch stood with their hands on their hips in disbelief.
To their credit, Reading always knew this was a possibility. In last season’s Championship play-off semi-final, Cardiff won their away leg and then saw three goals fly past their goalkeeper David Marshall on their own turf. For the Bluebirds, and perhaps Nottingham Forest also, maybe the weight of expectation is so great with regard to the play-offs that they are able to play with more freedom on their travels at this stage of the season. Neither side will want to test this theory again this time next year.
Although cold comfort now, Cardiff played well in the first half of this game and looked set to open the scoring before mistakes cost them dear at the other end. Under Jones, they look incapable of controlling possession like a certain other team that will go unmentioned by name.
But if they want to master the art of posing a threat going forward while maintaining a compact unit at the back and competing in midfield, a rather good example was right under their noses last night. They will get another chance to study this approach in just under a fortnight. If they can bear to watch, that is, given the consequences of failure for Reading at Wembley.
In the extended buildup to Swansea’s meeting with the Royals, one minor fact will be lost. The Swans finished level on points with Cardiff City this season. The smallest of margins separated the two sides and the smallest of margins can decide play-off semi-finals, as Forest found to their cost. But, as some will be quick to point out, a 3-0 home defeat is not a small margin and a season which promised so much for so long now ends with the familiar sight of Dave Jones attempting to fend off growing criticism. For how much longer remains to be seen.