If there is a league in this country which proves the validity of that well worn term that a season is a marathon, not a sprint, then it, surely, has to be the Championship. It is a nine month (nearly ten if you make it to the Play Off Final) campaign punctuated by many periods where you are playing three matches a week and, on top of that, there are very few games which teams can coast through because, as befits a league where you frequently see so called strugglers beating the “elite”, the margin between success and failure is usually a very thin one.
Therefore, the Championship is a competition that, to borrow from another sport, favours stayers and it usually tends to involve a gradual accumulation of points as targets set over what are usually six game periods are met or often bettered.
So, how does a long drawn out sporting event like the Championship, the Grand National or a marathon in a major athletics event tend to be won? Well, the first thing I’d say is that there is no set formula for being victorious. For example, two seasons ago Burnley, Middlesbrough and Brighton broke clear of the rest of the chasing Championship pack and it was obvious for weeks before the end of the regular season that it was any two from three for the automatic promotion places.
The fight for those two places went right down to the wire and, in the end, it was Brighton who missed out – hardly surprisingly, they were then beaten in the Semi Finals of the Play Offs. In marathon terms, it was like three athletes condensing the twenty six miles, three hundred and eighty five yards down to a burn up over the last hundred of those yards – it makes for a great finish and is probably the way all neutrals would want the competition to end.
On the other hand, you can get the killer burst from someone well before the culmination of the event which turns it into something of a procession. Again in marathon terms, this is when someone piles on the pressure around the fifteen to twenty mile mark and the rest can’t cope. In cases like this, that circuit around the track in a packed stadium to end the race becomes a lap of honour – it’s a boring way to finish in terms of it being a spectacle, but it should be a tremendous experience for the winner.
That’s exactly what happened to Cardiff City five years ago when we were on our way to winning the Championship. Already at the top of the league going into the Christmas and New Year period, City stole a march on the field by picking up four wins from four with their twelve point haul being five more than anyone else in the division could manage.
Although it didn’t feel like it at the time of course, that was the title virtually decided and, far from “limping over the line” as some killjoy supporters claim, we crossed the finishing line just as the others were entering the stadium.
However, what I cannot ever recall seeing in a high quality marathon field is the winner, or the silver or bronze medalist for that matter, experience the ordeal of what is known as hitting the wall just over halfway through the race.
For those who are unaware of what hitting the wall means it’s when a runner’s legs turn to jelly as they slow to walking pace and their sense of coordination appears to leave them – it makes for very dramatic viewing especially when it happens to one of the race leaders.
By doing the complete opposite of their predecessors from 2012/13 in failing to take a single point from their four holiday period matches, Cardiff City hit their own wall yesterday as they were beaten 2-1 at Loftus Road by Queens Park Rangers to follow on from their dismal losses against Bolton, Fulham and Preston.
Thankfully, other sports are more forgiving than Athletics, the horse that almost comes a cropper at Beecher’s Brook or the Chair as it loses dozens of yards to those in front of them can sometimes come back to win and if I had the time (which I haven’t I’m afraid), I’m sure I could find some sides that have won automatic promotion despite having a pointless Christmas and New Year
However, there can be no avoiding the fact that we look like one of those marathon runners that are reeling around unsure how they are going to manage to take their next step at the moment – where there was strength of mind and clarity, there is now mental frailty and confusion.
There are some straws to cling to. I’ve heard ex pros say that there are nearly always three, maybe four, members of a team who are some way off their A game, no matter how well the side is playing, but when you’ve got eight or nine struggling (as I believe we had in both of our last two home games), then you’ve got no chance. However , all of the indications are that we played better yesterday (it’s hard to see how we could play worse than we did against Preston mind) and, completely bizarrely, Bristol City’s 5-0 pasting at Aston Villa means we actually climb a place to third!
Before this horror period, City fans could be forgiven for thinking that a game was as good as over once we went a goal up – after all, we didn’t drop a single point from such a position before Christmas. That was then and this is now though – when Callum Paterson was fouled as he challenged for a Joe Ralls cross, the latter showed his mental strength following his last, truly dreadful, penalty against Norwich by calmly dispatching the resultant spot kick to give us the lead. Sadly though, our defence couldn’t cope as QPR upped their attacking intensity and the absence of Sean Morrison was clearly felt again as the home side could easily have netted more than the two they did get to turn the game around.
It goes without saying that you don’t tend to get much luck when you’re in a rut like ours and the pictures of a disallowed goal for Junior Hoilett against his old club appear to show that he received the ball from a touch by a defender, rather than Kenneth Zohore, so the decision to disallow it for offside was wrong.
Neil Warnock has always had a habit of deflecting attention away from his team’s failings after a defeat by zoning in on some decision or another from the officials that he claims cost his team a point or, even, a win. Based on what I’ve seen down the years, these claims can run the range of justified right through to completely spurious, but, to be fair to our manager, the pictures say that he was justified in his complaints this time.
Indeed, the fact that referee Tim Robinson (a new name to me) chose to consult his linesmen before making a final decision (a consultation which took a long time) surely indicates that there were doubts in his mind about the offside decision? Therefore, the subsequent decision to stick by the original ruling seems wrong when you consider the edict from FIFA some time again that, in an effort to make the game more watchable, the benefit of any doubt concerning offside decisions should go to the attacking side.
In saying that, I think Mr Warnock is realistic enough to know his side has got major problems – a team that is in the upper echelons of the Championship should be able to cope far better with the challenge of preserving a lead against opponents in eighteenth place and with just one win in their last ten games than we did.
The equalising goal, scored from a header direct from a long throw in, was a shocker from a defensive point of view, while the winner showed that Bruno Manga is probably going through his dodgiest period yet in a Cardiff shirt – its got so bad with him that he was playing better at right back a few games ago than he is at centreback now.
Also, I would hope and expect that our manager has ordered some sort of internal investigation into why we have had such an horrendous time of it with injuries this season. At his meeting with supporters at the end of November, he said that we “did not know the half of it” when it came to our injury situation, so I’d assume that we have had, and almost certainly still do have, members of the squad who are playing through a pain barrier and, probably, would not be involved if circumstances were different.
The situation is so bad in central midfield that Lee Peltier was the latest partner for Ralls in the middle of the park yesterday. People who were at the game have been saying that the defender did a reasonable job before going off with yet another injury and it’s true that it is not a position with which he is totally unfamiliar, but it does tend to endorse my view that the ability to be able to pass the ball to a team mate figures fairly low down on Neil Warnock’s list of priorities when it comes to the sort of central midfield player he wants.
Of course, it has to be said that those aforementioned injuries are making life very difficult for us in that area of the team, but, even when everyone is fit, it is hard to see someone at the club who justifies the term “midfield playmaker” in the sense that Peter Whittingham, Steve McPhail or Graham Kavanagh did with their ability to spot and execute a pass which could open up a defence.
All of our four senior central midfield players are capable of passing the ball well at times, but when it comes to the blending of artists and artisans, it’s pretty obvious that our manager has a big preference for the latter over the former in this area of the pitch (if we discount Lee Tomlin as a midfielder, which we surely must, then do we have an “artist” among our central midfield in the first team squad?) – you look at our central midfielders and it’s no surprise that our possession and passing stats are so poor.
All of a sudden, who we bring in this month has become a lot more important than it was looking ten days ago and I hope there is some truth in the rumours linking someone like Charlie Adam with the club. At 32, Adam’s best days are behind him and he will add little in terms of speed and mobility, but I’d like to think that there would be more than a reasonable chance that we would still have possession of the football after he, or someone in the same mould as him as a player, had attempted a pass.
It will be very interesting to see what the attitude is towards Saturday’s FA Cup tie with Mansfield now. In recent years, the FA Cup has become synonymous with weakened teams and embarrassing defeats at Cardiff, but will the need for the morale booster of a win of any type dictate a change of approach whereby we see as strong a side as possible taking the field?
My own view is that it won’t and I must say that, given the injury situation he is having to deal with, I could fully understand it if Neil Warnock decided to indulge in some squad rotation (for example, I would expect someone like Jazz Richards, an unused sub yesterday after three months or so out of the team, to start) . However, given that Mansfield will, in complete contrast to us, be coming off a holiday period which has seen them take ten points from a possible twelve, it would be no real surprise if the match ends up being another Fulham, Reading, Shrewsbury or Wigan as a sparse home crowd watches their side make an early exit from the competition.
City owe those supporters who have had to witness those shocking performances over the past four seasons a win in this competition and it would also mean a lot in terms of the wall we’ve hit since those days such a short time ago when we were four points clear of the club in third place and had an eleven point buffer when it came to the Play Offs.
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