I was pleased to see Brentford overturn their 1-0 first leg deficit when they beat Swansea 3-1 in the last ever game to be played at Griffin Park. I’ve often said on here that I don’t regard the jacks as our main rivals, but my relative goodwill towards the team further down the M4 when compared to most other City fans does not stretch to hoping they can have another seven years, or even one year, stay in the Premier League if we couldn’t go up!
What I did say though was that Swansea departed the Play Offs with honour intact after contributing fully to a fine game to conclude a tie where I think the slightly better side made it through and I hoped, but doubted, that City could do the same when the inevitable happened and Fulham made their way into the Final following their win at Cardiff City Stadium on Monday by a 2-0 score line which did not flatter them at all.
Well, City were able to do what I didn’t think they could tonight. No, they did not perform the miracle which would have seen them at Wembley next Tuesday, but they did go to Craven Cottage and give the home side a huge fright with a 2-1 second leg win which included some hair raising moments for Scott Parker’s men as they clung on to a slender lead in a manner which hardly seemed possible given how comfortable they had been for much of the two previous meetings with City in this month.
I’d never got too worked up about the Play Offs because I was not expecting much from them and that certainly applied tonight following Monday’s one sided match, but now, at the end of it all, my feelings are a mixture of frustration and puzzlement. The first part of that pairing is easy enough to understand because we were so close to forcing extra time and, if we had done so, then I reckon we would have been favourites because all of the momentum would have been with us.
The puzzlement part is not so straightforward though and springs from our curious record when it comes to these end of season mini tournaments.
I was quick enough to point out on Monday that our Play Off record at home now reads won one and lost six and I later added some stats that had been provided by a messageboard contributor which showed that our home record was comfortably the worst out of the team’s that have been in the Play Off’s on more than one or two occasions. Therefore, it is only right to report that we have now won three and drawn two of our seven away leg games, but, on each occasion when we have won on our opponent’s ground, that good work has been either reduced or invalidated by losing the return game at home.
Of course, this season is different given that there are no spectators in the ground for these games, so a significant advantage to playing at home has been lost, but, for six of our seven home games there has been big home support at Ninian Park or Cardiff City Stadium which we are often told has a significant intimidation factor and yet away sides, with just the one exception, have been able to beat us – very comfortably as well on two or three occasions I can think of.
We had Fulham rattled for large parts of the second half tonight, but why did we allow ourselves to be bullied by them at times in the earlier match at Craven Cottage and again on Monday night? This is is an element of the game where you would always expect recent Cardiff teams to get the better of their Fulham counterparts, but for much of the time in the two earlier matches, it was the Londoners who looked the physically stronger outfit. It was almost as if we had to wait until the tie was virtually beyond us before we really showed our teeth.
Much had been said about the need for an early goal from City tonight if they were to have a chance of returning a truly competitive edge to the tie and it duly arrived in just eight minutes from an unexpected source.
Both City’s goals tonight had an element of luck to them and for the first one it came first when Will Vaulks, recalled to the team in place of Lee Tomlin alongside Danny Ward and Josh Murphy who replaced Robert Glatzel and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing respectively, slightly overstepped his mark when taking the long throw which led to the corner from Joe Ralls which Curtis Nelson nodded in at the far post – on another day, Ward might have been penalised for a foul as he blocked off goalkeeper Marek Rodak, but Premier League ref Paul Tierney judged that there had been no offence.
Having halved their first leg deficit, what City needed now was five minutes or so of disciplined all round play designed to get Fulham to stew in their own juices so to speak, but, just as at Cardiff City Stadium in August when we scored the first goal of the game from Murphy, we allowed them back into the game with an equaliser in no time at all.
Back in the early weeks of this seemingly never ending season it took Fulham just three minutes to get back on terms, tonight it took them all of twenty four seconds! While credit must be given to the home side for some crisp and incisive passing, it’s also true to say that we allowed Fulham to progress down our left hand side too easily and then when Bobby Decordova-Reid put over a good, low cross, Leandro Bacuna, who did well at right back in terms of his passing and crossing, was rather caught on his heels as he allowed Neeskens Kebano to score quite easily on the far post.
It must be said that, following that burst of scoring in the opening ten minutes, the rest of the first half played out much like most of the two earlier matches between the teams with Fulham largely in control – unlike on those occasions, Fulham were not finding it as easy to deal with our attacking set pieces, but the home team were generally far more threatening with Alex Smithies, our man of the match for me, making good saves to deny Anthony Knockeart and then Cyrus Christie.
Before Monday’s game, Neil Harris had chosen to call the upcoming challenges four halves of football as opposed to two matches. Well, extending that line of thinking to the game between the teams in the regular season a few weeks ago as well, I would say that at half time tonight after five halves of football, the only periods where we had been the better side were the opening quarters of the first two matches, so we had been on top for one half really, whereas I would say Fulham could claim to be better than us in the other four.
The final half of the six went emphatically to City however. I’d mentioned in my piece on Monday’s match that Neil Harris, with his played six, lost six record against Fulham as a manager, appeared to have something of a blind spot when it came to the team from alongside the River Thames and I’m sure I was not the only City fan who found his starting eleven tonight a strangely conservative selection in a match where I believed we needed to go for it from the first whistle.
I suppose the final outcome of the tie might argue that I was right to think that way, but I’m not sure I was now. Harris explained that Tomlin was not fit enough to start two games in such a short space of time and it seems pretty clear now that the plan was not to get ourselves in a position where the tie was beyond us after forty five minutes tonight and then have a right go at things after that by introducing the likes of Tomlin, Mendez-Laing and Glatzel on a tiring Fulham backline.
Although Tomlin’s night would end in tears after he suffered what looked like a hamstring injury late on which, almost certainly, would have kept him out of the Final if we had made it through and he wasn’t really as influential as you would have expected him to be during a time when City had their best spell in the three games, the first two named certainly did their best to tilt the tie in favour of us as soon as they came on.
Mendez-Laing, who continued his bemusing tendency to be more effective away from home than at Cardiff City Stadium even in these times where home “advantage” does not appear to count for as much as it once did, almost netted with his first touch after another of those dangerous Vaulks throws with a flat, fast trajectory rather than the slower, loopier one that you tend to get from other players, glanced off the head of home centreback Michael Hector towards the unmarked sub on the far post.
Mendez-Laing then headed the ball back in the direction it had been coming from, but was foiled by a good save by Rodak, only for City to again get lucky when the ball then bounced off Hector on a second occasion. This time it bounced towards Tomlin who had been in an offside position, but, now, having been played on, he hooked a right footed shot into the net from about seven yards.
Sky’s studio contributor Liam Rosenior was probably right after the game when he said the difference between the teams boiled down to Fulham being able to score a home goal in a match in which they were second best for long periods and, for all of City’s second leg heroics, I feel that, just as with the other Semi Final, the slightly better team over the two matches made it through.
Kebano’s immediate equalizer was the clearest evidence of this, but Smithies had to make two saves in short order from the lively replacement for the injured Kebano at half time, Abou Kamara who gave Bacuna something of torrid time defensively. The second of these saves was a tremendous effort as Smithies finger tipped the shot on to a post and out and it also needed a brilliant headed interception from Nelson to prevent a goal after Kamara had got in again down City’s right and fired over a cross which beat Smithies and appeared to have presented Decordova-Reid with a simple headed chance.
So, despite now losing so many of the second balls and fifty/fifties that they had been winning, Fulham still carried the sort of threat we didn’t see from City for most of Monday’s match.
However, the near misses kept on totting up in the Fulham goalmouth despite City often being their usual careless selves when it came to ball retention. This was something of a surprise considering how easily they were able to open up the Fulham defence at times – not least when a slip by Cyrus Christie meant that a Mendez-Laing cross found its way to the unmarked Murphy on the far post only for the winger to tamely send his header straight at Rodak and then when Bacuna got forward to good effect down the right and put over a lovely, low cross which eluded the sliding Ward by inches.
City had also rediscovered their dead ball threat as well as Ralls’ free kicks and corners and Vaulks’ throw is caused consternation among the home ranks. Strangely, Fulham were able to keep Sean Morrison relatively quiet from these restarts, but others such as Nelson, Vaulks and Ward all had sights at goal as Fulham showed signs of buckling under City’s assault.
The closest we came to the elusive third goal was probably when Mendez-Laing, Nelson and Glatzel moved in on a Ralls free kick only for what looked like a combination of Christie and Rodak to keep out the German’s close range effort from where the ball found it’s way to Vaulks who hit a sweetly struck first time effort from fifteen yards that the keeper, who had been on the floor a second or two earlier, sprang up to turn over the bar.
Hardly surprisingly, City’s efforts to find a third goal became more and more frantic as the clock ticked down and Fulham were surviving what turned out to be six and a half minutes of added time pretty comfortably until another City sub, Callum Paterson, nodded on a ball played towards the right flank into the path of Glatzel who couldn’t quite keep his fiercely struck volley low enough. After the game, Neil Harris said he expected Glatzel to score from that opportunity, but he did concede it was a very tough chance of a kind that the striker had shown himself capable of taking in training.
Great credit for City in the end then for showing that they were deserved top six finishers despite looking little more than mid table nobodies for much of the season. Although a few of our players showed how much defeat hurt them, I’d prefer to look at the understated Fulham reaction at the final whistle which was an implicit confirmation of what a fright they had been given by a side that had been written off, certainly by this supporter, after the First Leg.
This performance, along with five or six others over the past year, make me optimistic that we could do as well or better in 20/21 with some shrewd transfer market business in the coming weeks. The average age of the team needs to come down and the improvement in ball retention together with a less one dimensional gamer plan has to be maintained and built upon, while also retaining the ability to play a more direct, set piece orientated game when needs must and then I don’t think we’re too far off being a strong contender in a league which is gaining six sides that do not strike me as being too intimidating compared to some others that have been promoted or relegated in the recent past.
The 2020/21 season is due to start in six weeks time on 12 September and so we’re looking at a very short time before we see a return to pre season training. With a shortened, and you would assume more frenetic, transfer window (the speculation has already started with a story that Wigan and Wales striker Keiffer Moore’s heart “is set on joining Cardiff City“), I’m sure I’ll have enough to write about in my weekly reviews, there’ll also be the odd quiz and story on more general matters plus, hopefully, information regarding the publication of the book on City that I’ve been working on for the past fifteen months or so.
Finally, a thank you to Neil Harris and the squad for being able to take minds off the testing times we’ve all been having to live through over the past few months. Football, and in particular Cardiff City has helped restore something of a feeling of normality and the altered circumstances in which games take place has not affected me as much as I suspected it might – certainly the lack of a crowd became something of an irrelevance tonight.
In so much as you can, enjoy the rest of the summer and let’s hope City can continue to do as well playing football in the Covid 19 era as they have done up until now,