Okay, everyone knows that the attendance for Cardiff City’s very important 2-1 home win over Derby County yesterday would not have been the biggest ever for a club game (excluding when Real Madrid come to town that is!) at our new stadium if it had not been for a couple of schemes specifically designed to get more people through the gate.
Firstly, the free tickets for schools scheme the club have been running has led to a small increase in attendances in recent weeks. However, it was the offer of two free tickets for everyone who had already committed their support for the club in season 16/17 by purchasing season tickets which was primarily responsible for an announced attendance of 28,860 yesterday. That figure is well on the way to double the previous best gate of the season (15,566) – they even had to open Tan’s Folly to meet the demand!
Now, I used the term “announced attendance” there because we all know that this relates to tickets sold/issued rather than the number of actual people in the ground – hence the laughter and hoots of derision often heard last season from those still awake when the “official” attendance was announced (plenty of season ticket holders had given up on City well before the end of the campaign last year).
From where I sit in the ground, it was impossible to judge how many people were sat in the extension to the Ninian Stand yesterday, but of the 85 per cent or so of the ground I could see, I doubt it if there really were as many present as was announced.
However, unlike on so many other occasions, the announced attendance figure looked nowhere near as wrong as it has done in the past. When you’re saying that a ground the size of ours is between 80 and 85 per cent full, as the club were yesterday, then you know that there needs to substantial numbers present for such a claim not to appear ridiculous. This time, there was no ridicule – if the announced attendance would have been, say, 25,000 then I would have believed that to tally with the actual crowd.
Therefore, even if it was true that the attendance did not quite match the number who turned up, I believe the club deserve tremendous credit for the initiatives they have introduced recently and also for a range of season ticket prices which have, seemingly, seen a substantial increase in numbers sold compared to this time last year.
When you also factor in the measures taken to try and improve the atmosphere at games and little things like the introduction of the giant sized flags we saw yesterday, then I believe it’s fair to say that the club are doing all that they can to try and repair the huge disconnect with their supporters which started with the “rebranding” to red and continued for the best part of three and a half years after that – well done to Ken Choo and others at the club for the strides they have made in the last six months or so.
The acid test will come over the coming weeks and months of course when it becomes clear how many of those who got in for nothing yesterday were persuaded to come along to other matches or, better still, commit to a 16/17 season ticket. I hate using the corporate speak term “matchday experience”, but I’ll make an exception here and say that some of the recent off field measures taken to try and improve that facet of attending a City game may help in that direction.
However, I think we all know that the greatest single influence in determining how many out of a club’s potential support actually go along to games is results on the pitch – if the team can also provide a bit of an entertainment while they’re picking up the wins, then all well and good.
So, did what happened on the pitch yesterday help or hinder the club’s attempts to tempt some of the missing thousands of paying customers back?
The obvious answer is that it helped because we won, but I would hope it goes a bit further than that because I’d like to believe that many of those making their first visit to a City match for a few months or longer will have been impressed by how much things have improved since they last watched us.
Hopefully, they would have seen how much the team have come on in 2016. Although we were doing pretty well results wise in the first half of the season and some of the matches in late 2015 hinted that we were becoming a more watchable side, it’s since that game at Wolves in early January when we were almost forced into playing a certain way that we have gone up to another level which has enabled us to make this top six challenge of ours a more convincing one than I, for one, expected it to be.
In particular, we now play with a formation, which is not too far off Russell Slade’s preferred 4-4-2, that allows us to compete on equal terms with most sides we come up against when it comes to the midfield battle.
Ever since our relegation, we have struggled to gain parity with our opponents in the middle of the park when playing a pretty rigid 4-4-2. Often this has been down to a straightforward lack of numbers when compared to the opposition, but it’s also had a lot to do with the players used.
I can’t speak for others, but the main reason I sometimes used to argue that Peter Whittingham should be left out of the side was that, no matter who he played with, any attempt by City to use him as one of a two man central midfield in a 4-4-2 was doomed to failure over the medium to long term.
Whittingham doesn’t have the physical attributes to play such a role in such a system – use him as one of a central midfield three and that’s different, but we had the evidence of a season and more that it just didn’t work when we played 4-4-2.
However, put two workhorses like Joe Ralls and Stuart O’Keefe together in there and you begin to see something that hints at improvement. Actually, to dismiss these two players as “workhorses” is not fair – Ralls (how many better central midfield players of his age are there in the Championship?) is much more than that and O’Keefe has shown himself to be a better footballer than many, myself included, were prepared to give him credit for.
Many people had O’Keefe down as their Man of the Match yesterday (for myself, I couldn’t separate him and another player I’m going to discuss shortly) and I’d say he would be a contender for our most consistent player over the last three months.
While his goal yesterday was a step in the right direction, I’d say O’Keefe suffers by comparison to Jordon Mutch in terms of his attacking play, but I’d argue that he is the closest thing we have had to Mutch when it comes to getting up and down the pitch since he left for QPR.
O’Keefe is the box to box midfielder we’ve lacked since we returned to the Championship and, although it could be asked why it took so long for him to get into the team I suppose, at the moment I’m happy to have a box to box midfielder who has played only half a season. On the other hand, most of the opponents he comes up against who play a similar role are now going into their eighth consecutive month of covering miles and miles every game as they seek to become additional members of the defence or attack as required of their team.
Even so, I believe it still needed that bit more to make us a credible top six contender and that’s come in the form of Lex Immers who, in a short time, has become, arguably, our most important player.
Whenever we sign a player I don’t know much about, I tend to try and find out what the supporters of his current (in the case of loans)/former club think of him. When I did this with Immers, it was a struggle to find a Feyenoord fan with a good word to say about him – given how bad the Dutch club have looked when I’ve watched them this season, I really did wonder what we were signing.
However, among all the criticism and ridicule, I did find this article (which I think I may have posted on here before) which suggested that Immers might not be the donkey so many were telling us he was. Even here though he is being damned with faint praise to some extent as there is talk of his clumsiness, but, based on what I’ve seen so far, Immers’ touch is sure and his technique more than adequate – I daresay the standards by which a player is judged can vary if you are speaking as someone who hails from the land which gave us total football and or as someone who watches the modern day Championship every week!
Nevertheless, that article does a very good job in outlining why there is so much more to Lex Immers than you might at first think – he’s a perceptive, if understated, passer and with a more confident and ambitious Whittingham moving infield at times to deliver quality balls, we are much more creative than we were.
In saying that, I don’t believe that sympathetic piece does Immers full justice.For example, although I’m not a fan of the move late in matches which often sees Anthony Pilkington withdrawn for a more defensively minded player with Immers being pushed up front, you only have to look at how he works so tirelessly to close down defenders in possession and contrast it with what we used to get throughout a game in that department from Kenwyne Jones to see one of the main reasons why we are so improved from the first half of the season.
We always had quite a few hard working players, but Immers encapsulates what I believe to be a new spirit within the side. He was out on his feet in the closing minutes yesterday, but he was still giving everything for the team and that attitude is proving infectious both on and off the pitch.
There’s still more to Immers though because when he is playing in his deeper, more normal, role his presence means that the opposition’s deep lying midfield player (often the fulcrum of the side) is being given a rougher ride than he had got used to in earlier meetings with Cardiff.
Yesterday offered an excellent example of this. I’ve been a big fan of George Thorne ever since he played a leading part in our 100 per cent winning home record being ended at the eleventh attempt in 12/13 as Peterborough came here and deservedly won 2-1. I think I’m right in saying that when Derby swatted us away on their own ground back in November in much the same way as a cow dismisses a fly from it’s presence with it’s tail, Thorne (who scored the opening goal in Derby’s 2-0 win) was statistically the Championship’s best midfield player.
His form has dipped since then (injuries haven’t helped either), but I’d still say that if Thorne plays well, so do Derby. Yesterday, he only had a limited influence on the game and much of that was down to Immers’ work without the ball for his team. There was talk of the “Derby way” a few months back which was generally taken to mean a passing game with defenders encouraged to play out from the back – the presence of players like Pilkington and Immers in advanced central positions makes it much harder for teams to play like that against Cardiff than it used to be.
I must admit to having been pretty confident about yesterday’s game because at the same time as we have been acquiring some momentum, Derby have been losing theirs. When you are also factor in their implosion over the final thirteen games of last season that saw them transformed from likely Champions to eighth placed also rans, I’d be getting pretty worried now if I were a Derby fan.
If you’ve got the time, have a listen to the interview with Derby coach Darren Wassall in the BBC’s report of the game – I found it fascinating for a few reasons. Firstly, I’m not sure I’ve heard such an inane and poorly informed set of questions as the ones Mr Wassall was asked and, secondly, the replies an increasingly exasperated coach gave to them.
I’d say Mr Wassall was right in some respects. For example, we’ve not scored a home goal from open play since Immers’ against Brighton four games ago and, at Cardiff City Stadium at least, are in danger of reverting into a side that just scores from set pieces – so, in a way, his assertion that his team only lost because they defended two corners poorly is understandable.
However, that is to ignore the evidence of so much else that happened in the game. Derby were strangely passive in what was a very important match for them and they seemed happy to play on our terms as we let them have the ball safe in the knowledge that we were never allowing them to build a base from which their team (which I think looks so much better than ours on paper) could build from.
Apart from a goal which owed an awful lot to a lucky ricochet and a first half run from the largely anonymous Tom Ince which took him deep into our penalty area but came to nothing, I’m struggling to remember a time when Derby had me concerned that they could score.
Surely, that should have alarm bells ringing at whatever Pride Park is called these days? Forget about the names in Derby’s starting line up, just look at their bench. They were able to bring on a Scottish international who I’m sure most clubs in this league would sign like a shot if they could and the striker who was the Championship’s form player back in the autumn, while a full back who may well be on his way to the Euros this summer, an England international with getting on for two hundred career goals and another international striker who was an automatic selection in far, far better Aston Villa sides than the current one were left kicking their heels!
Now, I accept that I don’t watch Derby every week and there may be valid reasons why players such as Cyrus Christie and Andreas Weimann were not seen at all yesterday, but their absence helped to contribute to a feeling I had which I can best describe as “all of that money spent just to produce this?” as I watched our insipid opponents labour away.
This takes me on to the truly pertinent point in that interview with Darren Wassall. I’m talking about the bit where the interviewer states “you have GOT to finish in the top six” and the coach agrees with him. Given the amount of money that has been spent at the club in the past two seasons, I daresay that there are Derby fans who will be disappointed at not being promoted automatically even if they do make it into the Play Offs.
A sense of raised expectation at a club can be such a weight for their team to carry – the pressure from within is almost greater than anything they face from their opponents and if the perception is around that someone is letting that pressure get to them, then opponents will be ruthless in their attempts to exploit any supposed weaknesses. With Derby’s finish last season and a bit of a wobble going on this time, I’m sure there is a feeling about that “they don’t like it up them” – surely it was no coincidence that City made an unusually fast start yesterday as they attempted to exploit any demons they believed their opponents may be harbouring.
Yesterday’s game confirmed a feeling which I’ve had for a month or so now – if we do manage to finish in the top six I believe that it will be at Derby’s rather than Sheffield Wednesday’s expense (they are the only two we can hope to catch now). However, as I’ve never really expected us to be in the Play Offs and would have little expectation of us winning them if we did manage it, I can handle any “failure” quite comfortably.
I believe most City fans probably feel quite similarly – increasingly, this is feeling like Malky Mackay’s first season where the real achievement for a side put together on a small budget was just to reach the Play Offs and so no one got too upset when West Ham made short work of us in the Semis – it’s completely different for Derby and, for me, this is the main reason why we may now just end up making it into that top six.
One last thing to any Derby fans who may read this, I know it’s a bit rich for a City fan to talk like I have done about your club. After all, if you Google “doing a Cardiff”, you’ll probably find reference to our frequent habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of what seemed certain victory.
Also, over the past fifteen years we’ve written the book on over ambition and poor big money signings, so I accept this is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black here, but on the only occasion we’ve ever been the Championship’s “moneybags” team, we ended up winning the league by seven points – I’m sure you’ll be back playing Premier League football one day (probably sooner than we will), but I think the powers that be at your club may have to redefine what “the Derby way” is if you miss out on the top six again this season.
*picture courtesy of http://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/
+picture courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/joncandy