One game shouldn’t be enough to convince anyone that views they expressed beforehand were completely and utterly wrong, but, by the same token, it can be enough to get you thinking that maybe things aren’t quite as good or bad as you thought they might be – that’s how I feel after Cardiff City’s very impressive 4-1 win over Leeds United at Elland Road yesterday.
I’ll come to the personnel involved in what was a very busy final day of the January transfer window shortly, but by Thursday morning, I was feeling pretty underwhelmed about how things had turned out for us and made this clear in a couple of messageboard posts – I claimed in one that we were fast becoming a footballer free zone.
I thought that was quite a neat line which summed up my concerns about the manner of some of our recent performances compared to what we had seen in the first year of Neil Warnock’s tenure as City manager where I had been surprised by how often I had enjoyed watching us play under someone who I had not been a big fan of previously.
I made my comments before it had been confirmed that we had signed left back Armand Traore in a deal that was initially reported as a permanent signing after Nottingham Forest had cancelled his contract, but we are now told that it is a loan deal until the end of the season. In a way, this signing made me a bit less critical of the direction we were heading because, although Traore played for Neil Warnock at QPR, as someone who I would describe as quick, talented, a bit flakey and capable of the odd defensive howler, he doesn’t really fit into the “typical Warnock signing” category that I had been applying, in a none too complimentary manner, to most of our recent signings.
At the time I expressed my frustration, all of our recent signings had, with one exception, all been more noticeable for their height, power, strength and, in Yanic Wildschut’s case, pace than their innate footballing ability.
Actually, I daresay that last paragraph is one that may not stand up to intense scrutiny, but it does illustrate my fear that we were becoming a “typical Warnock team” – having watched our first year with the man in charge, I don’t believe that this need be the totally negative description that it is generally perceived to be, but I was concerned that we were headed that way in his second year at the helm.
Certainly, my first reaction to the signing of Bolton striker Gary Madine was a negative one for a few reasons. Firstly, although there is some dispute as to whether we did pay the widely reported £5 million, I think it’s safe to say we have paid our biggest transfer fee for some time for him and that still seems an awful lot of money to pay for someone who has played the large majority of his football in the lower divisions to me.
Secondly, although I generally agree with the view that everyone deserves the chance to just get on with their lives as “normally” as they can after serving a jail term, I find it impossible to ignore the fact that Madine was sent to prison for eighteen months in October 2013 after being found guilty of causing actual bodily harm and grievous bodily harm in two separate attacks (he was released after serving five months) – Wikipedia also reports that he “has been convicted of several assaults”.
Thirdly, with a scoring rate of around one goal every four appearances over a long career spent mostly at levels lower than the one he is currently playing at, Madine would hardly appear likely to be a prolific marksman at a club that has not had someone who has come close to matching that description for getting on for a decade now.
However, a bit more research on our new striker suggests there is more to him than first meets the eye. For a start, although Bolton have been thought of as relegation probables for most of the season so the stat isn’t quite as impressive as it would be if applied to a player at, say, Derby County, the fact is that the Trotters 1-0 win over Bristol City on Friday night was the first time they had won a match without Madine in their side in twenty two months! That still pretty amazing statistic tends to confirm the view expressed by a lot of Bolton supporters that Madine was “the main man” at the club and was instrumental to the way they played.
It’s also worth recording that, for all Madine’s apparent problems when it comes to keeping his discipline off the pitch, this is not reflected in his record on it – this site shows that he has only been red carded once in his ten year career in the game.
I can also recall seeing him play for Carlisle a long time ago in a televised game where I was struck by how good he was on the deck for a lower division target man type striker, so I made a note of his name as someone who I could be watching play at a much higher level in years to come – it will have taken him a long time to get there, but maybe Madine can still make it to the Premier League?
So, after a couple of days of further reflection, maybe Madine is a better signing than I first thought he was, but I’m afraid I’ve seen too much of Jamie Ward fouling people and starting arguments while also coming up with the occasional moment of good football to be enthused by his arrival, also from Forest, on another loan deal until the end of the season.
I say that while acknowledging that for most of his career Ward (who fails the must be six foot plus criteria that seemed to be becoming a requirement for new Cardiff players lately) has been able to be a regular selection at clubs that have tended to be top half Championship teams. At thirty one though and having missed a good bit of this season with injury, there has to be some doubt as to whether he will be as effective for us as he has been for others down the years.
Not surprisingly, Neil Warnock said on signing him that he had always really liked Ward’s spikey attitude and it was hard not to make a comparison with the player who headed to Nottingham as the other half of a loan exchange deal, Lee Tomlin.
It’s been obvious for months that Neil Warnock was not convinced by the man who he had paid his biggest fee for before Gary Madine’s arrival, but even our manager acknowledged that Tomlin was the most naturally talented footballer at the club.
Maybe a reunion with his Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka will see a repeat of the sort of performances the Spaniard was able to persuade from Tomlin while he was on Teeside, but, for now, Neil Warnock joins Eddie Howe and Lee Johnson in being unable to get the best out of someone whose career appears to be on the slide without ever really hitting the heights that someone with his ability should attain.
Tomlin’s departure was certainly a factor in me using that footballer free zone line, but, in truth, I had given up on him really because I thought he had become an example of what I see as one of the biggest truisms in football – you can have all of the ability in the world, but it won’t take you too far if your attitude is wrong.
Other City fans thought differently though and cited the inability to blend Tomlin into the team as evidence of a manager who places flair and technique low down on his list of priorities when considering midfield and/or attacking players. As shown already, I have some sympathy with that argument, but I don’t believe that using how Tomlin has been treated at Cardiff is an effective way to go about proving it – I happen to back our manager in this instance.
Tomlin joined Lee Camp and Omar Bogle in leaving City, temporarily at least, on Wednesday – Camp, who was reckoned by most to have been signed to be our first choice keeper this season. left for Sunderland until the end of the season without having played any senior games for us yet and looked to be at fault for the second goal in yet another damaging home defeat for the Wearsiders against Ipswich. Bogle, who I thought had made a good start to his City career with three decent goals in his relatively few first team appearances left with our manager talking about other disappointments with the player besides his costly sending off at Bristol City in November.
As far as yesterday’s game went, it served as a reminder to some like me that, while I still believe we are light for a promotion challenging team when it comes to things like flair, creativity and unorthodoxy, there are a lot of things we are good at. For example, we are the sort of side that will gobble up Championship teams that are something of a soft touch because we will have too much strength, power, know how and resilience for them.
To be frank, Leeds were a soft touch when they came down here as league leaders in September and were taken apart to the tune of 3-1 and it was the same again yesterday. Leeds must be sick and tired of us beating them so consistently over a period that stretches back nearly thirty five years now, but, generally speaking, our wins have tended to be close affairs usually decided by a single goal margin – not so in 2017/18 though as our 7-2 aggregate win was probably a fair reflection of the gap between the two sides over the pair of games.
Leeds fans will point to the fact that they have had to play for more than half of both games with ten men as Gaetano Berardi followed Liam Cooper’s example at Cardiff City Stadium by being dismissed before half time for two bookings. However, City were 2-0 up in both matches at the time of the red cards, so, in many ways, the game was as good as over already.
Just as in what I still believe to be our best win of the season, at Wolves, we were at our opponents right from the start and were in front in the first ten minutes, when Leeds only half cleared a Joe Ralls corner and Traore was able to float a lovely cross over at the second attempt that was headed in on the far post by Callum Paterson.
Mention of Paterson brings us back to Tomlin because he embodies the position that has become known as the “number ten” in the modern game. The archetypal number ten is not very tall, highly skillful, creative, has good vision and should, ideally, get ten plus goals in a season – Tomlin at his best could fit that criteria and there are still those who believe that he would have been that player for us if he had been given a chance.
Instead, the closest thing we have to a number ten currently is someone who is gangly, arguably better with his head than he is with his feet and has won all of his international caps as a full back and, my earlier comments about the lack of flair in our team aside, I believe he is proving to be more effective in the role than Tomlin ever was.
Paterson may not look and play like a classic number ten, but he is mobile, powerful, a better passer than he is given credit for, can tackle and is a very decent finisher. Besides his goal yesterday (to go with the two he scored from the number ten position against Sunderland), he provided the assists for our second and fourth goals and was narrowly wide with a fierce shot from twenty five yards in the second half – he may not look the part, but looks aren’t everything.
Leeds responded to going a goal down by hitting the woodwork twice through centre forward Pierre-Michel Lasogga. Neil Etheridge produced a fine save to turn the German’s low twenty five yard drive onto an upright, but was helpless when a far post cross headed from point blank range crashed against the crossbar, only for him to then produce a brilliant stop from Ezgjan Alioski’s follow up effort.
However, City turned the screw in what was a disastrous few minutes before half time for the home team as, besides losing Berardi, influential defender Pontus Jansson was carried off, Junior Hoilett tapped in our second on the far post from what I’ll charitably call a Paterson pass and Sean Morrison nodded in the winger’s free kick following the foul which led to the red card.
City were rugged, strong, mobile, quick and streetwise in the first half as they showed the qualities which they are normally judged by, but no side that has Hoilett playing to the form he showed earlier in the season are going to be completely lacking in the flair and creativity departments and there was more to us than the more prosaic elements that make up a “typical Warnock team”.
For me though, the most pleasing aspect of yesterday’s win was to hear and see the word “composure” being applied to a City performance. I’ve seen it used to describe our general play and also to describe Marko Grujic’s contribution as, at the third attempt, he began to look at home in our side.
Five years ago, one of the main qualities which led to our promotion was the composure the team showed in the way they saw out matches they were winning by 1-0 or 2-1 and I remarked after the Hull win in December that the way we never looked like losing the lead given to us by Sol Bamba reminded me of our Championship winners.
However, maybe more than anything else, composure was what we were lacking during our awful holiday period and in some of our games in the new year – what a difference a bit of composure would have made in the woeful defeat to a poor Preston team just after Christmas!
Mind you, we lost our composure for a while yesterday as, just as in Cardiff four months earlier, Leeds made a better fist of things with ten men than they had done with eleven and, in a strong opening fifteen minutes to the second half for the home team, Bamba turned a cross into his own net. Leeds had left themselves too much to do though and the storm was ridden out to the extent that the home fans had long since become resigned to their fate when sub Anthony Pilkington scored easily on the far post from a Paterson cross in the eighty eighth minute.
So, while I daresay we’ll continue to be a little too much more artisan than artist than some of us might like, seven points from a possible nine since losing for the fourth successive time at QPR on New Year’s Day suggests we are over our rough patch and, as the season enters its final third, the signs are that we’ll be there scrapping for a top six place, at least, right until the bitter end of a season that has worked out better than most of us could dare hope it would.
*pictures courtesy of https://www.walesonline.co.uk/