You can count the number of teams I really dislike on the fingers of one hand – on three fingers actually.
Leeds United are one of them because during a decade in my youth they had the best team in the country, but never won what they should have done because they played with an arrogance, cynicism and confrontational attitude which I’ve always believed cost them in the end because opponents, ostensibly with nothing to play for, would go the extra yard to beat them when they had a chance to do so.
Then there’s Chelsea. I can’t say I was a great fan of theirs anyway (I even wanted Leeds to beat them in the 1970 FA Cup Final!), but my dislike of them mainly stems from the fact there have only been two occasions when an opposing fan has tried to attack me as an individual at a game and they were both supporters of Chelsea at matches we played against them when they were in the old Second Division.
Finally, there’s Bristol City. As mentioned before on here, I’m one of an age group which “grew up” as City fans never having to face the jacks in league games because they were always at least one division below us – no, THE local derby during the first fifteen years or so of my existence as a City fan was Bristol City. It didn’t help of course that, after five or six years where we usually got the better of them, we then had more than three decades where the best we did was draw with them (the one time we beat them was in the first leg of a League Cup tie which they more than made up for by trouncing us in the return game).
Those barren years between 1971 and 2003 are why beating them in the Play Offs on our way to promotion will always be among my best ever City memories. Although the old order has returned somewhat now and beating the wurzels lately has come to mean not quite as much as it did thirteen years ago, last night’s 2-1 win over them was a very timely reminder that supporting Cardiff City can be a pleasurable experience.
Having spent two years and more often questioning why I continue to bother putting myself through something that I barely ever enjoyed, last night was a affirmation that when it is good, supporting your football team is very good. There was so much about last night’s match that reminded me what I, and tens of thousands more I presume, have been missing in recent years and for that we should thank one man more than most, new City manager Neil Warnock.
Mr Warnock is a Yorkshireman and is in the habit of sometimes mentioning that he is from that county, but, even if you read something he said without being told who had said it, you could probably take an educated guess as to where the person was from because there is often the bluntness and no nonsense nature commonly associated with that part of the world to much of what he says.
In one of his early interviews as City manager, Warnock asked what is the point of continuously passing the ball backwards and sideways when you have it, far better to get it forward and try to cause the opposition problems. In similar fashion, he questioned the need for the sort of reliance on statistics that is fashionable these days – once again, the “Yorkshireness” of the words leapt out at you if you were reading them.
In the cricket world especially, there are some who have, or once did, make media careers for themselves after they had finished playing the game out of being “professional Yorkshiremen” and, to me at least, they sound(ed) like caricatures. However, I believe that at the heart of what “Yorkshireness” is, there is usually a plain, common sense behind it which often gets right to the point of the matter at hand – Neil Warnock has been an example of this from the moment he took over at the club.
There was a element of back to basics about last night – there was “nowt fancy” about the way we played and, as most knew beforehand, any plans for “a Cardiff Way” were put very much on hold, but, in the position we were in, this was exactly the sort of approach we needed.
I’ve always had a mental image of what a “Warnock side” looks and plays like and, although I think back to his QPR team and one or two other recent sides he’s managed and feel I’m being a little unfair in my characterisation, it isn’t really a complimentary one. However, anyone who had watched all of our previous home matches this season, and a couple of the away ones as well, will know that becoming a typical Warnock side is far preferable to what we were – typical Warnock sides do not get relegated from this division and that what was going to happen to us if things continued on as they had done in the first two months of the campaign,
We defended like a typical Warnock side last night and, in doing so, we looked more secure at the back than at any time during this season. In the past year or so, there’s only been the Brighton win back in February out of our live televised games that I’ve bothered looking at for a second time, but, now there’s another and, having had that second look already, it only confirmed what was an impression that I got at the ground watching it live – I cannot remember a match in recent years where our back four and midfielders got in so many good defensive blocks.
Bristol City arrived in South Wales in fifth position on the back of a run of four consecutive wins, with the Championship’s top scorer in their ranks and I suppose much of the post match debate will centre on the degree to which their defeat could be put down to good Cardiff play or them falling short of the standards they have set for themselves so far this season.
Leaving aside what we did for now, I must admit to being somewhat surprised by how ordinary the wurzels looked – I was expecting to see something better than they have produced when they’ve come to south Wales in the last decade or so, but they were nowhere near as good a Bristol team as the one which had by far the better of the goalless draw between the sides at Cardiff City Stadium at this time of year last season.
Yes, they had most of the ball and at times passed it around in a controlled manner that we could never really match on the night, but their one shot on target came after they played on with a City player (sub Lex Immers) lying injured on the floor. There was some hesitation as to whether they should put the ball out of play to allow Immers to receive treatment, but this seemed to distract City who were, first, guilty of not being as defensively disciplined as they had been until then, and, second at fault when Lee “serial diver” Tomlin’s well struck shot beat Ben Amos on his near post.
Wurzel’s manager Lee Johnson was honest enough to admit that his side didn’t turn up in the first half and that this meant that City deserved their win, but he did point out that the prolific Tammy Abraham had been ill since returning from England Under 21 duty. Certainly, the teenager on loan from Chelsea was nowhere near the threat I expected him to be as our centrebacks spent the game handing him from one to the other to put in their pockets.
So, I think it’s definitely fair to say that Bristol didn’t come here with their optimum game in place, but, then again, I don’t think they will have met many sides this season who were more difficult to play against than us.
That’s not solely down to what happened on the pitch. For the first time in around three years in a club game, we saw what an atmospheric ground Cardiff City Stadium can be. If it wasn’t for the Warnock factor, the wurzels would have come here to play in front of a crowd of around 14,000 with the majority of the twelve thousand or so behind the home team quickly losing interest in proceedings if the match had started with as little goalmouth action as last night’s did.
Instead, there were twenty thousand home fans behind the City side for the full ninety minutes with Neil Warnock commenting afterwards on how much they helped the team after Bristol’s goal.
Truth be told though, for much of the time it was the sort of “over my dead body” defending I’d mentioned earlier that was getting the plaudits from the crowd, because the lack of much in the way of goalmouth action at the other end of the pitch offered a reminder that the not all of the things which sent us to the bottom of the league for a while will just fade away because Neil Warnock is here.
Indeed, the manager acknowledged after the match that his team have their limitations and that they need to work hard on their attacking set pieces because they don’t have many goals in them. Certainly, when we did score (the first from a stonewall penalty where we got a little lucky a few seconds before the foul when an offside flag might well have been raised against Craig Noone and the second from a corner), there was little suggestion that a goal was coming because we never had enough controlled possession to create the sort of attacking momentum that can lead to such a feeling.
Rickie Lambert did well considering that he was often having to plough the same sort of lone furrow that he has had to in his earlier appearances. We still didn’t get enough players close to our striker and, although like so many other City players, Joe Ralls served up his strongest showing for some time, he is hardly going to scare opponents to death when he is playing as our most advanced central midfielder.
On the wings, Craig Noone was another who was better than he has been lately and Junior Hoilett provided flashes of inspiration, while also, like Noone, putting in a strong defensive shift as well, This suggested there are a lot better things to come from Hoilett, but “wings” was the operative word for these two – we used the full width of the pitch and so I feel that, if Lambert is to get the sort of support close to him that he needs, it seems more likely to come from central areas, hence the feeling, and hope, that we will have someone in the team soon (Pilkington? Immers?) who offers more than Ralls in that role.
Besides Hoilett, there were two other debutants in the City team – Joe Bennett finally played his first match seven weeks after we signed him and had a decent game as he showed pace and a willingness to get forward, mixed with defending which could have been a little better (especially in the build up to the wurzel’s goal).
However it was Sol Bamba who really took the eye as, after one early missed lunge that could have cost us, he turned in a performance that earned him Sky’s man of the match award. Once again, Neil Warnock was interesting in his post match remarks when he said that for five years he has watched Bamba trying to play like a modern day Franz Beckenbauer when, if he just stuck to heading it and kicking it, he’d be the best in the division. I would add a slight caveat to this mind, by saying that the general view of him from Leeds fans is that he started very well for them, but his performances quickly fell away – that said, I thought the main reasons why Leeds did not get the beating they deserved when we gave one of our best home performances of last season were him and their keeper Silvestri.
Whatever the future may hold for him, Bamba was a huge reason why we won last night and a factor in why I feel it was Cardiff’s good, defensive, play that had more to do with how the result worked out than Bristol’s poor play. Once again, you have to come back to Neil Warnock who produced the most motivated City side that we’ve seen in ages, while also getting things right tactically (e.g. deploying Aron Gunnarrson in the position where he has been playing his most effective football, albeit at international level, in the last few years).
One win, even though it was a very, very satisfying one, doesn’t mean that we can all forget about the possibility of relegation now, but the thing that was concerning me most a fortnight ago was that I could see nothing that offered the hope of an improvement. Now, there is hope because there was little or nothing about Cardiff City, or the attitude of those in the stadium, last night to suggest that this was a club heading for League One.
*photos courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/