Cardiff City are the only Championship side to have played in a domestic trophy final at the new Wembley stadium, and when they take to the field in Sunday’s Carling Cup final it will be their fourth appearance “under the arch” in five years. So can the Welsh side make it fourth time lucky?
When Dave Jones failed to take Cardiff to the Play-off final against rivals Swansea City in May he left the club by mutual consent, and with him left a raft of players, some with healthy ego’s and even healthier pay packets. Despite the loss of players such as Michael Chopra, Jay Bothroyd, Chris Burke and Craig Bellamy the South Wales side picked themselves up and dusted themselves down. With the appointment of Malky Mackay from fellow championship team Watford, Cardiff found themselves with an excellent young manager (who incidentally is very close friends with his supposed rival, Swansea’s Brendan Rodgers).
The astute signings of players such as Kenny Miller and Aron Gunnarson fortified their threadbare pre-season squad and thankfully results have been kind to them. There has certainly been no discernible drop in fortunes since jettisoning a lot of the “flash harry’s” of previous seasons. A quick look at the plaudits from Npower and the Football League show that Peter Whittingham is still in good form (picking up numerous nominations for player of the month, and now a nomination for player of the season) and that Mackay has fitted into the setup in Cardiff quickly, winning the Manager of the Month for December.
However, and with Cardiff City there always seems to be a “however”, they have not made it easy on themselves on the road to Wembley. Oxford United in the first round and Huddersfield Town in the second were hard-fought battles requiring Extra-time for Cardiff to progress, and the victory against Leicester City required penalties (and was a 7-6 win involving numerous players suffering fatigue and cramp by the 120min mark). Arguably their easiest tie was against Blackburn Rovers in the Quarter Final, with City winning 2-0 on a wet and windswept night at the City Stadium. Their Semi-final encounter with Crystal Palace was a true “skin of the teeth” victory and only Palace’s shambolic penalties earned City a place in the Final.
Since that victory on the 29th of January, Cardiff have won only one of their five games played, with one draw and three losses. The games against Blackpool, Leicester City and Ipswich Town were torrid affairs, and each saw Cardiff gain the ascendancy before throwing away a good chance to win. Blackpool was the worst, with City leading until Kevin Phillips’ equaliser saw heads drop and Cardiff to concede a total of three goals in the final 11 minutes of the game. This seemed to be the way Cardiff were destined to play when I saw them against Peterborough on Valentines Day. For 32 minutes the game was appalling and I found myself wondering why I’d skipped a romantic dinner for this. Then the game came alive and Cardiff scored three goals before Half-time. Then just as quickly as they’d started playing good football, it disappeared again, leaving 21,000 fans feeling distinctly un-romantic.
So, they’ve not had an easy competition, they’ve had an appalling run of form recently and they go into the Final sitting in fifth place in the league. Oh, and in case you hadn’t noticed, they face Liverpool…with Craig Bellamy, who may just be the person to break Welsh hearts as quickly as he captured them last year with his loan move. Certainly Cardiff have played plucky and determined football this season, much better (in my opinion, and I’ve suffered watching them more times than some season ticket holders these past two years) than they’ve played previously. Heaven forbid, they can even play football like their neighbours, the new darlings of the Premier League, Swansea City.
They’ve abandoned the “lump it forward to Bothroyd” strategy which left them tantalisingly close to the Premier League for two seasons and it does seem to work for them. However (what did I say about Cardiff and “however”), my gut feeling is that they just won’t be able to shake off that run of form since making the Final. You can grind out a win against Peterborough on a boring Tuesday night after playing five minutes of dazzling football, but try that against Liverpool at Wembley with the reds playing for their first trophy since winning the FA Cup at it’s last Cardiff final in 2006, and it will prove costly. I would predict them to be over-run by Liverpool and all those freshly bought shirts will disappear into a drawer somewhere never to be seen again.
Of course, does this even matter? It’s the Carling Cup, the cup that teams put their youth squad into, and the cup that, as soon as you’re team are knocked out you pronounce “well, no-one cares about the Milk Cup/Rumbelows Cup/Mickey Mouse Cup anyway”. Judging by the slightly sluggish ticket sales and the fact that in order to sell out their allocation, Cardiff opened up General Sale (General Sale, for a cup final?!) it could be suggested that even Cardiff fans don’t care about the Carling Cup either. After all, it’s not like they’ve never been to Wembley before. Far more importantly, seeing the success their bitter rivals have had in the Premier League, Cardiff City want to get there too. Their goal must surely be promotion, preferably automatic given their previous record in the play-offs. My prediction for Southampton to “fade” is still valid, and Cardiff must capitalise on their remaining league fixtures. Yes, a trophy would be good, and yes it would signal European football, but without being in the Premier League that means a punishing schedule (Birmingham City having played 46 games to date this season for example).
All these factors combine to show that, in my opinion Cardiff are likely to turn up, try and play football and concede a goal. Heads will drop and the floodgates could well open up, the best thing they can then do is pick themselves back up, dust themselves down from the fourth disappointment in five years and keep on striving for promotion. In a possibly cruel twist of fate, their first game after the final is at home against current league leaders West Ham. Arguably, that is the game to focus on, and not Liverpool. In conclusion, if you’re a Cardiff fan, you’ll want to be at the final, or watch on TV, but don’t be too disappointed if you lose, there’s still plenty to play for.