Welsh football is on a high with Swansea City all set to take on Bradford City in the final of the League (Capital One) Cup, at Wembley on 24th February . Despite the national team’s struggles over the past decade, Swansea’s ability to rub shoulders with the Premier League big boys, and hold their own with their slick football, has endeared them to the neutrals. Swansea have also, rightly, won plaudits for their prudent management of the club’s finances and transfer market nous. Unless they experience a serious dip in form, automatic promotion to the Premier League appears guaranteed.
While going to Wembley is a chance every football fan relishes, Cardiff City and its fans will be desperately hoping to avoid it. Sitting at the top of the Championship table with 63 points (10 points ahead of their nearest rivals, Leicester City), it would appear that Cardiff City will relish this oppurtunity but if history is anything to go by, heartbreaks might follow this trip.
Trysts with Wembley
Wembley, or the pursuit of Wembley, has brought heartbreak to the Cardiff faithful in preceding seasons. In 2008-09 Cardiff looked well on their way to securing automatic promotion, before poor results in the last 4 games of the season saw them miss out on the final play-off spot to Preston on goal difference. The next season would deliver another bitter pill to swallow. They reached the play-off final at Wembley, took the lead twice before squandering it and eventually losing to underdogs Blackpool.
The last two seasons have brought more play-off disappointment with losses to Reading and West Ham. Adding insult to injury, rivals Swansea earned promotion in 2011 and have established themselves as the best Welsh team in the land.
This time around, as other contenders try to close the gap, Cardiff will be looking to avoid a repeat of the 2009 season. With the new Premier League TV deal coming into effect from the next season, there is no better time to be in the Premier League than now.
Rebranding : Fire & Passion
The club’s build up to the season was surrounded by controversy as they were “rebranded” by their Malaysian owners, Vincent Tan and Chan Tin Ghee. As part of this exercise, the club abandoned their traditional blue and white kit and changed to red and yellow as part of an investment plan by the owners. It was the first time in 104 years that Cardiff City’s home kit did not include blue.
The club’s badge changed too, with a large dragon dwarfing the Bluebird and a new motto “Fire & Passion” figuring prominently in the badge. These changes had caused some discontent among the fans. However, as is often the case with such “changes”, positive results on the pitch can push them into the background – which is precisely what is happening now at Cardiff City. Cardiff have played with passion on the pitch and set the Championship on fire.
Spending, Efficiency and Bloody-Mindedness
After years of financial problems – especially between 2004 and 2008 when the club was a whisker away from winding up and entering into administration – the Malaysian owners have made good on their promise of investing in the team with around 10.5 million Euros. Some of the prominent additions in the summer included centre forward Nicky Maynard from West Ham United, Craig Noone from Brighton.
However, the free transfers of Craig Bellamy from Liverpool and Hieder Helguson from QPR have been the real success stories of Cardiff City and showed the shrewdness of the Bluebirds’ manager Malky Mackay. To provide more impetus to their promotion push, Cardiff signed Fraizer Campbell from Sunderland in the January transfer window. After coming on as a substitute in the 64th minute against Leeds United, he opened his Cardiff City account with the winning goal against Leeds United (a 1-0 win at Elland Road).
Malky Mackay, Cardiff’s manager, appointed in 2011 has built a side which relies less on style and flair and more on spirit, determination and grinding out result after result. What is intriguing to note is that none of Cardiff City’s players have truly made their mark on the Championship.
Historically, sides promoted from the Championship have a standout player who sets the division on fire : Rickie Lambert for Southmapton; Richard Vaz Te for West Ham in 2012; Grant Holt, Adel Taraabt and Scott Sinclair for Norwich, QPR and Swansea respectively in 2011. However, none of Cardiff City’s players can stake claim to be in contention for Championship’s top contributors.
Although the Championship’s top scorer is Crystal Palace’s Glen Murray with 24 goals, Cardiff City has Hiedar Helguson and Peter Whittingham with 7 goals each to their credit. They neither have the best offensive record in the league – 51 goals in 29 games (Watford have 58 goals in 30 games, Crystal Palace have 52 goals in 30 games) nor the best defensive record – 30 goals conceded (2nd placed Leicester are the best with 24 goals conceded). None of their players figure in the top 10 goal scorers in the Championship. Yet they find themselves 10 points at the top of the Championship.
Their hallmark this season has been the ruthless ability to grind out results – converting the draws into wins and losses into draws. Efficiency has been their bedrock. As with all table topping teams, their home form has been brilliant. They’ve secured 37 points from a possible 42 points with a solitary loss coming against basement side Peterborough. This loss came after they had set a new club record of 10 home wins in a row. Away from home, after losing 3 games in a row at the end of October and November, they are currently on a 5-game winning streak and an unbeaten run dating back to November.
Mackay, who guided his side to the League Cup final in 2012 before eventually losing to Liverpool on penalties has made promotion to the Premier League his primary focus. They lost to Northampton in the League Cup and in one of the shocks of the FA Cup, surrendered meekly to Macclesfield. If they achieve automatic promotion, these losses will serve as a mere footnote to a successful season. While Cardiff City’s fans are rightly wary of their team “doing a Cardiff” at the business end of the season, if they continue displaying the same ruthlessness, efficiency and bloody-mindedness, the dream of Premier League football will become a reality very soon.
If Cardiff does get promoted to the Premier League, then we can witness the Welsh rivalry of Cardiff-Swansea at its passionate best in the “English” Premier League, which will surely be one of the biggest achievements of Welsh football.
Written by Guest Author Chaitanya Lakkapragada
Follow the author on Twitter: @chaitugooner