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Cardiff finally rid themselves of “nearly-men” tag

The inevitable was finally confirmed last night as Cardiff’s battling 0-0 draw against in-form Charlton secured promotion to the Premier League.

The Cardiff City Stadium has been a fortress this season

The Cardiff City Stadium has been a fortress this season

Malky Mackay’s team has led the Championship since November and despite a shaky run of results the Football League’s perennial bottlers never looked like messing up their promotion charge. After years of “so near yet so far” the Cardiff fans were finally allowed to celebrate their long-awaited promotion to the Premier League.

When Cardiff were last relegated from the top flight in May 1962 Harold MacMillan was the British Prime Minister, the Algerian War of Independence had just ended, the Cuban Missile Crisis was still a few months away and Elvis Presley was in the charts with Good Luck Charm. To say Cardiff’s promotion has been a long time coming is an understatement.

A deserved promotion?

Cardiff deserve their promotion, having been by far the most consistent team in the division.

The Bluebirds have not played the most entertaining football in the Championship this season and most fans would agree the current squad isn’t as talented as some of the ones which have fallen short in recent years. But the key difference this season has been Cardiff’s winning mentality and the determination of the players to succeed.

Since taking over at the club less than two years ago Malky Mackay has worked hard in the transfer market to bring in young, hungry and ambitious players, with most of his recruits coming from the Football League.

Cardiff’s main strength has been its defence which has been rock solid, especially at home. The centre-back partnership of Turner and Hudson has been reassuring with both players enjoying magnificent seasons. Connolly at right-back has been impressive, and Andrew Taylor has been the best left-back in the Championship this season. The defence has had to cope with injuries, especially in recent months, but young Ben Nugent, the experienced Kevin McNaughton and on-loan Leon Barnett have filled in admirably.

Goal-keeper David Marshall has also shown great improvement this season, possibly due to greater competition from former Peterborough goalie Joe Lewis. Marshall has always been a good shot-stopper but in the past the Scot has been unreliable when dealing with crosses. This season has seen the former Celtic man become a more rounded goal-keeper.

One of the most remarkable things about Cardiff’s season is the way they’ve dominated the league without depending on any one player. It has been a team effort from start to finish, with the goal-scoring responsibility shared between the entire squad. No Cardiff player has reached double figures yet this season and 16 different players have netted for the Bluebirds this term.

Some people have pointed to the £14m spent by Mackay in assembling his squad, but this does the manager a huge disservice. He’s firmly put his stamp on the club, getting rid of most of the worst traits of the Dave Jones era. He’s transformed the team from a dysfunctional collection of perennial bottlers into a well-drilled, determined group of winners.

It’s often said a great team is one which can win while playing poorly. This has been exemplified by Cardiff.

In a season where inconsistency has been rife in the second tier, Cardiff have shown the focus required to string results together. When times have been tough and the team’s been tired the side from the Welsh capital has somehow managed to turn draws into victories. Of their 25 league wins this season 17 have been by just one goal. This demonstrates the pluckiness and resilience of the team, and its ability to consistently grind out results.

Similar to Reading

What may be slightly unnerving for Cardiff supporters is the way their season mirrors that of Reading last season.

Reading too based their promotion push on narrow, hard-fought victories. Reading’s top scorer was super-sub Adam Le Fondre, who only managed 12 goals, with the top-scoring regular starter Noel Hunt scoring just eight times. Much like Cardiff the Royals had a solid defence, which frustrated Championship strike-forces and made amends for the lack of creativity in midfield and up front. Reading’s style of play, tough, workmanlike and resolute but unspectacular, was very similar to Cardiff’s style this season.

Reading now look set for an instant return to the Football League because their gutsy attitude couldn’t compensate for a lack of talent and potency.

But there are two key differences between Reading and Cardiff which could make the difference.

Firstly Cardiff look set to spend big in order to strengthen the squad this summer. Controversial owner and lover of all things red Vincent Tan has hinted at giving Mackay a £25m treasure chest to help him turn his team from functional to Premier League class. Reading’s unwillingness to add to their Championship-winning squad cost them as their team was shown to be inadequate against a higher calibre of players in the Premier League. Early indications are that Cardiff won’t make the same mistake.

Secondly Cardiff will be going up with more momentum than Reading. This is the first time in over half a century the Welsh capital will have a team in the top division of English football. Generations of supporters have never seen their club in the top flight, but all this frustration will now be transformed into enthusiasm and excitement. Having lived in Cardiff I can testify to the passion of Cardiff fans. They genuinely care about their club and desperately want it to do well.

The whole city will get behind the Bluebirds and create a feel-good-factor. When a whole city, especially one the size of Cardiff, unifies behind a team it creates a buzzing atmosphere, which the players and staff can feed off. This was seen when Cardiff’s bitter rivals Swansea were promoted, provoking a wave of positivity which was essential in keeping the club in the big league.

Reading fans had already experienced promotion once, and couldn’t recreate the excitement felt under Steve Coppell. Last year’s promotion lacked the buzz of their first one in 2006.

Can Cardiff stay up?

Of course they can, but they undoubtedly need plenty of fresh faces, especially in midfield and in attack. It’s essential they add players capable of making the difference in the Premier League.

Players such as Gunnarsson, Mutch, Cowie, Helguson and Gestede simply don’t have the required ability to compete in the top flight, while flair players such as Kim, Noone and Mason may find it tricky to adapt at first. Bellamy’s best days are behind him and Peter Wittingham is thought to be considering his future.

The acquisition of Fraizer Campbell in January was a positive move which showed Mackay’s ambition as well as recognition of where Cardiff need to strengthen.

The fans must also stay patient next season if they hit rough patches. Cardiff’s fans are renowned for their passion but they can also be incredibly impatient when things don’t go their way. They can’t afford to turn on the team if they go on an unfavourable run of results. Unity and support is imperative in what will probably be a tough season.

The club’s Malaysian owner Vincent Tan also has to give his controversial rebranding a rest. Last summer’s kit colour change caused outrage among supporters and a similar fiasco this summer could take the shine off the promotion and draw attention away from the players.

But Cardiff shouldn’t fear the big step up. There is a considerable difference in quality between this season’s opposition and next season’s opposition but the bottom of the Premier League is weaker now than it has been for years. With some wise investments and the passionate backing of the club’s fans Cardiff could definitely stay up next season and succeed in the long run.

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Thatcher’s footballing legacy

In an ironic twist of fate the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher comes on the same week as the 24th anniversary of Britain’s worst football disaster, the Hillsborough disaster.

The Daily Mail claimed on Tuesday that football owed a debt of gratitude to the woman who “saved English football.” Wigan chairman Dave Whelan has backed the Daily Mail’s call for a minute’s silence before next weekend’s games, including before his club’s FA Cup semi-final against Millwall.

However many football fans, including the Hillsborough families, have claimed a minute’s silence for the former Prime Minister would be insulting.

The Iron Lady had a combative approach to football. Credit: Robertthuffstutter

The Iron Lady had a combative approach to football. Credit: Robertthuffstutter

Legacy

The Iron Lady’s time in Downing Street coincided with one of the darkest periods in English football’s history.

Thatcher took over as Prime Minister in 1979 shortly after Nottingham Forest had lifted their second successive European Cup and she was forced out of her job in 1990 a few months after the publication of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster. During her tenure English footballing success dried up on the field and chaos ensued off the field to the point where it endangered the sport’s future in England.

When Thatcher took over from James Callaghan in May 1979 English clubs were outperforming the rest of Europe and celebrating unprecedented success. But under the surface football was losing its battle against hooliganism.

As unemployment grew and the age of protest swept across Britain, young football supporters saw hooliganism as a way of venting frustrations and rebelling. Football violence had been growing throughout the 70s and by 1979 it had become highly problematic.

Another problem was the deteriorating state of the country’s stadiums. Most football grounds had become outdated and inadequate for the problems of the late 70s and early 80s. Stadiums were crumbling, health and safety was non-existent and supporter safety was routinely jeopardised.

In her early years in office Thatcher paid little attention to football, apart from when she considered a boycott of the 1982 World Cup due to the Falklands situation. She was not a football fan and had little time for the national sport, especially since the sport’s image at the time was appalling at home and abroad.

But 1985 saw a change in approach by Thatcher and her government.

Tragedy

On 11 May 1985 Bradford City were due to lift the Division Three trophy after their game against Lincoln City. Towards the end of the first half a discarded cigarette lit a pile of rubbish underneath the old wooden stand and the fire spread quickly.

There were no fire extinguishers in the stand as the authorities believed they were likely to be used as weapons by hooligans. Many of the emergency exits had been locked as part of a Football League directive to prevent ticketless fans from sneaking into stadiums after kick-off.

In total 56 fans died in the blaze. It highlighted the pressing need to update stadiums and make them safer for fans.

Later that month the Heysel disaster further exemplified the problems surrounding English football. Liverpool were preparing to face Juventus in the European Cup final in Brussels’s Heysel Stadium. Before the game there was rioting which culminated with Liverpool fans chasing Juventus fans across a terrace. A crush ensued and a supporting wall collapsed, with 39 Italian supporters declared dead.

English football’s reputation abroad was in tatters and there was condemnation across the continent. UEFA eventually banned all English clubs from participating in European competition, a move which Thatcher rightly agreed to.

After six years of inaction Thatcher’s government made efforts to combat the problem of hooliganism, but still did nothing to improve fan safety. Thatcher routinely described football hooligans as “animals” but her attitudes and actions seem to suggest she thought the same of all football supporters.

The proposed introduction of Football ID Cards was met with horror by lovers of the beautiful game, who saw them as an insult to decent, law-abiding fans. Attempts to ban away supporters from grounds also drew fierce opposition. Thatcher’s approach seemed to be to tar everybody with the same brush, and even considered erecting electric fences at the front of stands and terraces in order to keep fans off the pitch.

But Thatcher, or more specifically her government’s connection to football will forever be remembered because of Hillsborough.

Hilsborough

On April 15 1989, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death on an overcrowded terrace during an FA Cup semi-final between their club an Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium. The oldest victim was 67-year-old Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron, the youngest was 10-year-old John Paul Gilhooley (cousin of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard)  and 37 teenagers died at Hillsborough.

The Taylor Report which followed the tragedy found the Lappings Lane end of the stadium had been woefully inadequate for such a high volume of fans. The report recommended wide-ranging changes to stadiums in Britain, including the eradication of terracing from top football grounds.

 While Thatcher and her government had focused attentions on combatting “the English disease” they had ignored the problems highlighted by the Valley Parade fire in 1985. No attempt had been made to improve stadium safety and the consequences were tragically felt at Hillsborough.

The 2012 inquiry into Hillsborough also found Thatcher’s government had been instrumental in covering up the failures of the police at Hillsborough. While the report declared there was no evidence of Thatcher herself being involved in the cover-up, the Iron Lady had created the culture which made police cover-ups the norm during the 80s. The Prime Minister wholeheartedly backed the police despite constant corruption and outrageously heavy-handed tactics when dealing with strikers and protestors. This fuelled a culture of complacency among the police and meant the Hillsborough families had to wait 23 years for vindication and an official confirmation of the truth.

Football the enemy

Thatcher never pretended to like football and regularly showed distain towards the national sport. To her credit she took on hooligans head first in the aftermath of Heysel but she didn’t understand the sport or the people who followed football. She made the mistake of viewing all football fans as hooligans and couldn’t see beyond the violent minority.

Just like the trade unions and the Argentinians she viewed football hooligans as the enemy, and was therefore determined to win at all costs. She failed to conquer hooliganism during her time in number 10 and her attitude towards football harmed the sport. The massive strides taken by English football at all levels since 1990 is astonishing considering the sorry state the game was in when Thatcher left Downing Street.

The suggestion working class football fans should be asked to observe a minute’s silence for Margaret Thatcher this weekend is rich to say the least. She paid the game no respect at all and it’s very questionable whether football should pay any respect back.