Cardiff 3 Barnsley 0
Championship, May 4th 2008
It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.
Robert H. Goddard 1882 - 1945
I'm starting to get so insanely excited about the FA Cup Final that I may have to lie down in a darkened room for the next two weeks with an intravenous Mogadon drip to calm me down. Saturday's performance didn't help frankly, such was the measure of our total and utter dominance of a game which began with all the gung-ho intensity of the All Wales over 60s Crotchet Championship.
This was no replica of the Semi Final, and it was very difficult to believe that these were the same opponents who had run us so close back on April 6th. They were swept aside with a nonchalance which bordered on arrogance, there was a real gulf in class between the two teams, with Cardiff penetrating their papier-mâché defensive wall at will, and unfortunate not to run out winners by 5 or 6 goals.
End-of-season games are always a joy - an opportunity to take stock, catch some rays, salute the players and get your optimistic hat on as you look forward to the next season. Added bonus this year of course is that it ain't the end of the season. In two weeks time the boys in blue/black will be walking out at Wembley Stadium for the FA Freaking Cup Final in front of a television audience of 500 million to slap Harry Redknapp with a metaphorical wet kipper and bring our trophy back home for the first time in 81 years.
A healthy crowd bustled down Sloper Road past the ever-increasing village of hooky gear floggers, whose efforts to capitalise on the FA Cup Final would have made Alan Sugar proud. Still find it difficult to believe that the club turn a blind eye, and let so much disposable income slip through their fingertips on their very doorstep, but that will all surely change the season after next. The players emerged to a raucous welcome from the 14.5K crowd on a hot and muggy day, with a handful of travellers from oop North turning up to suffer the slings and arrows of barbed Wemberlee chants.
Dave Jones played his usual starting eleven, a great relief to see Parry back partnering HB up front - the only real poser for the final is whether Jones will have the bottle to start with our secret weapon Aaron Ramsey, and if so who is to be displaced. I'd love to think that Jones will be bold and brave enough to drop Whitts and give Ramsey the nod on the right side of midfield, with a brief to roam free and cause mayhem in the static Pompey defence, but history tells us that the arch-conservative Jones will stick with his tried and trusted 11, bringing on Ramsey and Thompson on 60 and 75 minutes respectively.
Three half-decent chances in the first half saw Jimmy go close twice and Whittingham rattle the crossbar with a splendid half-volley. Parry's goal on 44 minutes was simplicity itself, Ledley controlling a ball forward and sliding it inside for Pazza to slot coolly home. "1-0 to the finalists", sang the crowd, rubbing it in somewhat. A nice way to settle the nerves, and keep the crowd talkng whilst the bewildering range of on-field half-time entertainment scrambled the minds of those who hadn't retreated to Ninian Park's finest catering and licensing facilities.
Barnsley put up little fight in the second half, and as Cardiff warmed up for Wembley, they were brushed cockily aside, the Bluebirds stretching their legs with some sizzling football as the Tykes chased shadows all over the pitch. Two more goals followed to kill the game off, McNaughton consolidated a dangerous run down the right flank by plonking an awkward ball into the path of Luke Steele, who fumbled and contrived to spill it into the net with the aid of one of his defenders.
Goal number three was a just reward for one of our players of the season Joe Ledley, who breezed into the box and side-footed past Steele to put the game way beyond Barnsley, who had already given up. The atmosphere got steadily better as the game wore on and the proximity of Wembley loomed ever larger in the collective imagination. The somewhat bizarre appeals to stay off the pitch, when clearly not a single spectator was remotely interested in running on, were honoured (next year will be ever so slightly different - with my little fork and shovel I'll be there!), and after a long gap, the team came back on for a hugely well receceived and rather emotional lap of appreciation.
You only need to take a sneaky peak at the videos from Sunday night's FA Cup dinner (docpopsvids) to realise that the spirit amongst the squad is fantastically positive at the moment and they are going into this Wembley final on a massive psychological high, the underdogs with nothing to lose who could quite easily make a mess out of Portsmouth if they put their dancing shoes on on May 17th. We are not calm, but we are confident, we want it more, we need it more and as the days edge forwards, the impossible dream is becoming more and more attainable. Pompey's brimming over-confidence after their lucky win against West Brom was evidence of a cocky collective who already think the trophy is won.
As the final league tables are studied it's worth noting that statistically there has never been an easier season to get out of a mediocre Championship - West Brom made a right meal of winning the title with the lowest points accumulated (81) by the champions since the 46 game season was introduced in the second tier. Likewise, crappy old Watford sneaked the last play-off spot with the lowest points total (70) from a 46 game season. We have matched and bested all the top teams this year, but dopey defeats and dropped points against the relegation scufflers have done for us.
Wistful thoughts about the play-offs need to be banished now, as we must concentrate on the single most important match in the club's history since April 23rd 1927 (discuss!), and if we are to be brutally honest, the last thing we would have needed in preparation for Wembley Mark 2/3 would have been three mentally and physically draining games against the cloggers currently occupying the play-off places. Bugger it, we will go up as champions next year and will enjoy it all the more.
To do that though, it will be imperative to hold on to ALL our decent players, there has never been a better time to go full-on for promotion as we soak up the halogen glare of wall-to-wall publicity in the run-up to the Cup Final, bring in new investors, and watch the stadium going up across the road. Transfer talk about Ramsey, Ledley, Whittingham and Johnson is premature and distracting, and the plain and obvious economic facts are that Ramsey and Ledley will be worth two, three or four times as much as their current valuations should they have another one or two blinding seasons like this one. With a modest investment in four or five quality players, this team can run rampant through the division next term, so let's just do it, eh?
And so to Wembley...
Paul Davies © 2008.
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