Barnsley 0 Cardiff 1
FA Cup Semi Final, April 6th 2008
You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.
24 hours later, having slept off the hangover, shaken off the mental and emotional fatigue, devoured the newspaper coverage, watched the news and the highlights and generally digested the whole semi-final experience, it seems entirely appropriate that as I type this, it is snowing and the house has just been rocked by an enormous thunderclap. It is hard to type when you are floating six foot off the ground, but if Tom Cruise can do it in Mission Impossible, then we shall continue.
On Sunday the world tilted on its axis for a perceptible moment as the life-force that is Cardiff City Football Club squeezed past Barnsley in a riveting and tense semi-final to fulfil their destiny and claim a place in the final of the greatest Cup competition in the world for the first time in 81 years. No-one who has ever been remotely touched by the Bluebird experience could have possibly dreamt that this would ever happen, but if that was a beyond surreal experience, when we return on May 17th we are plotting a course into the realms of magical realism, a bizarre wish-fulfilment which will make the highs of a combined methamphetamine/crack cocaine/superskunk hit look like the tepid dregs of an abandoned pint of flat Allbright.
Saturday had proved to be a difficult day - normal routines were disrupted and the enormity of what was approaching was beginning to sink in and the nervous system began to shut down in response. Palpitations, churning guts and sweaty palms were placated by an evening sit-down curry and half a shedful of beers - not the ideal preparation as squeaky bum time approacheth, but needs must and all that.
The early morning trek to Cardiff Central was lifted by the sight of Wembley-bound cars and the tail end of the convoy of supporters' coaches - flags and scarves of all shapes and sizes decorating the windows. Breakfasting on cans of Strongbow and Special Brew before boarding the dry trains, Bluebirds fans clustered in small groups outside the station. Inside, the platform was weirdly quiet; the extra hour diversion caused by engineering works seemed to have put off a lot of travellers, leaving plenty of space on the 9.25. Initially there were more police than fans, the fluorescent-clad railcops in a somewhat sad quest for secret drinkers on the alcohol-free train. As we wended our way through Newport and the snow-blasted West Country, the train filled up with travelling fans - apprehension playing ping pong with gathering excitement.
Arriving in London at 12.30, large numbers of City fans spread out across the Tube network, with a vast number joining us in Harrow-on-the-Hill. As we left the station there was blue everywhere, and the loud chanting from nearby pubs put us in good spirits. The scenes in the High Street soon took the edge off the excitement, as an all-too-familiar scenario unfolded outside the teeming Moon on The Hill pub. Recalling shots from some 1980s Panorama programme on hooliganism, the pub was surrounded by riot vans and large numbers of tooled-up Met robocops. The atmosphere was edgy, tense and teetering on the brink of something very nasty - beered up Stone Island boys taunting the police and seeming to be itching for a confrontation.
Minutes earlier some lunkheads had apparently lobbed glasses and bottles at passing police vehicles, provoking this unpleasant stand-off. The police kept a lid on things without busting heads, but it was time to move on to somewhere quieter for some beers and pre-match fish and chips. It would be wrong to dwell on this, but it would be equally remiss to ignore it.
The continual debate about Cardiff's denuded fanbase all too often refuses to acknowledge that a significant reason why so many fans have deserted us is the perception of the club as a last refuge for the hooligan underclass. We all know that things have improved, and I personally have no problems about taking my 12 year old daughter to Ninian Park for any game. But it is also true that the club's big days out invariably bring out the scummers in numbers.
Until we lose these virulent anti-social psychos we will never bring back the floating family voters. The presence of more Cardiff City stewards out and about with the fans may have helped, but why should they be expected to keep order? The Met's decision to close down several pubs in the area may have made some sense from a crowd control perspective, but inevitably compressed far too many hotheads in one location. The sad truth is that big match + beer + a certain type of Cardiff City "supporter" = bad news.
We refused to let all this take the edge off a wonderful day and with the soundtrack of breaking glass and screaming sirens, a long walk up Harrow Hill past impressive fleets of Cardiff stretch limos and lots of closed pubs was called for, and after a thirsty search we lucked out on the discovery of a perfect boozer called Oskar's, full of smiley happy City fans in a great mood, ultra-hospitable bar staff and a fine array of chilled lagers. Tidy. Suitably refreshed, it was time to saddle up and head back down the Metropolitan line to Wembley Park.
Getting off the tube and walking towards the famous arch, things start to get seriously exciting. Masses of Cardiff and Barnsley fans marching on together, loud and in good spirits, a sea of blue and red, a riotous noise building as we approach the stadium. The Met are mob-handed, surly and aggressive, Wembley stewards by contrast are helpful and friendly, showing us to our superb seats in Block 118, half an hour to go and the volume cranks up by the minute.
From the first moment the noise from the blue end is immense, drowning out the PA and the Barnsley fans, as the full repertoire gets a good airing before kick off. When the teams appear at 3.55, the place goes bonkers, the weeks of build-up, nervous tension and expectation explode in one moment of cathartic release. The time is right and the time is now.
Pre-match confidence takes a minor slap as Barnsley make the more impressive start, darting forward with pacey runs from the right and left flanks, with good service to quarter final hero Odejayi. Nerves subside on 9 minutes, when a poorly struck clearance falls to Joe Ledley, who swivels and strikes the most amazing volley over the head of Luke Steele into the net. There is bedlam in the Cardiff end with people roaring their exultation, leaping up and down and hugging complete strangers. Joy is unconfined and the collective adrenaline release keeps us buzzing for minutes.
This is Middlesbrough all over again, think the City end, a fantastic early goal but a hell of a long time to hold out. It is clear that we need to consolidate and build on this, no-one likes a 1-0 lead. Instead of pushing on, Cardiff dropped back, as they have done on occasion this season when protecting a lead. Barnsley took full advantage of the lush, wide-open spaces and wingers Campbell-Ryce and Devaney gave McNaughton and Capaldi a rough time.
Capaldi, in particular, was targeted and was found wanting - he was far too loose in his marking, and allowed Devaney space to whip in several dangerous crosses towards Odejayi and Ferenczi. For most of the first half there was little forward outlet for City, Sinclair and JFH made minimal impact and found themselves chasing too many long balls and lost causes.
The midfield tussle was tight, but going Barnsley's way. McPhail and Rae battled hard in the centre, but more effective were the influential Tykes playmaker Brian Howard and the peroxide blonde Hassell. Whittingham was quiet on the right, leaving the most impressive performance to local lad Ledley - another rampaging, tireless display which helped to keep City afloat in the first half.
The key to their survival in the first 45 was yet another titanic performance from the interconnected dynamic duo Loovens and Johnson, who shackled Barnsley's strike force in a bruising battle, restricting them to half chances. Odejayi was a nuisance throughout, beating Enckelman to one aerial challenge and heading past the keeper, only for Loovens to clear. Johnson made few mistakes, but did let Souza beat him to a corner, the resulting header going just wide. Another goal-line clearance from Sinclair deterred a Ferenczi strike, whilst up at the business end a Hasselbaink shot was parried and then Sinclair's rebound was smothered by Steele.
The second half saw a revamped, re-organised Bluebirds take control of the match, damp down Barnsley's tentative fightback, and motor towards the finishing line. Kevin McNaughton was replaced early on, with Ramsey filling his boots perfectly as a stand-in right back. Rae and McPhail began to dominate in the centre and Ledley became more and more influential on the left - from an early raid Joe got behind the defence and placed a beautiful ball onto the onrushing Rae's noggin. With the width of the goal gaping, Rae headed frustratingly straight at the keeper.
Odejayi's miss on 66 minutes was a pivotal, match-turning moment, after which it seemed somehow inevitable that victory was ours. Having cleverly sprung the offside trap, the Nigerian raced towards goal, making the mistake of veering to the right and narrowing down his own options. Encks stood firm, Odejayi bottled it and fired his shot into the side netting. The entire Barnsley end reared up and roared, thinking it was in - Odejayi was desolate, Cardiff fans exultant, and from that moment the result never seemed in doubt.
We held possession, created more chances and remained resolute and steadfast at the back. Thompson had replaced Sinclair on the hour mark, and kept the Barnsley defence occupied with his relentless harrying. Whittingham hit a wonderful left-footed shot which skimmed the roof of the net, Rae had a blinding opportunity to finish the game as he made the most of a defensive blunder from Foster, racing towards goal, but just over-hit his first touch, allowing Steele to advance and thwart the danger. As the minutes ebbed away, Scimeca came on for the flagging HB and shored up the midfield, whilst the City fans sang their heroes home to victory.
After four long added minutes, during which time Cardiff effectively toyed with Barnsley's dwindling hopes, the final whistle sounded and the frantic celebrations began. Could have personally done without the sanitised, choreographed "Wembley experience" soundtrack, and just enjoyed the fans' own DIY noise-making, but the presence of Ali on the wheels of steel softened the blow as the deafening blasts of Hey Jude, Ring of Fire, Men of Harlech, Hi Ho Silver Lining and Status Quo's cringeworthy Rockin' All Over the World fuelled the celebrating Cardiff fans.
Understandably, no Cardiff fan wanted to leave the stadium, but there were cold drinks to be had and much post-match analysis and talk of Cup Final tickets to be indulged in, so leave everybody did. Despite the closure of Wembley Central, the evacuation of the masses was supremely well marshalled by the Met and London Transport staff, and we were ensconced in a terrific boozer off Baker Street within half an hour, and thence on the red-eye back home by 8.30.
A wonderful day with the promise of something even more outrageously special in 6 weeks time. Having got this far, the only right and proper thing to do now would be to win the damned thing. And do you know what? With Paul Parry back to tie Sol Campbell up in knots, I have a sneaky feeling that that is exactly what we are going to do.
Paul Davies © 2008.
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