Cardiff City 2 Leicester City 3
(3-3 Aggregate Score after Extra Time, Cardiff win 4-3 after penalties!)
Championship Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg, May 12th 2010
(Photos © Andrew Rees/urban75 2010)
"Throw those curtains wide,
One day like this a year would see me right..."
A game of five halves unfolded on Wednesday night in exhilarating, excruciating, exhausting fashion. Unless you are a masochist of some description, the word enjoyment could not properly be applied to the evening. At the end, the explosion of relief, joy and happiness was admittedly untrammelled, euphoric and cathartic, but the previous two and a half hours had been a knee-trembling, nerve-shredding, stomach-churning journey to hell and back. Feeling physically ill for much of the second half I was a spaced-out catatonic vegetable through extra time and penalties.
As the denouement approached I was close to having an out-of-body experience, floating above the Ninian Stand looking at the pale-faced husk of a shadow I'd become. In all honesty I haven't had such a painful time watching Cardiff City since I dislocated my shoulder celebrating a goal at the 1993 Autoglass Trophy match against Swansea. But when Marshall made THE save to end it all and the players raced across the turf to embrace him, a vision of sporting triumph so familiar from a gazillion TV memories but never expected to take place on your patch with your players and your beloved club, reality kicked in, anguish flooded away and finally we were all able to express our boundless pleasure.
What fools we had been to expect anything else really. Anyone who had witnessed the first leg fixture at the home of the cheese and onion crisp had every right to be cautiously optimistic about the return visit of the Foxes for the fifth clash between the two teams this season. Equally, anyone with a sense of the history, the heartache, the disappointment, the cruel shredding of dreams over the last 40 years had every right to be mainlining Mogadon and gulping down sachets of anti-diarrhoea medication to calm the frazzled nervous system and pulsating sphincter muscles. Personally the day's preparation had gone so well that I had started to worry that I wasn't worried enough. Bumped into a fellow City fan late afternoon who unburdened his nervousness upon me in such a way that I was a quaking wreck before getting to the pub for the early evening liveners. Like a bunch of precious pan-sticked thespians refusing to mention the Scottish play by name, any discussion of Wembley was forbidden as we mentally prepared for the night.
As expected, the atmosphere inside the ground started to build up impressively well ahead of kick-off, City fans seeming to have heeded advice about getting there early to soak up the atmos. The teams came on to a riot of noise and colour, the thousands of mini-flags waved enthusiastically by the blue-clad hordes. If City were feeling the nerves they certainly didn't show it - early exchanges were massively dominated by the sweet and silky daisy-cutting passes which criss-crossed the Leicester midfield and defence and left the Foxes rearguard looking woozy and ready to accept the imminent knock-out punch with a resignation which bordered on capitulation.
City were unstoppable in the first twenty minutes and should have scored four. Whittingham raced clear of his marker after a superb ball from Chopra put him through - as he entered the end zone his clinical touch abandoned him and his shot drifted wide of the post. More opportunities followed as the Bluebirds rampaged forward, eager to double their advantage, get the job done and salve the collective sweating brow of a fevered audience. Frustrating near-misses from Whitts again and Bothroyd did not sidetrack the Bluebirds and the breakthrough came, gloriously, on 21 minutes - Super Jay rising nobly to nod a superb ball into the path of a ravenous Michael Chopra, who scoffed in the face of a borderline offside position and calmly nutmegged the advancing keeper to send the crowd solid gone nutso!
Time to relax, we gormlessly judged, and watch the Leicester artisans pick the ball out of their net a few more times before we swankily swanned off down Wembley Way to gobble up the Tangerines. But hold fast, this is Cardiff City, this is a Play-Off Semi-Final, we are but 2 hours away from the Land of Hope and Dreams and large industrial skips filled with debt-guzzling used fivers. The script as it is wrote will not allow for an easy passage and a stress-free evening of feet-up no-nonsense sexy football.
Exemplifying the true grit etched into craggy wrinkled face and bulging veins of Nigel 'don't call me Vinnie Jones' Pearson, Leicester returned fire with a discombobulating blow to the nether regions, which caught everyone short. Hoodwinked by their over-arching dominance in the first 25, City switched off - a combination of relaxation, nonchalance, lack of concentration and plain iffy defending allowing Matty Fryatt the space to pick his shot and roll the ball agonisingly under the body and beyond the outstretched palm of Scotland's number one. A momentary hammer blow to the fans' self-belief, we were still poised advantageously at 2-1, enjoying, up till then, a huge territorial and possession surplus.
Leicester, however, had other ideas, and seized upon the shakiness unearthed at the back by driving a bulldozer through it. Their second goal was a killer, and was no less painful for the fact that it was caused by a reflex fluked header from Hudson, the trajectory of which wrongfooted Marshall totally. Shifting nervously in and out of their seats, the fans responded to the pressure superbly, turning the vocals up to a Spinal Tap eclipsing 11 and roaring the Bluebirds on. At the same time, you couldn't help but feel a creeping dread worming through the crowd and a horrible dawning realisation that things were about to tip over from the giddy euphoria of imminent victory to a lacerating punishing heart-breaking defeat. I would defy anyway to argue that at that stage you could not see the match ebbing away.
Half-time arrived to give us all a break, and provided welcome respite to a Cardiff back four who had suddenly turned from coasting passengers to sweat-drenched struggling gladiators engaged in a desperate siege to stay on an even keel. Blake and Hudson must have had the toughest night of their lives. Steve Howard was like some kind of titanium robotic superman, shrugging off challenges, winning ball upon ball in the air and generally creating chaos whenever the ball approached him in the opposition half.
Leicester got back on it straight away after the break and spurred on by a bouncing away section, pressed hard to capitalise upon their game-changing dominance. City were creaking and looked a different team to the aristocratic princes who had been knocking the ball around with such carefree elan in the first quarter. The dyke broke on 49 minutes, another calamitous misunderstanding in the heart of the six yard box (of which there had been many), allowed unmarked Welshman Andy King to pick his spot and head past the gobsmacked Marshall. Delirium in one corner, desolation everywhere else.
At this point in the game, we were on the canvas, flat out, winded and looking too groggy to get back up off our knees. Players seemed shell-shocked, fans were distraught, and then it all started spinning back in our favour again. The Foxes visibly tired, their monumental efforts having suddenly seemed to have sucked the life out of them. Fair play to the boys, Cardiff rolled up their sleeves and battled their way back into the game in a way which has exemplified the change in character in this team. Spurred on by the fightback the fans responded again and again, the volume was ratcheted up and the tension magnified as Cardiff piled forward searching to get back on terms.
As we desperately chanted 'keep the faith' mantras, Chopra popped up and skipped into the box before being upended by a despairing Alex Bruce. Howard Webb hesitated for less than a nanosecond before pointing to the spot. Laughing boy Whittingham casually collected the ball, placed it, and showing not a hint of nerves, despite the immense palpable ball-crunching pressure, whacked it past the keeper to send the stadium into cacophonous bliss.
Leicester had a few moments but in truth they were fading fast. Cardiff on the other hand hit the woodwork twice, a superb Bothroyd shot and a tanking Whitts free kick. Extra time, though, and the impending agony of penalties seemed inevitable. As is so often the case in extra time, the game seemed to slow down, as both sides were determined not to lose out at this advanced stage. Killing time before the inevitable, the 30 minutes of ET nevertheless flew past - I cannot recollect more than a fragment of the passage of play.
Both sides now seemed weary and all substitution were made well before the end. For Cardiff, crocked McNaughton was replaced by Quinn (yikes, but really no need), an injured Whitts was replaced by McCormack, and flagging Burke was subbed for Etuhu. Having our leading goalscorer and penalty-taker leave the field was a cause for concern, but there was so much else going on that you didn't have to time to dwell on it.
When the final final whistle blew, we were forced to wait an agonisingly long time before the two keepers trudged the green mile towards the Leicester/Family End. In time-honoured fashion, the two sets of outfield players linked arms on the halfway line. The 26,000 fans clenched their buttocks ever tighter and communed with their own personal deity in last-minute efforts to swing things our way.
Big up to the mums, dads and squawking kids in the Family Section - they made a deafening din and waved their arms around like maniacs as the Leciester players took the nightmare steps up to the penalty spot. The noise around the stadium was awesome. The excitement was incredible, the tension unbearable. First three Leicester kicks were dispatched in clinical style - Chopra and McCormack responded in cucmber-cool style for Cardiff, Ledley a little less convincingly but still hit the net.
Then the moment which we have all relived several times now, and has already been immortalised in a youtube song. French ball-wizard Kermorgant (ironically on for Leicester goal hero Fryatt) decided he would make a name for himself and 'dinked' the ball in a calamitously ill-advised manner towards the goal, only to watch it bounce feebly before allowing Marshall to parry it contemptuously away. City fans went mental, and continued to pre-load celebrations as Kennedy fires a belter to seal the deal. 4-3, and pressure mounts on Waghorn, who struck well but fell to the ground in desolation when Marshall superbly blocked it to send Cardiff into the final.
The rest is a blur, jumping around, hugging strangers, a few tears, screaming into the night sky as the players celebrated their heroics on the pitch. Inevitably, and despite numerous warnings before and after the game, a few interlopers turned into a full-blown pitch invasion as fans streamed past impotent stewards and police. Bearing in mind recent ugly scenes at Hillsborough, Luton and Grimsby, this was probably not what was needed, and there were moments when it threatened to turn nasty - City fans taunting Leicester fans and players, one of whom tripped up a City supporter, berks nicking corner flags. Thankfully there were no real incidents of unruliness to report, the fans were shepherded off the pitch by a piece of magic string and several hundred stewards and just about penned back at the Ninian End, where celebrations cranked into overdrive as the players emerged for a well-deserved lap of honour. One brave streaker added his moment of comedy as he evaded a sprawling group of stewards.
So back to Wembley it is then, almost 2 years to the day we walked proudly down Wembley Way we will face Blackpool in what has already been officially described as the biggest match in the club's history. Like that fantastical FA Cup run, it all seems a bit sci-fi at the moment, but the possibility of besting Ollie's men and joining the Premier League elite is now brazenly, bizarrely, tantalisingly close.
Having witnessed some terrific spells of football from the Tangerine dreamers, it would be foolish to take anything for granted, but provided the boys can conjure up their best, there is no reason to suspect that we cannot beat Blackpool, and beat them well. Charlie Adam is their creative fulcrum and will need to be harried and harnessed by Joe Ledley. DJ Campbell is 'on fire' and will need to be man-marked decisively by Darcy Blake. If those two are kept quiet, the defence focus and protect Marshall, the midfield spray the ball about like we know they can, and our strikers perform as they have all season, then victory will be ours. It is likely to be one hell of a game, but please, no penalties...
We need just one victory and we're on our way
Prayin' for it all day and fightin' for it all night
Give us just one victory, it will be all right..."
Paul Davies © 2010
(word cloud from those bright people at wordle)
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