Cardiff City 2 Millwall 1
Championship, September 25th 2010
(Photos © Paul Davies/urban75 2010)
"For Cardiff people rarely smile, being urban, squat, and packed with guile."
(with apologies to Rupert Brooke)
Millwall Schmillwall. I don't care if Attila the Hun is coming to town with 10,000 frothing barbarians intent on murder, mayhem and chicken curry off the bone, a 12 o'clock kick-off on a Saturday lunchtime is not on. Barely having time to wolf down a dish of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes marinated in chilled Special Brew, it was off down Sloper Road with many thousands of beery souls who looked chipper but far from confrontational as they soaked up the gorgeous Autumnal rays and said a few silent prayers that Cardiff's recent spell of back-to-back crapness could be eviscerated by a return to the sexy football played back in the day - i.e. when Bellers was the Messiah and the changing room was chocker with talent assembled by Guru Jones to storm the division.
Since then it's all gone horribly awry - a blip of gnat-like proportions in the overall scheme of things, but the level of performance was so collectively dismal at both Leicester and Ipswich that wise men with many years of service on the terraces of Ninian Park consulted shamen in a quest for the answers to this appalling aberration. Injuries have cruelly conspired to pluck the jewels from Cardiff's latterly shimmering crown, and once again, we find ourselves without 5 key first choice players. Bellamy, Chopra, Drinkwater, Olofinjana and Marshall (possibly dropped?) are all out, and the cobbled together 11 do not pump up the juices as the names are announced prior to kick off.
Despite the vintage backdrop (so beloved of our lunatic fringe of recidivist knuckle draggers) of mounted police, snarling dogs and whirring overhead helicopters, the atmosphere inside and outside the stadium is, to a large extent, chilled. The extra "spice" engendered by the tedious reputations of both club's Peter Pan thug nostalgists has not been translated into testosterone madness - the crowd are ramping up the volume with top-notch chanting, but there is nothing of the poisonous malevolence of the Swansea derbies. Millwall's fans are quiet and reflective in the corner (to begin with), and the game kicks off with a roar of optimism from the home fans.
Fair play to the lads, Cardiff play like a team who have had their arses kicked in the last two games and who recognise that they owe their fans a performance. Kenny Jackett has assembled a team of brick shithouses masquerading as footballers who have refined the art of hoofball to a degree that Wimbledon could only dream about. Putting their weight about in midfield, the clash of styles is marked and interesting and makes for an entertaining opening 10-15 minutes. Newly capped Welshman Steve Morison won very few fans with a performance constantly straining at the borders of legality, whilst his part-time partner in crime Liam Trotter attempted rough up Mark Hudson in a similar style.
After Cardiff had bossed the early exchanges with a decent demonstration of the footballing arts, Millwall's clod-hopping artisans bullied their way into the lead with a goal of mind-boggling softness, waltzing through the papier mache after-you Claude defence, with Scott Barron side-footing neatly past a frozen Heaton.
The goal was one manifestation of an alarmingly flakey soft centre to the defence today - at times they were solid and impenetrable, at others they collapsed like dithering dominoes - a situation not helped by some basic errors of positioning, as Gabor was pulled hither and thither by Morison, exposing a gaping gulf in the centre.
After that shock concession, City rapidly got their groove back and played some sleek sweet football, every part of which was dictated and directed by the great Jay Bothroyd. After a poor showing at Portman Road last week, he was magnificent today, subtleties of touch, vision and sheer skill leaving the panting 'Wall defence bumping into each other like a collection of Sarf London Forrest Gumps. He ruled that playing surface in the first half, carrying his team forward, and was, seriously, unlucky not to score five.
As it was, Jay's equalising goal, an opportunistic and clinical strike of a loose ball in the penalty area, was enough to galvanise the team and goose up the support. Aside from that, a powerful header was deflected by occasionally dodgy keepah Forde, shots from right and left feet spun narrowly wide, and a sitter was plonked incredibly over the bar.
An appalling foul from Liam Trotter on Darcy Blake elicited the straight red expected, and the dynamic of the game shifted on its axis as Millwall turned to consolidation and frustration as their primary gameplan. Cardiff pushed on but were struggling to break through until handed a golden opportunity to finally take the lead.
Briefly buoyed by the numerical advantage, Cardiff were all over the 'Wall and a clear-cut penalty was awarded as Whitts wriggled through their defence. 2-1 we all exhaled, as we settled back into our seats, only to see dumpy Forde make the save of his life to deny dead-eye Whittingham his first goal of the season.
A frustrating end to the first half and as the fans slurped their half-time paraquat, Ali made a coy reference to the fan and media-hyped predictions of third world war and all-out apocalypse with the classic Clash tune Armagideon Time. Thankfully the SWP and stewards seemed to have any potential for disorder boxed off, inside and outside the ground, and a post-match announcement of 6 arrests was 6 too many but a welcome step forwards in the continuing normalisation of Cardiff City Football Club - with the decision to unbubble this fixture surely having been taken by the authorities with one eye on the logistical nightmare of bubbling thousands of fans to away fixtures in the Premier League - should this ever happen!
Expecting a second-half battering of a denuded under-pressure Millwall side, we were instead treated to a barren and sterile period of play, reflected by a flat atmosphere in the ground, as Cardiff laboured to crank up their creative juices to get in and around a thick-skinned, stubborn defence.
Apart from the outstanding Jay Bothroyd, there were some seriously under-performing individuals out there. The shakiness of the back line has already been mentioned - fragile and pulled out of shape, from left to right and through the centre, they did however regain some composure as the match progressed, with Hudson, in particular, making some game-saving tackles. Midfield were struggling - Whitts and Burke anonymous and afraid to take on their men, McPhail tidy but almost washed away, and Darcy Blake proving that, despite his versatility, he is not a natural central midfielder.
Andy Keogh cut a forlorn figure, as he has throughout his tenure in a blue and white shirt - no problem with his application, but his touch and decision-making were dire. As the 90 minutes were eaten up, aided by the shameless cheating 'Wall timewasters (Sheffield united all over again), it felt like the points were being dribbled away. We had bucket-loads of possession but were found wanting time after time - nearest to a goal coming from a blocked Koumas shot ten minutes from the end.
Personally I'm starting to get a little worried about Koumas - he has surely had long enough now to regain match fitness and yet still seems slow, sloppy, peripheral and uninterested - if DJ deems him behind both McPhail and Blake in the midfield pecking order (whether through fitness or form), then we clearly have a problem.
The crowd stayed with the team and urged them on, even as the likelihood of a killer goal seemed to be vanishing before our eyes. And just when you were ready to pack up your Thermos and head for the exits, the single most ineffective player of the day steps up and converts a peach of a cross from Jay with a perfect unstoppable glancing header. Keogh's ecstatic reactions as he shed his shirt and raced to the corner spoke of a huge burden lifted, and the explosion of noise replicated that which greeted Chopra's stunning last-second winner against the Jacks last season.
On balance, the team which played the noble game just about edged it and deserved the crucial three points, but will have to play a whole lot better than this if they are to even attempt to hang on to the rapidly disappearing QPR. Class will usually out, but Cardiff will need to develop a cannier attitude to teams which seek to bully, frustrate and out-muscle us. Come on Oli - the forces of anti-football need to be vanquished!
Paul Davies © 2010
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