Cardiff 0 Portsmouth 1
FA Cup Freaking Final, May 17th 2008
Wember-lee Wember-lee, we're the famous Cardiff City and we lost at Wember-lee...
So this is how it ends then. The morning after the night before there is no warm glow of consolation, just a stabbing pain in the heart and a deep emptiness (alongside the expected churning guts, banging headache and voice so hoarse it felt like I'd been gargling razor blades). The tide of history which we expected to sweep us to victory crashed upon the rocks of a stubborn, obdurate Pompey defence and a tentacular, strangulating midfield.
Individually and collectively, Cardiff's players failed to really shine, and whilst it was a gallant, game effort full of heart and application, it was never going to be enough to break down a tough, determined, physical, cynical and experienced Portsmouth side. Dave Jones' predictability didn't let us down, and even in the most important match of his career he could not bring himself to deviate from the etched-in-stone DJ plan - Ramsey on at 60 minutes and Thompson on at 68 (fair play,7 minutes earlier than usual!).
The failings of our team were writ large upon the wide-open expanses of Wembley's lush green turf and goggle boxes from Llanrumney to Dar Es Salaam. It was abundantly clear that in order to compete next year even at Championship level, this team needs urgent attention, with a new goalkeeper, centre back cover, left back, central midfield and (at least) two dynamic YOUNG strikers being an absolute priority. Whether this tree and branch surgery/rebuilding is funded by new investment or the sales of Ledley and/or Ramsey, we will find out in the next few weeks. But you know what's going to happen as well as I do, and our gasters will be well and truly flabbered if either of those players lines up for CCFC on August 9th.
It will be a catastrophic blow to lose two players of their outstanding ability and potential, and will be particularly difficult to swallow if Ramsey is allowed to leave the club he has barely represented to join a titanic Big 4 team, spending the next 18 months alternating between bench-warming and insignificant Carling Cup games. What is really the point of an Academy, if the end products are hoiked off to the highest bidder before they've even passed their driving test?
Needs must and all that, but seriously, the boy will be worth four times as much in two or three seasons and would have by then catapulted Cardiff into the Premier League! As Southampton have found to their cost this year, the ultimate fate of all selling clubs is a nosedive into obscurity and relegation struggle from which it can be almost impossible to recover.
Elsewhere, big big decisions need to be made about our two Saga strikers, and with apologies to Amy Winehouse, if DJ tries to offer them a contract, I say NO NO NO. Fowler was an experiment which exploded calamitously in our faces - from his first boozy, glazed appearance in the local trash press through a puffing, panting, embarrassing sequence of performances to an unfortunate injury and 5 months of inactivity, his season has been one long extended nightmare. We cannot afford to risk even more money on the guy. As for Jimmy, he has had a good season, but his lack of pace and mobility has hamstrung a sometimes dynamic and dazzling side, and it is time to bid goodbye. Thanks and tara to you both.
The build-up to the game began in earnest at 17.55 on April 6th amongst Cardiff City supporters. A pity that the city of Cardiff didn't catch on until the very last minute - the atmosphere and intensity around the city ramped up from nothingness to a rather special buzzing frenzy in the "Final" week - from Monday onwards the city started turning blue, a bit too little and a bit too late, but it was great to see the car flags, the flags draped outside windows, the blue and white bunting and flags outside many pubs, and the Council's Bluebirds discs of love on Sloper Road and Queen Street - the council having been badgered and embarrassed into action by City fans in great numbers. The less said, though, about the floral FA Cup by the castle the better!
Media-wise, the national build-up had been really disappointing - the absence of the omnipotent Big 4 from the FA Cup Final had forced the newspapers and TV sports pundits to fast forward straight from the Premier League's Super Sunday to the Champions League Final. Never mind that this was the first time that two clubs from outside the 4 had got to the final since 1991, that Portsmouth hadn't won the Cup since 1939, that no team from outside the top flight had won the sodding thing since 1980, and that the last time Cardiff won the Cup was in 1927, the first and only time it had ever left England - never more to be known as the English Cup. The Cup, apparently, has been devalued this year, and was of no great interest to neutrals. No matter, Cardiff fans were enjoying every minute of the build-up, even the crummy Eggo's daily countdown.
As the days rattled past towards the fateful weekend, the excitement built up exponentially. Friday's early evening news bulletins ramped things up to another level - a decent effort by HTV Wales which focused on the Bluebirds Down Under, and then an excellent hour-long special from BBC Wales which had me blubbing every ten minutes. Great feature on local legend Ledley returning to Cantonian High School, with some superb interviews with lads who've been inspired by his success. After that things went a bit downhill, the excitement turned into blind panic and a nervous fretfulness was tying the stomach up in knots. A few late-night liveners and some therapeutic tri-colour confetti-cutting (quality!) took the edge off the hysteria and a peaceful night's sleep ensued.
Saturday morning at Cardiff Central and the platform was awash with chirpy Bluebirds in very high spirits, nerves temporarily subsiding as the desire to savour the whole day kicked in. Great to see the blue and yellow Cardiff City dragon flying proudly above the station. Unlike semi-final day, when the trains were comfortably under-populated, Saturday's 8.25 was rammed, not a seat to be had, and as the journey progressed it got claustrophobically hot and congested.
Comment of the day came from some bemused toff getting on at Didcot, confronted by a mass of blue and white, scarf and flag-wielding City fans: "Goodness, why is this train so crowded?". Goodness indeed, old chap, we're the famous Cardiff City and we're going to Wember-lee...
Tube to Marylebone and then a few cheeky halves in the Larrick on Crawford Street, enjoyable bantering with some fortysomething Pompey fans, and then onto a great boozer discovered on semi-final day called The Duke of Wellington. Arrived at the stadium with 40 minutes to go, and nicely poised to soak in and suck up the fantastic atmosphere, which was cranking up by the moment.
The noise from both sets of supporters was impressive, as was the sea of cheapo free flags and other paraphernalia, even though the sight of the opposition in blue and white was somewhat galling to this Bluebird. Absolutely no surprises with the team line-up, with the disappointing discovery that Ramsey was on the bench. Incredibly, a player who is widely regarded as a shoo-in for a move to the Premiership big cheeses is not regarded as good enough to command a first-team place. Ramsey is such a talent he demands to have a team built around him - whilst he is still here.
The other selection poser was not answered until ten minutes into the first half, as the names of the subs were not announced. Mega-frustrating for Cardiff fans who were anxious to discover whether Fowler had made it. Having to wait until the subs warmed up to work this out was more than a little annoying, but it soon became apparent that the ever-reliable steady Eddie Jones had opted for his favourite bench of Oakes, Purse, Sinclair, Ramsey and Elvis Thompson. No risky bench without a keeper, and no risky Fowler.
The controversial anthems passed off without incident, largely respected by fans of both sides, which set the tone for the rest of the game. Cardiff's supporters were awesome throughout - a limited repertoire perhaps (but more than Pompey's one!), belted out with such volume and nerve-tingling intensity that the hairs on the back of the neck were constantly alive. City fans got it just right - the focus was entirely on the Bluebirds - no tedious parochial anti-English anti-Swansea nonsense, this was passion and pride focused on our team and our team only (with the same applied to the fabulous array of flags on show - personal favourite this time being the Dubai Cardiff City Camel Crew).
So, before we knew it, we were off. And a little like the Barnsley semi and the QPR Play-Off Final, this was tight, tense, nervous stuff - the profound difference being the quality of the opposition. Even without the lethal Jermaine Defoe, Pompey have a hugely talented and experienced team. Their defence has been tremendous this season, with Calamity a rejuvenated keeper, and Distin and Campbell rock solid in the middle. Despite that, my own personal view was that Parry would torment Sol Campbell with his pace and trickery, and that that key battle would swing things our way.
Quietly confident, were we in Block 138, and as the first twenty minutes unravelled, it was looking good. Cardiff had the edge, had more possession, retained the ball well and launched some impressive attacks. There was no sense that the players were overawed by the occasion - they were calm and collected, and hopes were high that their territorial advantage could be rubber stamped with a goal.
Pompey, on the other hand, looked a trifle edgy at the start, and took time to settle. As expected, their 5 man midfield attempted to suffocate City's more expansive passing style, and they relied upon a quick-breaking counter attack from midfield to supplement the slow but ultra-skilful Kanu. Loovens and Johnson were alert to all of Portsmouth's early forays, and were generally on their game throughout.
Cardiff were the first to launch a significant attack, Ledley releasing Parry down the left who was in the clear and ran on to confront James. Instead of rounding the keeper, he chose to shoot and allowed James to smother. Another chance fell to Whittingham, whose stinging shot was deflected wide after it hit his own player. It was Pompey, though, who came scarifyingly close to opening the scoring, Kanu tormenting Loovens with his nimble feet, waltzing around the unimpressive Enckelman, and with the goal just sitting there with a huge "Come and Get Me" sign on it, he collapsed and struck the post with a weak shot.
Cardiff prospered after this Get Out of Jail card and once more pushed on against the massed ranks of blue who invited them on. Parry's effectiveness, however, diminished as the game wore on, and as the attempts to pick him out with threaded diagonal balls began to falter, the City midfield started lumping it a bit in a frustrating return to direct football.
As the game progressed the balance of play seemed to drift back towards Pompey, with the excellent Diarra starting to boss the show. Rae and McPhail could not exert enough influence on the game, Whittingham was quiet and Ledley was kicked up in the air by Glen Johnson several times in the first half. All in all, Portsmouth were far more prepared to take the opposition out with some unattractive rough stuff. The stats don't lie - 22 fouls against 9 of Cardiff, 3 players booked etc. Referee Mike Dean had a decent game, but did not protect the Cardiff midfield and attack enough.
Kanu's killer punch on 37 minutes was the result of a painful pratfall from keeper Enckelman. Utaka was allowed by Capaldi to maraud down the right flank and deliver a teasing, testing cross into the zone of death. Enckelman went to ground, but with Johnson breathing down his neck he spilt the ball and the handily placed Nigerian was there to tap the ball into the net for the softest, stupidest goal conceded by the boys in blue all season.
Although there was still over 50 minutes of the game to go, it already felt to me as if the game was up. Cardiff''s early dominance had come to nought, and with the midfield having lost the plot with the plans to release Parry through the channels, and JFH being anonymous to the point of embarrassment/invisibility, the prospect of an equaliser looked remote. Corners and set plays were producing nothing with Campbell and Distin collecting anything aerial comfortably. A Whittingham free kick would have been nice, but an appropriately placed opportunity never arose.
Parry did have one more significant chance in the first half, another rapido raid down the left and faced with a charging David James he took absolutely the wrong option and squared the ball to the Silver Fox McNaughton, who just failed to connect with what would have been a perfect equaliser. He should, of course, have taken James on and shot. These were key moments in the game for City - half decent chances which should have been put away.
We did of course get the ball in the back of the net a few minutes later, but celebrations were quickly curtailed as it was clear that the goal had been disallowed, after an obvious hand/elbowball from Glen Loovens. Respect to the CCFC massive, supporters' heads did not drop, and the Keyardiff roar was soon back, urging the players on. Something needed changing and the approaching half time would be the time to do it, surely?
No such luck. A bolder manager may have brought on Ramsey and Thompson earlier, and given them more time to influence the game. As it was, Ramsey did make a sudden impact and his dynamic ball control and vision caused the Pompey defence some nervous moments. Thompson did his usual bustling, but looked out of his depth. Rambo was at the core of Cardiff's finest opportunity, as the ball was pinged about in and around the Portsmouth box, but never settling in an opportune position for a strike on goal. Earlier Loovens had a great chance to equalise with a headed strike from a swinging corner, but he jabbed his header into the ground and it bounced playfully over.
Aside from a late swashbuckling run from Distin into the box, Pompey made no real attempt to build on their advantage, seeking instead to squeeze the life out of the game and stopping Cardiff playing - which they did - a sort of back-handed compliment to the Cardiff players if you think about it. Sinclair came on for Rae at the end, but by that time the game was dead. The final whistle didn't exactly bring wails of despair from the Cardiff end, just a sobering blast of disappointment and shock, and a painful recognition of what might have been in the narrowest of narrow victories.
No celebratory cigar, no lap of honour, no night out in London (cancelled due to deep depression), no victory parade, no FA Cup, no Community Shield, no UEFA Cup adventure, no nothing. It was hard at the time to find solace in anything much at all really. A small but significant crumb of comfort comes from the support and behaviour of our fantastic fans. Phenomenally loud before, during and after the game, their heads dropped but for a nanosecond after Kanu's dispiriting goal, even though we all suspected the game was up.
Respecting the anthems, applauding the Pompey players as they collected the Cup and giving the City team an almighty ovation as they dragged their sapped carcasses around the ground, I was proud of our team but prouder still of our magnificent, crazy, unique and beautiful supporters. Couldn't quite bring myself to leave Wembley Stadium, and there were tears in my eyes as I did, but I will retain those memories of our tremendous support as long as I live.
Cardiff City went global this weekend, and the blanket loved-up coverage of our supporters could represent a pivotal moment in the development of the club. This may well be seen as a turning point, where the rehabilitation of Cardiff City starts getting serious (although having engaged in a long and rambling conversation with several members of the finest British Transport Police in a futile exercise to open the bar on the train home, their esteemed opinion is that it will be decades before "our type" of football fan is rehabilitated).
The whole world was watching on Saturday, and would have noted the heroic efforts of the Cardiff support to roar their team to victory and their sporting applause of the Cup winners as they collected the trophy. But it's also the small things that matter, those that weren't seen by a global audience, and are endemic of a sea-change amongst our fans - two Cardiff lads engaged in a friendly conversation with a Portsmouth dad and his young son on the tube, presenting the youngster with a Cardiff flag as a souvenir as they disembarked. Small, but important.
Meanwhile back in Cardiff Bay, the notion of a Welcome party for the losers had seemed a bit desperate when first floated, but as Sunday morning wore on and the initial depression started to lift ever so slightly, the sun came out, and all of a sudden it seemed absolutely right that we should salute the team and the club for getting us so far.
Not knowing quite what to expect we trooped down to Cardiff Bay and joined the throng in the Oval Basin. After a slow start the place was jammed by 2.30, and with the help of the ubiquitous irreplaceable scallywag turntablist Ali Yassine orchestrating things perfectly, the place was rocking with the Ninian Park crowd-pleasing favourites (a blast of The Automatic's Monster heralding the soon-to-be-announced return of the great Michael Chopra?). IC Wales' estimate of a 10,000 crowd was perhaps a little generous, but there were definitely thousands of people there - a riot of colour, with masses of Wembley flags rippling in the breeze.
Everyone who was anyone was there - from Frank Hennessy to Rhodri Morgan and Jason Perry, Half Time Wayne to Bartley Bluebird - even Billy the Badge had opened up a Cardiff Bay branch of Sloper Road City gear. What was hard not to notice was the fantastically diverse nature of the crowd, with loads of kids, granddads and generations of families all togged up in their Cup Final regalia. Due in at 2.30 PM, the Bluebirds landed at about ten to three, their aquabus having descended upon the Bay from Penarth, where the lads had clearly been enjoying a few cold drinks whilst they were waiting.
The full party hit the stage to a massive tingling ovation, lifting the crowd's spirits in a beat. It was yet another emotional moment and yes, we did all start blubbing again. Ramsey's appearance as the only one in a track suit sent the X Files conspiracy theorists into overdrive, as clear evidence that the boy had already signed for Man U - late breaking news confirmed that the rest of the squad's japing jesters had hidden his Cup Final suit.
Good speeches from Dave Jones, Ridsdale, McPhail and Purse, before James Fox came on to sing Hey Jude and the Top 20 hit Bluebirds Flying High - the flags going ballistic again. We've learnt a lot about this fantastic group of players in the last few weeks, the camaraderie and team spirit have been bursting through - they truly understand what this club means to the people in the crowd. Peripheral squad player Steve Thompson has emerged as a key figure amongst this band of brothers - a leader, a prankster and a bit of a maverick talent on the geetar (although his vocals, like his goals per game ratio, could do with a little work!).
Enjoying his moment in the limelight, he borrowed Foxy's guitar and, with his club tie wrapped around his head Apache-style, launched into an "idiosyncratic" version of his very own Cup Final song Do the Ayatollah, complete with false start and some blackboard-screeching vocal embellishments. All good fun and a great way to sign off for the season. The team departed to more humongous cheers, the crowd dispersed and that was just about that.
A terrific atmosphere, a perfect counter-balance to the despair and gloom of Saturday night and a great opportunity to express our gratitude to the Herculean achievements of our wonderful players and under-appreciated manager DJ (whatever his faults, he has steered a faultless path to the Final and deserves the plaudits). Above all this was an in-your-face bursting technicolour demonstration of how our constituency of supporters has changed in a short period of time.
At Wembley and at Cardiff Bay, the huge age range was great to see, and is a perfect platform on which to build a solid support as we cruise towards the top of the Championship and ready ourselves for the new stadium. A large wodge of the glory boys and girls will disappear before the start of the season, but such was the buzz of Saturday and Sunday, many of them will undoubtedly return and we can look forward to a buzzing finale at Ninian Park.
Forget the Champions League Final, I'm more excited about the pre-season friendly at Chasetown. I love this City!
Paul Davies © 2008.
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