Cardiff 2 Preston North End 2
Championship, September 22nd 2007
" Baby, please don't go, don't go...
The way things are heading, they will be handing out Prozac to the glum-faced punters as they flood out of Ninian Park. Another day of missed opportunities and soul-sucking depression, made all the worse by the fact that this game was done and dusted on the hour after a gritty and ballsy performance from the players who had taken in all the criticism of the past couple of weeks and responded to it positively.
Such is the nature of the CCFC beast, the preamble to the match was dominated not by matters of tactics and team selection but by Ridsdale's gob-smackingly ill-timed outburst to the press, claiming that some fans had nicked his conkers and wouldn't let him join in with a game of Ring a ring o' roses. In response, as Ridsdale took his seat in the director's box today, all four sides of the ground rose in unison, waved white hankies and broke into a beautiful rendition of David Soul's 'Don't Give Up on Us Baby', tears streaming down the terraces as the emotions swept across the crowd like a Mexican wave. Well, not quite, but in the weird and wacky world of Cardiff City, there would be few surprised faces on the Bob Bank if Dan Dare and the Mekons ran out of the tunnel in blue and white shirts, so it was always a possibility.
What exactly does Ridsdale want? He is a football chairman of CCFC, one in a long line of wealthy landlords who has been granted temporary custodianship of our club. If he does a good job, he will be lauded, if not he will be slated from pillar to post. At the moment the sensible members of the jury are still stroking their chins. Given the state he left Leeds United in, it is understandable that twitchy fans used to the brinkmanship of threatened liquidation/receivership/dissolution, should be feeling a little non-committal about his involvement. What they do not want is the return of Sam Hammam. Those days are gone. So sit down Peter, and stop mithering, as they say in Yorkshire. You've got a football club to sort out and we've got a team to support.
The jack-booted heel of Sky Sports fired another nail into the coffin of yer traditional Saturday afternoon football match today, rushing punters downing quick pints in empty boozers after barely digesting their crunchy nut cornflakes.
After Wednesday's aberration, a performance of substance was required - we are not after sexy football, for the time being a dull three points would do nicely. Cardiff's body language as they ran on suggested that they were determined to pay the fans back for three home performances of sub-standard, under-achieving fretful football. And once again, the team started at a decent clip. Tinkerman DJ had again seemingly bowed to public opinion and replaced the hapless Turnbull with our other gk ex-Wolves man Michael Oakes. For some strange reason, Sinclair had been hauled back into the right back position, the implied criticism of tyro Gunter seeming misplaced to many spectators. This enforced change to the midfield allowed Jones to bring in Ledley to partner Parry on the wing, with Rae and McPhail in the centre of midfield and the old geezers up front.
City enjoyed good early possession, the passing was crisp and positive, and the omens looked good when Parry crossed for Ledley, whose arrowed header was brilliantly palmed away by PNE keeper Lonergan. More chances followed, with Fowler looking a good deal sharper than in recent games. It was fitting that the opening goal came from a sweet cross from Joe Ledley, whose pinpoint balls into the box were a treat to watch all afternoon, hit with a wicked curl and spin, bamboozling back-pedalling Preston defenders from the very first moments. Fowler's first goal was put away clinically, a precise header flicking past Lonergan from Ledley's perfect cross.
The sense of relief was palpable and swept across the crowd, as euphoric celebrations were roared out from every corner. Great to see Fowler get off the mark, one in the eye for the Fowler-bashers (mea culpa!), but in truth, he did absolutely stink out the place on Wednesday night, and deserved a brickbat or three. Fowler turned nonchalantly, accepted the acclaim, and celebrated quietly with his team-mates, as if to say that there is still a game here to be won.
The rocking atmos belied the measly attendance of 11,772 (rightly jeered by the two taxis full of Preston fans when announced over the tannoy), and seemed to give Cardiff an extra gear as they sought to grind Preston into the turf. Overall, the application and commitment were first rate, there was more of an edge to this performance, and whilst not a classic, there were more than a few moments to savour. Aside from the lively Fowler, JFH was also in the mood, threatening to decapitate a flock of seagulls rocketing one shot into the upper girders of the Canton with real venom.
The curse of the Sky cameras was being held at bay - the Bob Bank gave cheeky chappie pundit Dean Saunders a sweet and sour reception, as he perched precariously in Sky's ropey looking commentary position at the corner of the Canton. Half time arrived with the Bluebirds in control, Preston had been stubborn in defence but lacked any real attacking threat - their fall from grace this season having coincided far too neatly with Nugent's departure to be comfortable for their fans.
Happy days are destined to never last long at Ninian Park, and so it came to pass that PNE wiped the dopey grins off our faces with a blockbuster of a goal on 51 minutes, coming out of a clear blue sky (or a poor defensive clearance) - a superb, unstoppable volley from Callum Davidson which whizzed past Oakes at warp-factor speed. No fault on the keeper's part, who had looked calm and collected throughout, the safe pair of hands we were asking for, confident in the box, accurate with his kicks and alive to danger when it arose.
Groundhog Day again for the Bluebirds, who if they are not chasing a game with the clock running down, are attempting to restore a briefly held advantage. The shape of the team was restored to normality as Gunter replaced the injured Parry, releasing Sinclair to move upfield. Despite yet another setback, Cardiff were determined to get back into the match, and boosted by the exhortations of a lively crowd, continued to push the ball about with purpose.
Ledley was City's most effective player, throwing himself into every challenge (receiving an almighty boot to the face for his efforts at one stage), storming down the wing, and launching wicked quality balls into the box from all sorts of angles. On this form , he will be undroppable - the correct balance in midfield is clearly proving to be a head-scratching conundrum for Jones, and one suspects that he is yearning for the return of Scimeca, whose drive, steel and purpose will hopefully solidify the middle four and allow the creativity around him to flourish.
Cardiff's pressure was rewarded on the hour, as another corner from Joe (his delivery of corners today was different class, and has clearly moved him ahead of Parry in the pecking order, himself no slouch at getting good service into the box) was met by the darting Fowler, clipping the ball past Lonergan in classic poachtastic fashion. Berserk celebrations ensued, and the comfort blanket of a hard-won three points was tucked up around our collective chins. More substitutions followed - Peter Whittingham came on for a tiring Sinclair and had a belting few minutes on the pitch - earning huge applause as he stepped over, shuffled and jinked his way past the PNE left back (see below).
Folk hero Steve Thompson and his newly acquired magic hat came on with ten minutes to go - Fowler leaving the pitch to a raucous standing ovation, having done his job in splendid style. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Just ten minutes to kill the game off, keep possession and blunt any Preston attacks (which up until that point had been barely on the radar). Except killing the game off is an alien concept to this football team, who have a collective fit of the vapours as soon as they gain an advantage, retreating into their shell and running around like discombobulated Stan Laurels as the final whistle hoves into view.
You just knew when Preston got a free kick on the edge of the box that this was going to end badly. Some fans turned away, others started heading for the exit. Referee Andy Hall (who incidentally had a pretty good game all things considered) blew his whistle, Cardiff supporters cringed and Preston began a dizzying, ping-pong passing movement across the front of the penalty box before Callum Davidson strode up to strike a fierce shot past the grounded flailing keeper Oakes. More worrying than this hammer blow was seeing Roger Johnson pole axed and immobilised on the pitch for a good five minutes, eventually being stretchered off in a neck brace. The good news for Roger and us is that no treatment was necessary, and he is expected to play on Tuesday - which is just as well as the holes at the centre of the defence are beginning to look more worrying by the week.
The doom-mongerers are already predicting relegation, but whilst the lamentable start to the season has us occupying 17th position, with not enough goals scored, too many conceded, one point out of a possible twelve at home, there is surely room at the top whilst workaday artisans like Stoke, Bristol and Burnley clog up the play-off places. Three of the next four are away games - potentially tricky matches at Barnsley, Sheffield United and Southampton sandwiching a home encounter with wannabes Burnley. Seven points from those four would do nicely, and set us up for the charge up the table.
As the mighty Duke Ellington once noted, "gray skies are just clouds passing over".
Paul Davies © 2007.
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