Cardiff 1 Sheffield United 0
Championship, December 22nd 2007
Do you BELIEVE in Santa Claus?
Scuppering everyone's expectations of getting the CCFC Christmas experience off to a thoroughly depressing start, the Bluebirds disposed of a supremely impoverished Blades side today with an impressive, clinical and hugely one-sided victory which will go down in living memory as the most convincing 1-0 massacre in footballing history.
Just to get us in the Christmas spirit, Black Friday was presaged with an announcement that the club had all but agreed a deal to sell 18 year old Chris Gunter to Spurs for an insultingly low fee, which looks to be £1m upfront, with more to follow subject to appearances and sell-on. In the 23 (count 'em) full appearances for the club, and an impressive batch of performances for his country, Gunter has proved himself to be an outstanding talent and one of the brightest prospects outside the Premiership. After a hideous start to the season and as we spit, drag and claw our way up the table, what better time could there be to flog off the family silver in such a spectacularly short-sighted, asset-stripping fashion?
With the new stadium development seemingly subsiding into the quicksand of Leckwith marshes, the club threatened with administration, and officially without a pot to piss in (the PFA having already been on standby to deal with potential non-payment of wages), one could argue that evil Baron Von Ridsdale had no choice. But even having accepted all that, and with a weather eye on the club's painful history of selling off any player of consequence and value as soon as the vultures start waving wads of cash towards successive generations of rapacious, monomaniacal chairmen, whose gorging, bloated egos have always suffocated "their love of the club"; this decision represents a staggering kick in the teeth to the suckers/supporters whose unswerving devotion and loyalty has been tested up to breaking point already this year.
The depth and scope of our ambition has recently been rubbed in our faces by the latest downscaling of the new stadium, whose much-hyped gleaming upgradeable 30,000 superbowl has been progressively dumbed down into the kind of balsa wood flat pack modern industrial nightmare stadium favoured by the likes of Premiership wannabes Walsall and Shrewsbury. With each passing day, the club rocks unsteadily from crisis to crisis, avuncular oleaginous Ridsdale fooling no-one with his attempts at damage limitation. And when he baldly claims that there is no "fire sale" you can bet your last copper-bottomed dollar that this is exactly what is going on, with more high-profile exits now seemingly inevitable come the January transfer window.
Having already turned down £2.5m for Ledley, he is clearly earmarked as the biggest cash cow, and will follow Gunter out the door (to Everton for £3.5m according to icwales), followed closely by our other outstanding prospect Arron Ramsey. The fact that this is all so sickeningly familiar does not make it any more acceptable or easy to bear, and cast a noxious cloud over Ninian Park, as a surprisingly bumper (close on 13,000) crowd assembled to witness a Christmas calamity.
Despite the tainted crutch of the ridiculous parachute payments, Sheffield United returned to NP flailing about at the wrong end of the table - yet another monumentally crap side put together by football legend Bryan Robson - one of these untouchable celebrity coaches whose playing CV has clouded the minds of numerous club chairmen, desperate to bask in the reflected glory of a seat in the stands next to the King of the Old Trafford boozers, despite his record of achieving virtually nothing in all his years of management. Bring it on - always a pleasure to be facing a Bryan Robson side, who did not disappoint in their total lack of any redeeming qualities - no pop, no style, as Althea and Donna once remarked.
Cardiff, on the other hand, appeared completely untouched by the seismic self-destruction being stage managed at our beloved club, and clocked in a performance of grit, gumption and guile, playing the blunt Blades off the park. The first twenty minutes, mind, were a turgid minging nightmare of extreme tedium, Cardiff allowing themselves to be dragged down to Sheffield's level of non-football.
Gunter's departure forced the return of Bob Bank favourite Tony Capaldi, with the only other significant change being the promotion of Paul Parry to a full time attacking role next to JFH, following Steve Thompson's three match ban, Gavin Rae picking up the midfield baton. After his match-winning performance against Colchester, Whittingham once again ran away with the player of the game award, despite a somewhat fading presence in the last half hour. For the rest of the game he was immense, utilising his full armoury of delicate passes, cute flicks, tricky dribbling and brilliant booming shots. Totally appropriate that the goal should involve a key contribution from Whitts, who cleverly threaded the ball into the path of a blooming Parry, who took it on a few yards before hitting a measured shot past the grasping Kenny.
After the first goal went in, Cardiff upped the ante and roared forward on every occasion, our midfield quartet completely dominating the lethargic United four. Ledley was again at the hub of the action, despite being deployed in his less favoured left-sided position. Rae was full of energy and sharp tackling, and McPhail had his best game for aeons, snapping into tackles and harassing the Blades' midfield on the rare occasions when they threatened to threaten, full of positive forward running.
At the back, all four barely put a foot wrong. Loovens and Johnson were rock solid in the centre as their partnership continues to improve. McNaughton was consistently impressive, defensively sound and prepared to race up the flanks when required. Capaldi, too, played one of his best games for the club, did the simple things well, and combined neatly with Joe on a few raids up the left flank. Schmeichel was again composed and confident.
Up the top, Teflon Hasselbaink was no more than average, and should have converted at least one of the chances given to him by his colleagues. He would also enhance his popularity if he stopped whingeing so much at his team-mates - Paul Parry was clearly well narked off with him after another trademark rant from JFH. If Thompson can mend the broken bridges with DJ, then a forward line of Parry and Thommo would appear to be the favoured option. Parry was totally unfazed by his new role, and excelled in the spaces in and around the box, The Blades' back four didn't quite know how to deal with him.
Apart from his assist for the goal, Whittingham was the major-domo today, and on another day might have had a hat trick - two sensational strikes in the first half were beaten away by the excellent Kenny, whose hands must have been red raw at half time. Another superb shot flew just over in the second half, as Cardiff peppered the opposition goal from all angles, Parry and Ledley both going close to sealing it at the end.
The best (only?) Sheffield United chance came in the 90th minute, after they were dubiously awarded a free kick on the edge of the box, Bardsley hit a phenomenally powerful shot which screamed past Schmeichel's far post, missing the target by a whisker. Billy Sharp was anything but, and James Beattie, even with his fancydan red boots, was laughably ineffective.
Sensing victory, the magnificent support cranked up the volume yet again and sang the Bluebirds home to a resounding and well-deserved victory. Having secured three wins out of the last four, the team have finally hit the kind of form we were all expecting at the start of the season, and are closing in on the play-off spots in good time for a New Year run. The consistently underwhelming quality of the opposition faced so far suggests that if they can manage to shake off the running dogs of debt and administration, the Bluebirds could well play a realistic part in the promotion shake-up (that's if they still have a team).
Happy Christmas! (and cheer up - you could be a Sheffield United fan).
Paul Davies © 2007.
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