Cardiff 2 Southampton 1
Championship, August 9th 2008
...but I still haven't found what I'm looking for...
Two weeks ago I stood in the Nou Camp Stadium in Barcelona, at the end of Bruce Springsteen's European tour-closing finale, the best gig I've ever seen, drenched in sweat and swimming in the kind of giddy euphoria you experience but rarely in this life of ours. Fast forward 14 days, and I am equally drenched amongst the gill-growing stalwarts on the Bob Bank terrace, leaping up and down like a loved-up salmon, and splashing about in the puddles as we celebrate the spectacularly unexpected climax to our opening day fixture, as Roger Johnson fumbled and somehow jumbled the ball into the back of the net to secure a stunning victory over the stubborn Saints and leave the City fans in a state of advanced gurning hysteria. I can't remember when I felt happier, but yesterday afternoon, right there right then, will take some beating.
Those of you who have been paying attention over the past forty years should know by now that those kind of last-minute winners do not happen to us - we're the ones who are usually hanging on in the 93rd minute to an ill-deserved point as our hearts are broken and weekends ruined by a goal from out of the blue. Yesterday we had some well-earned payback, and it tasted mighty fine.
Considering what has happened since the Cup Final (and how long ago does that seem now?), it was staggering that the Sold Out signs were on display today. The sale of wunderkind Aaron Ramsey was just one more dull blow to a solar plexus long inured to the pain of loss and disappointment, but barely registered a squeak of protest from Cardiff fans who have become bitterly used to the asset-stripping mentality of successive boards who have run the club like a shoddy pile-em-high sell-em-cheap poundstretcher shop. No worries. With all the Ramsey cash and the Cup Final shekels we were surely going to make a serious splash in the transfer market, and DJ himself had assured us (ha ha) that we would be pushing on to the next level, as we look with mixed emotions across the road to the new stadium.
Well. Were you surprised? Season starts and despite bumping up the squad with a number of bodies, we have spent precisely 420K on a frankly untested and statistically underwhelming pair of strikers who have much to prove. Messageboard scuttlebutt about the imminent arrival of Jerome, Chopra, Koumas, Earnie etc merely proved that certain people had lost their grip on reality, and questions about whether we'd prefer the return of Koumas or Chopra are about as worthwhile as debating the relative likelihood of Kaka or Robinho arriving at Fortress NP. The irritation over Ramsey's sale, Ridsdale's bonus and the chaotic, abortive, laughable pursuit of Kenny (Who?) Cooper and Marcus (show me the money) Bent were trumped by the club's latest foolhardy transfer story, whereby former Marseille player and Nigerian international Wilson Oruma appeared in a friendly against Chasetown, scored a memorable goal, was touted as the next big signing, and then got on the next plane out of the city. Nice one DJ - another PR masterstroke.
Still, it's the start of the season, it would be churlish to be pessimistic, so let's kick things off with a home banker against a side we trounced 1-0 at the end of last term, and who are in more disarray than we are, having crossed the line where "good business" turns a selling club into a favourite for relegation. The anticipation of the first day of the season is a special sensation, and the pre-match pubs in Canton were rocking with good humour and positive vibes, as the thousands defied the Biblical downpours, supped up and made their way to Sloper Road.
The weather was merely one factor in today's events which didn't keep to the script. Opening day is always shirtsleeves and shorts on the Bob Bank, ill-advised displays of fleshy torsos, sun tans topped up as the eyes are shielded from the rays from Leckwith Hill. But no, this year let's have the greatest deluge ever seen at Ninian Park as the torrents of lashing unforgiving rain baptised the believers for hours. Those of us expecting to see a retro version of the kit as voted by ambos on the official website were left a little incredulous as the team took to the pitch for the first league game of the season in a shirt which bore not the slightest similarity to the 70s kit which won the vote.
Positive thoughts about the outcome of today's game were soon washed away, as Southampton took an early grip of midfield and penned the Bluebirds back for a good twenty five minutes. Nothing much was going right for Cardiff, build-up play was stuttering, there was uncertainty everywhere and the omens were not looking good. As if sensing the crowd's growing unease, the players collectively got their groove on, Rae and McPhail started making their presence felt in the middle of the park, and up front Thompson and new boy McCormack started pressurising the Southampton defence - McCormack often coming wide to eke out possession and change the angle of attack. Slowly and perceptibly, the game swung our way, as we hunted down the ball and started passing with a little more assurance and confidence.
The goal was perfectly timed, joyously received and a proper reflection of the way in which Cardiff had dug deep to take control of the game. A Thompson header was untidily dealt with, returned to Thommo, who converted with a superb, stylish and composed finish. Sadly, the adrenaline rush was curtailed by a soppy wet Echo sucker punch within four minutes. Up till that moment the defence, marshalled by the supreme Dream Team of Loovens and Johnson, had been largely untroubled by a hyperactive but toothless Southampton attack. On the stroke of half time, with the Silver Fox McNaughton caught out of position, Southampton raided down the left, Andrew Surman slipped easily past Whittingham and sent a ball into the danger zone where a combination of keeper and central defence could not prevent David McGoldrick sliding in to earn a barely deserved equaliser.
Diluted half time Bovrils consumed, the Bluebirds steamed forward in the early part of the second half, desperate to re-establish their supremacy. Southampton withstood the barrage, with the goalkeeper Kelvin Davis taking the proverbial with ever longer delays as he shaped up to take the goal kicks, time-wasting more than any visiting keeper seen at NP for many moons. The ref, who put in a solid, no-nonsense performance, seemed oblivious to the liberties being taken by Soton's number one, much to the chagrin of the sopping wet City fans on the Grange and the Bob Bank.
A little spice was added to the encounter with the introduction of the Tea Leaf Twosome, Nathan Dyer and Bradley Wright-Phillips, two players who have somehow managed to achieve the impossible and besmirch the already minging reputation of filthy rich, greedy, amoral professional footballers with their arrest, and in Dyer's case, conviction, for rifling through the handbags of minimum wage bar staff at a nightclub in Southsea earlier this year. Akin to the abuse heaped upon odious rat-like Lee Bowyer back in the day, the players looked genuinely discomfited by the level of abuse rolling around the stadium, and will no doubt be forced to endure a similar barracking whenever they cross the line at an away ground this season.
The Southampton fans had arrived in numbers, almost filling the away section with 1200+ supporters. They weren't the noisiest gang to hit town, but I did enjoy their interestingly arranged tempo-advanced rendition of "When the Saints..." in the second half - obviously been spending too much time watching Last Choir Standing.
Despite Cardiff's embarrassing territorial dominance, things were not looking too clever as the time ticked away on our swish electronic scoreboard. Cardiff had all the possession, but were failing to conjure up any moments of genuine danger, creativity or penetration. Loovens and Johnson bolstered the attacking options at set pieces and both went close in the second half, but the prospect of a frustrating dropped two points was looming into view. Jones took off Thompson on 66 minutes, the fans' hero departing to a huge roar, some of which was reserved for Jay Bothroyd, the tall target man whose arrival has not exactly sent the City fans into a frothing excitement. Bothroyd did the obligatory introductory Ayatollah and then went about his business in quietly impressive style, showing good ball control and a penchant for direct running into the box which unsettled the Soton defenders.
With just 15 minutes left, Whittingham was withdrawn for Parry, whose omission from the starting line-up was a surprise for many in the crowd, given the consistency of his performances last year. City continued to batter away with an emergency 4 man attack, but still looked short of that vital last goal. The City fans were awesome in the last quarter, cranking up the noise and visibly inspiring the team to up their efforts, a rousing atmos which had something of the Cup tie about it, and augured well for the last season.
Finally, the delirious breakthrough came. A free kick was awarded to the Bluebirds on the edge of the box. McPhail deliberated long and hard before launching an inviting cross into perfect Roger Johnson territory. Johnson did not disappoint, leaping high wide and handsome and getting his head, shoulder and sundry other body parts to connect with the ball, which hit the centre back, then the goalkeeper before arcing into the net and sending the sodden masses into a pogoing frenzy. The players buried Johnson in a riotous pile-on, an indication of how much the last-minute winner meant to the team. Seconds later, the whistle went, and for once we were the deliverers of the cruel 93rd minute KO.
And so it has begun. Out of the blocks and in the top 6 already. A chipper start to the season will be all-important given the quality of some of the teams jostling for promotion. Obvious early favourites would have to include Birmingham, Reading, QPR, Sheffield United and Coventry - for varying reasons, but there are grounds for optimism with the squad already assembled at Ninian Park, and if the strikers do not do the business, then hopefully there will be money available to augment the forwards. Defensively, Mark Kennedy was left looking isolated and vulnerable at times yesterday, but the other three were as rock-like as ever. I was a little concerned at the length of Loovens' farewell as he waved to all and sundry at the end of the game - it will be a cataclysmic loss to the team if he is allowed to go. A big enough contract to entice him to stay should be sorted pronto - alongside Johnson, Loovens is a critical foundation of this team. Comminges deserves a go at the left back spot, he showed enough in the game against Celtic to at least suggest he is worth a punt in that position, until a "proper" left back is brought in.
The midfield conundrum is still exercising terrace pundits - Rae and McPhail performed well but there is still a need for extra grit and ball-winning determination in central midfield. Ledley had a very poor game by his own high standards, and whilst Whittingham started well, he faded badly in the second half. The midfield balance is still not right, and is one of the major tasks for DJ to sort out in constructing a sturdy, creative team. Thompson scored a great goal and will retain his place for the time being. McCormack put a decent shift in, showed he has an eye for goal and a willingness to shoot from distance, but alongside whoever turns out to be his favoured striking partner, will need to emulate the kind of relationship Thommo built up with Chopra, or Thorne with Earnie, and he will need to do it relatively quickly, if we are to flourish this term. With ten more goals last season, we would have squeezed comfortably into the play-offs. What we need this year is a consolidation of the back four, an invigorated, strengthened midfield which must retain its creative spark, and a hatful of goals from our still-gelling strike force. Not much to ask is it?
What is evident from pre-season and from the opening league game, is that we also still need a new keeper. After watching this match, I'd have preferred Paul Heaton from the Beautiful South in goals, or maybe even John Smeaton, the Glaswegian kick-boxing terrorist-basher, rather than current incumbent Tom Heaton. Too early to make a comprehensive judgement of the fella, but he encapsulates all the woes which have led to the demotion of Turnbull, Forde and Enckelman - indecisive in his own 6 yard box, and atrocious at distributing the ball. We were fearing for our lives on the Bob Bank terrace as yet another clearance was sideswiped into the crowd. He needs to up his game, and rapidly, as we can all remember what kind of chaos can be engendered by a collapse in keeper confidence.
Mickey Mouse on Tuesday, then a testing away battle against newly promoted Donny and a return to Ninian against Norwich in a fortnight's time. Plenty of work to do, plenty of missing jigsaw pieces, but after a close season from hell, Day 1 closes in a more than satisfactory manner.
Paul Davies © 2008.
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