Cardiff 0 Stoke City 1
Championship, August 11th 2007
Now Iíve swung back down again
Itís worse than it was before
If I hadnít seen such riches
I could live with being poor. "
Where to flamin' well start? First up, never mind Robbie Fowler. I'm the one who failed a fitness test yesterday and so missed the opening game at Ninian Park for the first time in donkey's years. What follows, therefore, is a rambling pre-season assessment and a "report by radio".
Whatever happened the previous season, and however fantastic your Summer has been, is there a better feeling in the world than walking through the turnstiles at Ninian Park and gazing adoringly at the pristine, beautifully manicured turf of our very own Field of Dreams?
The flip side to that, of course, is that there can be few worse feelings than sitting at home next to the wireless as the teams are announced and the Ninian roar is transmitted in full effect over the airwaves.
The supporters came, in numbers, many having bought their tickets to salute the One True Robbie, most to big up the Bluebirds as a collective force of nature, with a spring in their step, and, if you'll pardon the unseemly optimism, a good feeling about this season. It is a glorious day all over Cardiff, as is writ in the Big Book of Football.
Forget the piffling pre-season friendlies, this is Hammer Time, Chico Time but sadly not Robbie "I'm about as fast as me nana" Fowler time. Pre-match talk this week has been of little else - even after the announcement that due to the thigh strain picked up in last Saturday's friendly, Fowler would take no part in today's match. How many will he score this season? How fit is he? Who was the fifth Spice Boy? Whatever happened to that white Armani suit? What the hell's he doing here fer Chrissake?
The acquisition of Fowler is surely the greatest single transfer CCFC have completed in the last couple of decades.
Acknowledging clearly that he is not at his peak, and that the last couple of seasons have been unremarkable and injury prone, there is simply no denying that the man is a livewire living legend - christened "God" by Liverpool fans, who do take their football rather seriously.
But has he got enough "in the tank" to cut it at this level? He has taken a brave step downwards - a move that could very easily blow up in his face if he fails to start whacking in the goals this term. On the other hand, if he does stay (get?) fit and rampage through the Championship defences spearheading a Cardiff charge to promotion, the man will achieve the kind of media attention and fan-frenzy which he will not have experienced for many a year.
This is something that arrogant peroxide dimwit Alan Smith failed to realise last year when Fergie tried to loan him to the Bluebirds at a time when we were caning the rest of the division. So, it's down to you now Robbie - we've bought the (6,000!) shirts, we've bought the tickets - now score the friggin' goals la' !
From the club's point of view it was a spectacular PR coup, silencing the cynics and exciting the fanbase in a cash-generating feeding frenzy that will have the much-loathed Ridsdale rubbing his hands with delight. From a personal point of view, Fowler has always been regarded as a top man since the night he lifted up his Liverpool shirt after scoring in a European tie against Brann Bergen to reveal the message "Support the 500 sacked dockers".
He may have accrued a personal fortune of close on £30 million, but he has never forgotten his roots, and that gesture resonated with thousands of people up and down the country. The gesture was also backed up with hard cash, as both McManaman and Fowler made regular unpublicised donations to the striking Liverpool dockers during the course of a long and bitter dispute.
No wonder the Kop loved him - not bad for a lad who grew up as a "Bluenose". Can you even imagine any of today's poncified Premiership prima donnas doing anything remotely similar? So welcome Robbie. Cardiff is in many ways a similar place to Liverpool - a tough working class town with a rich dockland history, a deep-rooted multicultural population, hated by outsiders, battered by unemployment and currently undergoing a period of regeneration - not to mention the bedrock of a great football team (!). You will be made welcome here (although I suppose the helicopter home helps). OK he's not Che Guevara, but in a Premiership world of "roasting", WAGS and OK weddings, he's good enough for me pilgrims.
In fairness, other topics of conversation were punted into the stratosphere, including CCFC's calamitous decision to give Ali Yassine, the man on the wheels of steel for years, the bum's rush and a P45. Ali is everything that today's airbrushed anodyne sporting tannoy man isn't.
Passionate about the club, possessed of a well-turned sense of humour (most of the time - the caravan jokes and homophobic Brighton jibes are an embarrassment), he is also that rare creature - a DJ who is bonkers about music - and what great music! You are more likely to hear Anarchy in The UK, The Wu Tangs, The Specials or the Super Furries than the latest chart bloopers as you ponder how crap the Bovril is these days.
It's certainly a long way from Band of Gold and Hi Ho Silver Lining. Late breaking news confirmed that Ali will remain at NP, fighting off the blandobots from Kiss 101 who were lined up to replace him - so hats off to the club for once again bowing to public opinion and exercising a laudable U-turn.
Having studied the squads of all the Championship teams, there are definite grounds for optimism. The ludicrous parachute payments give a despicably skewed imbalance to the competition, but even with them, Watford and Sheffield United may struggle to mount a credible challenge. Charlton on the other hand, have fortfied their squad considerably, and under the assured tutelage of Pardew will be expected to lead the way.
All the other contenders from last term seem to have lost their best players (particularly WBA, who will struggle), and there is no reason why a top 6 finish should be beyond us. And, come January, if we need a fillip for our promotion hopes, we will (hopefully) have a big chunk of cash to play with. That cash, of course, came from the Chopra sale - so expected was this transaction that barely a peep of protest was registered. We have all now recognised that CCFC are a selling club - always have been, always will - but if DJ can wheel and deal his way to promotion on the back of this bit of business then who's gonna grumble?
It has been notable in the recent pre-season media bluster that Chopra is already being slighted for being a lightweight. Typical of much metropolitan media coverage in its vaguely anti-Cardiff bias, this chimes with the lack of respect Chopra received nationally last season despite upstaging Nugent throughout the season.
Only his annoying tendency to mouth off at referees prevented him from walking away with the top scorer award. He may have been counting the moments last term till his agent turned up and announced "You're a Goal Scoring Celebrity I'm Getting You Outta Here", but we still wish him well and predict a goal haul of 15+ (great to see Chops break his duck on MOTD with a superbly taken winner against Tottenham).
And so, finally to business. The beauty of Cardiff City by radio is that should you get browned off with the lack of action / scoreline / unrelenting sea of brain-boggling inanities gushing forth from Ian Walsh's mouth, you can just waltz off for 5 minutes, raid the fridge, make a cup of tea, read the paper, watch the telly, kick the cat or bang your head against a convenient brick wall.
More likely though is that you will be unable to tear yourself away from the radio, in case you miss that last-gasp equaliser / hotly disputed penalty / single bit of common sense spouted by Ian Walsh.
Today was an almost typical Trial by Transistor, fighting your way through the tropical jungles of verbiage (do the two Ians possibly get paid by the word?) to seek the footballing truth, spring-heeled early season optimism floored by prosaic match day realities, long long patches of tedium zipped up with a dash of late blooming excitement at the end, which had "too little too late" written all over it.
BBC Radio Wales' coverage of the Bluebirds has improved over the years, and whilst there are a welter of gripes and grumbles about personalities and the politics of punditry, how can you quibble about the fact that virtually every one of CCFC's games (home and away) will be covered live by the station of the nation. That's a no-brainer.
Former Echo hack Robert Phillips is a lively (some might say too lively) and knowledgeable presenter, who still comes across like a 14 year old boy who's won a Shoot competition to be the next John Motson.
When they let Phillips out on the road he commits the cardinal sin of radio commentary - over-egging every attack by raising his voice several decibels and octaves in an erroneous attempt to drum up excitement on a wet Tuesday night at Roots Hall. Consequently, when we do actually get a goal, the boy is like an exploding bottle of pop and one fears for the safety of the resident "expert" perched alongside Rob up in the gantry.
Ian Walsh is a likeable fellow but as a perspicacious well-rounded football pundit, he is several players short of a promotion challenge. In contrast to Rob P, Walshy adopts a classic been there-got the caps approach and spins out his comments in a turgid slo-mo monotone.
Today's commentator is Ian Gwynne (I do Match of the Day me) Hughes, whose enthusiastic but realistic descriptions I am quite partial to. Like all Radio Wales employees, IGH is completely biased towards whichever Welsh team he is commentating upon, which is probably how it should be.
The downside to this cosy Welsh love-in (local radio for local people) is that the post-match analyses rarely traverse beyond the mind-numbingly anodyne.
So Dave / Roberto / Brian, you've just lost 5-1, had four players booked, been relegated and gone into liquidation - you've got to be disappointed with that? Compare that with the genuinely edgy exchanges between Championship journalists and Sean Bean/Neil Warnock in their unholy war of words on Sunday morning.
Yesterday, the two Ians pressed the right pre-match buttons, and their cautious optimism was bolstered by the ferocious noise coming from Fortress NP. Early signs sounded good, with Cardiff having all the possession and forcing a couple of corners. As the half drifted on, concerns began to surface. McPhail and Sinclair were evidently taking a prominent role, but the incursions into the Stoke penalty area just didn't seem to be happening.
Walshy turned on the tap of football drivel "early doors" and soon started hitting his stride. Playing football clichť bingo, I got a line within ten minutes - "big lads" "grafting and well-organised" "angled runs", and by midway through the first half had already called house - "midfield areas" "ball into the final third" "100 mph pace" sealing the deal.
In the second half Walsh turned into Ron Manager before your very ears. Summing up what's expected of Ross Turnbull, he started spluttering like a man possessed: "First impressions. New goalkeeper. Got to have good for the fans". (?). He later trumped this with the seasoned observation that "some things change, some things stay the same". Thanks for that Ian.
Meanwhile back on the pitch we are heading down the familiar well-travelled CCFC path - early pressure blown back by Stoke's sturdy rearguard, the inevitable happens on 27 minutes - a mis-cleared corner and Ryan Shawcross volleys Stoke into an "undeserved" lead. Unsurprisingly, atmosphere pops like a deflated ballooon, and the rest of the half peters out in uneventful fashion.
Jones' decision to exclude any strikers from the bench backfires bigstyle, as his impotent attempts to change the course of the game by employing Paul Parry as an emergency striker come to nought. Feeney gets a rousing reception as he comes off, but is that a recognition of the fans' appreciation or the fact that they are glad to see the back of him?
Stoke goalkeeper Simonsen receives great praise from the commentary team - Walshy even going as far as saying that the man has kept Stoke in the game with three world-class saves, but it is clear from the increasingly exasperated tones of the two Ians that this has been a blunt performance from Cardiff's "attack", a woeful start to the season and a serious wake-up call to all of us dreaming idiots who were giddily plotting our route to the top before the match started.
The fairweather flakey brigade start streaming towards the exits on 80 minutes and miss the final few moments of excitement. Steve MacLean, who has done little to excite the commentrary crew over the course of the game, is upended in the box by that man Shawcross, and a last-minute face-saving penalty is awarded to the Bluebirds.
MacClean strides purposefully up to the ball, strikes, and to the groans of IGW, Simonsen dives to parry the ball back before making another save from MacLean's scuffed rebound. Misery complete. Ian Walsh, summing up the penalty debacle, has a rare moment of insight, speculating as to why MacLean should shoot to Simonsen's right, given that all three of his earlier fantastic saves had been made that way.
And that's it. Whistle blows, players trudge off, Ali spins "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" to depress the parting punters, the full-time post mortems are rattled off and the task facing Cardiff City this season suddenly takes on an eerie fifth dimension. But, hey, let's not get too melodramatic about this. We have lost one game.
The squad's shortcomings have been exposed. We have time to remedy things. If DJ can bring in the two players he is talking about and Fowler returns to fitness we can make an impression on this division. Let's give the team a few games to gell into a unit before we swallow the collective cyanide tablet.
A home fixture in the Mickey Mouse Cup against Brighton should be the perfect opportunity to start this thing off properly. Tuesday 7.45. Season 2007/2008 Take Two.
Paul Davies © 2007.
Photos: Steve Davies
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