Before I start, I will go on the record and say I am not a person that regularly goes to watch Cardiff City live. I am from Cardiff and view a number of their games on television, or I go to a few games. I was many years ago, a season ticket holder at Ninian Park during the dark days when The Bluebirds languished in the third and fourth tier of English football and to see the improvements in infrastructure and on the playing staff have been something I have taken a lot of satisfaction from, and with my son starting to show some interest in the club then who knows more regular visits to Cardiff City Stadium could well be on the cards.
Now back to the season itself and the trap door that is relegation that Cardiff City has just fallen through. Am I surprised they are relegated? No, not at all. When I looked at the other sides in the League this season and their strengths of playing squads, I feared this would happen. Was I surprised that it took until the last but one weekend for the axe to fall? Again no. I felt that defensively Cardiff City would be reliable and a real threat as an attacking force at set pieces, I just feared that ultimately, they would not score enough goals in this League, but they would keep going, their fighting spirit, and even though there were a number of events where they were outclassed, they kept going to the end, and for that they deserve a lot of credit, other clubs have not shown that same spirit.
What has surprised me though is that set pieces they have not been as strong as I hoped at both ends of the pitch. Cardiff City is a strong physical side, good aerially, and to see the amount of goals conceded from this area has been a real surprise and disappointment.
There have been times where either lack of organization or concentration/tiredness at set pieces have created mismatches. As an example of this, it will stick in my memory for a while the crucial game against Burnley in April at Turf Moor when on more than one occasion, Chris Wood the tall striker for Burnley was being marked by Victor Camarasa, the highly talented technical midfielder. Camarasa is many things, but competent aerially against a tall centre forward whose main strength is in the air is not a talent he has. Who was surprised when Wood scored from a corner? Not me that’s for sure.
I am not going to go into too much detail, but my main conclusion is that they simply did not have enough quality in the squad to remain up. As mentioned previously, defensively they were not as strong as I thought they might be but that could well be me watching how strong they were as a defensive unit in the Championship last year and underestimating how good some of the sides in the Premier League in attack, so the differences in class in the two respective leagues. I do think that Cardiff City in some games did sit off, being passive, in some games they were too conservative and showed some teams too much respect. The team in my view were improved when pushing on more trying to rush opposition players with the likes of Harry Arter racing around harassing people.
However, I am sure Neil Warnock and his coaching team will say the best sides are so good they will play through that pressing strategy and Cardiff when in one on one contests are not good enough to cope, hence why they sit behind the ball defending in numbers. We did see yesterday when they were chasing the game for obvious reasons and leaving acres of space, Palace picked Cardiff off easily at times, so who is to say that Warnock was not right, he certainly has more experience than me in the ways of football strategy!
There were some excellent performances and results for the fans to enjoy through the season, such as beating Fulham at home in October, beating Wolves again at home in November, doing the double over Southampton, a fantastic away win at Leicester in December and a win at home to West Ham in March. Some of the goals scored in the campaign such as Junior Hoillet, Victor Camarasa, and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing efforts were superb. There were also narrow losses to Arsenal and Chelsea when Cardiff put up outstanding performances and if individual decisions had gone their way then who knows, additional points could have been achieved. Some decisions went against them, but I don’t think this should mask over that the team just did not have enough quality to stay up this time around.
In terms of the players then when you look at the current squad, then there are in my view only a few who are up to the Premier League standard. Neil Etheridge, the goalkeeper, has had a great season. The keeper has surprised me with his consistent performances, and I can undoubtedly see Premier clubs interested in acquiring his services. He does need work on his ability to command his six-yard box on crosses and his distribution with his feet is a work in progress, but there is undoubtedly enough showed to believe he can perform at this level.
Bruno Ecuele-Manga is also I think, a player who can play at this level. This season he performed admirably at the start of the season in an unfamiliar right-back role before following Sol Bamba’s injury, moving to his favoured position of centre back and that versatility and ability could see a mid-table, bottom half Premier club coming in for the player.
Loanee signing, Victor Camarasa also has the technical expertise to play in the Premier League but whether he has the desire to play week in and week out at the level of intensity that the League demands I am unsure about. For me, he seems better suited to playing in another League in the world, maybe a return to Spain and La Liga suits him more favourably, we shall see.
Another loanee, Harry Arter, again he has shown is capable at this level, and I would be surprised if his parent club, AFC Bournemouth have him back playing regularly for them or moving to another club in the Premier League. Bar those players mentioned, I am afraid the others are Championship players at this time, and the fact the number I believe is of the Premier League standard gives you more evidence as to my point they are just not at this level at this time.
Other clubs in this League spent big, and it worked for them relatively speaking such as Wolves. However, Fulham spent big on players such as Aleksandar Mitrovic and Jean-Michael Seri and they have backfired hugely.
Cardiff’s three biggest signings for this season were in different ways recruits that did not work out as planned. Firstly, Josh Murphy, the wide player bought from Norwich City for £10m came to the club and in flashes showed real ability, quick, direct and looked a goal threat at times. But over the season was inconsistent, picked up a few injuries and on some occasions even when fit, sat on the bench as an unused substitute. As of now, Murphy has potential, but we will have to see if he stays or moves elsewhere. Is he top level standard? For me, the jury is out.
The second signing last summer was Bobby Decordova-Reid. The player joined from Bristol City for a reported £12m after scoring 19 goals the previous season in the Championship. Many fans were excited by this signing. What has transpired is a player who has never settled as a regular in the team, the coaches have seemed to struggle to find a position that suits the player and the team in the formation they wanted to play, which has had the player on the fringes a lot. He is a talented footballer but would have to say it has not worked out to this point for all parties.
Thirdly and lastly, Emiliano Sala which is a football and personal tragedy on all levels and had a significant effect on so many people. Three signings, two not delivered as Cardiff would have wished and lastly a loss of a player that who knows what impact he could have had on a football pitch. He will be sorely missed.
In attack, Cardiff due to injuries loss of form or faith in players meant that for several games the player who led the line was Scottish international, Callum Paterson. The player has for many years been a valuable member of the playing squad for the teams he has played for, but the majority of his career has been as a defender, but for Cardiff in the Premier League, he was the main focal point of the attack.
Paterson is a fan favourite and whenever he takes the field gives it all that he has, but he is not a top-class striker unlike other converts of the past from defence to attack such as Chris Sutton and Paul Warhurst. Paterson is a great squad member, but your central striker in a Premier League campaign is not what you would want.
Lastly, a special mention for the Cardiff City fans. They have travelled far and wide across the country supporting their team and have been fantastic. Their outpouring of emotion after the Sala tragedy and their support for Leicester City after the death of their owner shows how unique the football community can be. Many Cardiff fans I spoke to before and during the season had their expectations at the right level, they knew it was going to be a struggle, but they kept believing and hoping.
I have no doubt next season they will be back supporting Cardiff City again. I expect Cardiff to do well next season in the Championship and whether Warnock is the manager next season then who knows, but I expect the Bluebirds to be flying high, and I wish them every success in the Championship and who knows me and my son could be a regular visitor in the seasons ahead.
Feature Picture: eveningstandard.co.uk