Cardiff are second in the Championship. We try to make sense of it all..
Where has this run come from?
It actually started last season. Cardiff were in the Championship relegation zone exactly a year ago, but only lost eight of their last 26 league matches of last season to end in mid-table. Having pushed on in the first half of 2017, they have used that form as a platform.
Cardiff won their first five league matches of the season to break a club record, and have lost three of their first 21. They last lost a league game at the Cardiff City stadium on April 28 against Newcastle.
Wolves have spent big money. Have Cardiff done the same?
Not really, at least certainly not to Wolves’ level. They signed Lee ‘doesn’t really look like a footballer’ Tomlin for £3m, but the other two arrivals for fees were from League One clubs. Add on five free transfers from such clubs as Bourg-en-Bresse, Rochdale and Hearts and two loan players and you have the sum total of their incomings.
Neil Warnock has never been a man who believes that expensive signings are necessary to provoke an improvement in league position and squad performance. That’s exactly why Cardiff appointed him.
Wait a minute, hasn’t Neil Warnock retired about four times?
Oh yes. But if this a Cardiff City success story, it is a Neil Warnock success story too. Everybody’s favourite irritable pragmatist was appointed in October 2016 and turned around Cardiff’s season after a sticky start. Last season’s relegation candidates are now four points ahead of third place and are only four points behind the Jorge Mendes-powered leaders.
For Warnock, it is an Indian summer after all the t-shirts have been packed away. As far back as February 2012 he promised to retire at the end of the following season after seeing Nottingham Forest owner Nigel Doughty die at the age of 53, saying: “I don’t want to die on the job.” Almost six years later, Warnock is back at the top of his game at the age of 69. Win his next game and this will be his best win percentage at any club.
Warnock’s time at Leeds United ended in 2013 without success, and was succeeded by a miserable – if brief – second spell at Crystal Palace. Between December 2014 and October 2016, Warnock managed only 20 games at QPR and Rotherham United, steadying the ship at the former and keeping the latter up against the odds, to establish a reputation as a short-term firefighter. Cardiff is surely his last shot at a record-breaking eighth promotion.
Is this all about classic Warnock football?
To an extent, yes. Cardiff are the second lowest scorers in the Championship’s top seven and have the best defence in the league. Only Millwall compete in more aerial duels per game, only three teams have had less possession and three concede more fouls.
Still, what did you expect? Warnock is 69 years of age, has been managing for 37 years and has a formula that works, so expecting this old dog to start implementing principles of short passing triangles is ludicrous. Ask Cardiff City supporters if they are bothered about the style of football.
Importantly, Cardiff’s players have bought into Warnock’s football, despite criticism from opposition managers. “If you look at the comments from last week, the teams we beat, it’s just pathetic to be honest managers coming out and saying that,” said Sean Morrison. “We’ve been absolutely fantastic in what we’ve done. We’re probably the best team in the league at mixing it up, we’re not a team that just lumps it forward. We get in people’s faces, we win the ball high up and pitch and we counter-attack.”
Warnock also has a fine group of attacking players at his disposal, and deserves credit for assembling them. Junior Hoilett is in the form of his life; Nathaniel Mendez-Laing has been excellent since arriving from Rochdale; Kenneth Zohore has not been as prolific as last season, but is the perfect Championship target man. Further back, Sol Bamba, Bruno Manga and Sean Morrison are three capable central defenders, although Manga has also played as a full-back.
Far more apparent than any agricultural football is the belief that Warnock has instilled in Cardiff’s players, another hallmark of his managerial success.
“The difference is the team spirit,” Bruno Manga told Adam Bate in an interview with Sky Sports. “So many things have changed with the manager, the team and everyone here.” The defender also stressed that Warnock is a manager who is obsessed by the minutiae of each player.
How’s Paddy Kenny doing in goal?
I see you are bantering about Warnock’s pattern of keeping his old friends very close. What a lovely banter it was. Sadly, Kenny is currently playing for Maltby Main of the Northern Counties East Football League, so your joke didn’t work. That said, Kevin Blackwell is Warnock’s assistant manager so two of the old crew are back together.
So can this last?
The temptation is to say no. Cardiff’s squad is lighter than their rivals in terms of squad depth, and the Championship season is ludicrously gruelling. With Derby County and Aston Villa gaining momentum after difficult starts to the season and Leeds and Middlesbrough possibly over their blips, there is likely to be fierce competition for the second automatic promotion spot behind Wolves.
Still, Warnock and Cardiff’s season should not be judged as success or failure by their ability to keep hold of second place. After years of misery under the ownership of Vincent Tan, the old-timer has given supporters a new lease of life. Even finishing in the play-off spots would represent a magnificent improvement. Cardiff are currently 11 points ahead of Leeds in seventh.