CARDIFF CITY have made quite a few headlines over the past few years. The controversial switch from the club’s traditional blue shirts to red, initiated by Victor Tan and his associates, did little to endear the administration to the fans.
Thankfully, the club reverted to blue, but the episode merely underlined the lack of understanding by the new breed of owners of the heritage of the game, and also suggested that marketing is at the root of everything these days.
But on Tan’s watch Cardiff have had a sniff of the big time in the form of elevation to the Premier League, a sojourn that lasted just one season before relegation in 2014. In 2013-14, crowds at their new stadium totalled almost 27,500 – a year later, back in the Championship, Cardiff were averaging 21,000 and in 2015-16, the Bluebirds bring in less than 15,000 – if ever a statistic highlighted the “boom and bust” aspect of stretching the elastic, it is post-Premier gates.
The Cardiff City stadium is an attractive location, certainly better than the Ninian Park ground that made way for it. Admittedly, it doesn’t have the “character” of the old home and it does look a little like other “cookie-cutter” grounds these days, but it is an impressive stadium in the modern sense.
You walk across Brian Clark Way to get to the ground – if you park next to the Athletics Stadium. Brian Clark, who was also emblazoned across my ticket, played himself into club folk lore by heading the only goal of Cardiff’s 1-0 win against Real Madrid in the 1970-71 European Cup-Winners Cup. He formed a lethal partnership with John Toshack and scored 75 goals in 182 league games – according to my ticket!
Clark is isn’t the only name commemorated – like many stadiums, it has the obligatory club legend statue outside. In Cardiff’s case, it has to be Fred Keenor, skipper of the club’s 1927 FA Cup winners, still one of the most romantic of football tales. In Keenor’s day, Cardiff played in front of crowds of the same size as today’s team – in 1926-27, City averaged 15,000 at their home games.
To be frank, there should have been more for the visit of Ipswich Town. Both sides were chasing play-off places, but there was a big distraction for the Welsh – England v Wales at Twickenham in a vital Six Nations rugby international. Although Welsh rugby today is not in the same class as the days of JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards and Barry John, the good folk of Cymru are still rugby mad.
That may have explained why the atmosphere around the Cardiff City stadium seemed quite subdued – or was it tense? A few days earlier, they had lost 0-2 at home to Leeds United, but by all accounts, they had played well. As Russell Slade, their manager, said, “there’s no questioning the desire shown by the boys”, as he reflected on Cardiff’s second home defeat of the season.
The stadium was slow to fill-up, or rather half-fill-up. Ipswich Town took a healthy following to Wales and they were certainly in better voice than the home fans. And on the subject of voices, no Welsh side could run out to anything other than a Male Voice Choir, which they did.
The two teams lined up as follows:
G – Simon Moore (25) – Signed from Brentford in 2013. Isle of Wight international!
D – Lee Peltier (29) – Joined Cardiff in January 2015 from Huddersfield. England under-18 international.
D- Bruno Eceule Manga (27) – Gabonese international who joined from French club Lorient in 2014, costing EUR 5m. A member of the Gabon squad in the 2012 Olympics.
D – Matt Connolly (28) – Signed from QPR in 2012 for £500,000. Started with Arsenal.
D – Scott Malone (24) – Left-sided defender/midfielder who had a brief spell in Hungary with Ujpest. Joined the club in 2015 from Millwall.
M – Craig Noone (28) – In his fourth season with Cardiff after signing (fee £1m) from Brighton in 2012.
M – Stuart O’Keefe (25) – Former Crystal Palace midfielder who joined Cardiff in 2015.
M – Joe Ralls (22) – England under-19 international picked up from Farnborough’s youth set-up in 2011.
M – Peter Whittingham (31) – Has made over 350 appearances in the Football League for Cardiff. Signed from Aston Villa in 2007. England under-21 international – 17 caps.
M – Anthony Pilkington (27) – Republic of Ireland international (8 caps), who joined Cardiff in 2014 from Norwich for £1m. Started his career with Atherton Collieries. Top scorer with eight league goals this season.
A – Lex Immers (29) – Striker on loan from Feyenoord. (Game of the People saw Immers in action a year ago at Feyenoord)
G- Bartosz Bialkowski (33) – Polish keeper who was signed from Notts County in 2014. Polish under-21 international.
D – Luke Chambers (30) – Former Nottingham Forest defender who joined in 2012.
D – Tommy Smith (25) – New Zealand national born in Macclesfield. NZ international.
D – Christoph Berra (30) – Scottish international signed from Wolves in 2013.
D – Jonas Knudsen (23) – Danish international signed from Esbjerg in July 2015.
M – Cole Skuse (29) – Former Bristol City midfielder who joined Ipswich in 2013.
M – Luke Hyam (24) – Youth team product just returned from injury.
M – Ben Pringle (27) – On loan from Fulham.
M – Freddie Sears (26) – Formerly with Colchester United (another player who GOTP has seen)
A – Daryl Murphy (32) – Experienced forward who joined from Celtic in 2012. Republic of Ireland international.
It wasn’t a classic, by any means, with a distinct lack of passion from two sides trying to hang-on to play-off aspirations. The decisive goal came in the 18th minute, Peter Whittingham’s outswinging corner powerfully met by Gabonese defender Bruno Ecuele Manga. Ipswich goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski could perhaps have done better.
Manga had a good game and kept Daryl Murphy very quiet. He was always on top in the aerial battle, as I was constantly being reminded by the local supporter beside me. His defensive partner Matt Connolly was also in good form.
Whittingham, a real crowd favourite, was usually involved in anything half decent coming from Cardiff, his crosses often causing some problems. Cardiff should have extended their lead in the second half when Scott Malone was sent clear but his well-struck shot went just too high and wide.
Late in the game, Anthony Pilkington, who worked hard all afternoon, had a header tipped over by Bialkowksi. In the end, one goal was enough to keep Cardiff’s campaign alive and deliver a serious blow to Ipswich’s own hopes.
And that was it – a quick wave to Fred Keenor on the way out, a stroll down Brian Clark Way and across the bridge back to England. But the Welsh were not happy – Cardiff may have won, but their rugby team were beaten by England. Did I hear strains of “swing low, sweet chariot” coming from the Ipswich fans?