Just 11 matches into the season and Cardiff City, second from bottom of the Championship with just two wins to their name, took the decision to relieve head coach Paul Trollope of his duties. For a club that had flirted with top-flight football in 2013, the relegation zone of England’s second division was an unwelcome and unfamiliar place.
In recent history, the side from South Wales had experienced success in cup competitions. Enigmatic lower- league specialist Dave Jones took the club to an FA Cup Final in 2008 before Scot Malky Mackay recorded his first season in charge with a penalty shootout defeat in a League Cup final against Liverpool. It was, however, a season that ended with a crash. A 5-0 aggregate defeat to Premier League-bound West Ham United was preceded by rumblings of a now infamous rebranding of the club’s traditionally blue strips. Sweetened by the promise of serious investment, in bid to reach the prized lands of the Premier League, and just a month down the line from the play-off thrashing, Cardiff City announced the intention to redesign the club’s crest and to change the home kit to red thereby ending a 102-year association with the colour blue.
Plagued by historic debts and with aspirations for a higher level of football, financially, the investment promised by the rebrand made economic sense. However, and as Cardiff soon discovered, tradition is worth more to the fan than any new centre-forward or training ground upgrade. Vincent Tan, the man more at home as a Bond villain than a football club owner, was vilified and became the source of frustration amongst Bluebirds supporters.
As the club began the 2012-2013 campaign, Mackay’s experienced signings cemented the club as the side to beat, earning top-spot in November, a position they didn’t relinquish all season. Following a drab 0-0 draw at home to Charlton, Cardiff’s bluebirds-in-red secured promotion England’s top division for the first time in 51 years. With crowds averaging sellouts, the Cardiff City Stadium became a fortress for the side. For some fans, even the allure of Premier League football wasn’t enough to bring them back. They felt the rebrand had torn the soul from the club and the side playing in red was not the side they had supported religiously.
A turbulent maiden Premier League campaign saw Cardiff relegated with games to spare following a season of overspending, accusations of espionage and a controversial sacking. Manchester United super-sub, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer could do all but nothing as the Bluebirds returned to the Championship after just one season. Feuds and fallouts had played out in the media, and with the global exposure that the Premier League afforded, Cardiff City was in danger of becoming the laughing stock of world football.
Soon after, the red-tinted glasses disappeared and the leftovers of a rebranded, relegated club were all too apparent. Supporters became disillusioned with the club and the progress they were making. A heavy-spending summer window followed by a less than pleasing start to the season saw Solksjaer depart the club to be replaced by lower-league journeyman Russell Slade. With supporters calling for Welshman Tony Pulis, and Pulis calling for Cardiff, the appointment was met with disappointment by many of the City faithful. Yet, Cardiff was a Championship side with Premier League wages; Slade was called in with his job clear: streamline the high-earning squad and ensure the club remain competitive.
In his first season, Slade took the club to 11th, an impressive feat given the frequency of relegated clubs dropping down another level the same season. Discontent amongst fans continued, with protests attracting not just more participants but more attention from Tan. A large-scale fan campaign paid dividends with Tan, after seeking advice from his mother, decided to restore Cardiff’s traditional colours mid-way through the season. Cardiff were back to blue.
Slade continued to reduce the wage bill in his second-season in charge yet saw his side run out of steam in a late playoff push, eventually finishing 5 points behind 7th placed Sheffield Wednesday. The quality of football under Slade was underwhelming. Many fans felt the Cardiff on the pitch, albeit now playing in blue, were not the team they had grown to love. A disparity between fans was growing. The once-bouncing Cardiff City Stadium had lost its fear and the team looked flat and one-dimensional. A change was imperative. Slade was offered a role upstairs as Head of Football while his former assistant coach and a member of Wales’ successful European Championship coaching staff, Paul Trollope was promoted to the head role.
Achieving promotion was the aim yet by October it became apparent that Trollope was not a suitable enough appointment. He was to be replaced by Neil Warnock. It felt right. Cardiff was his sort of club, and Warnock was Cardiff’s sort of manager. He brought in experienced Championship players, Junior Hoilett and Sol Bamba, on free deals, both starring in Warnock’s first game in charge. A highly-charged derby win over Bristol City gave Cardiff fans an indication of the future. Under Warnock, the club climbed from 22nd to 12th in the table without spending a penny on transfers. Not only were the side winning, but the performances were spartan-like. Warnock made it clear he wanted his players to fit for him, and that they did.
Cardiff City fans are often, and perhaps quite rightly, scared to be optimistic. Yet during the off-season following Warnock’s ship-steadying campaign, Cardiff were quietly confident. Fans knew Warnock’s pedigree. This was the most successful manager in the history of the second division. Warnock knew how to get promoted. He had shown it time and time again. With an eye for a player and a network of scouts established through decades in the game, Warnock spent a fraction of what their Championship rivals had. Lee Tomlin, a brave midfielder making the move across the Severn Bridge, was their most expensive signing at just under £2 million. Warnock maintains City spent less than £5 million. Wolves, under new ownership, spent a cool £15 million on one player alone. This was a different Championship to the one Neil knew.
In pre-season predictions, City were tipped to finish mid-table at best. Nobody expected Cardiff to push for the playoffs. It was an expectation that suited Warnock and his side. Warnock relished being the underdog. Cardiff started the season in exceptional fashion. Five straight wins from their opening five games alerted the rest of the Championship to the threat emerging from South Wales. Many pundits and fans alike expected Cardiff to fall away. Without the money behind them, Cardiff simply didn’t have the money to sustain a promotion push. Leeds United, early challengers, dropped away as did newly-promoted Sheffield United. Staying near the top was proving easier said than done. But not for Warnock. Free agents Mendez-Laing, Hoilett and Callum Paterson have supported fan favourite Kenneth Zohore while the back line of Sol Bamba, Bruno Manga and captain Sean Morrison have impressed in front of Neil Etheridge. Joe Ralls continues to hold his own in midfield, an underrated player in the battlegrounds of the Championship.
For all of Cardiff’s talent, the star turn is their manager. Warnock’s brand of football is well-known to many and liked by few. He builds tall, physical sides who are able to hold their own in any match. Opposition fans chastise Cardiff for being specialists in hoof-ball yet with statistics illustrating Cardiff’s prowess as one of the Championship’s most potent sides in front of goal, one wonders if this criticism is merited. Warnock knows what it takes to win games. When you win games, you win promotion. In mid-March, Cardiff, having survived a festive wobble, are second in the table 6 points shy of once-runaway leaders Wolves. A 4-game winning streak, all with clean sheets, has opened a gap with chasers Aston Villa and Fulham. Warnock, however, isn’t looking over his shoulder. Still, despite being 2nd in the table with 11 games to go, Warnock’s side are still expected to fall away. Warnock, an ardent listener of radio phone-in shows, has heard what the media are saying. He loves it.
Cardiff City is a side with a chequered past. Undoubtedly, the rebrand ripped out a part of the club that many argue they have yet to regain. Fans troubled with the indiscretions of the past simply refuse to follow the team they once knew. Who can blame them? Cardiff alienated their fans for a one-season flirt with the Premier League. I’m sure if you turned back the clock, the hierarchy at Cardiff would consider their decision even more carefully. With Warnock, the club is on the rise. Unity has returned to the Cardiff City Stadium. Fans are on the same page and the club is better for it. Warnock has revitalised a fledgeling fan base and instilled energy back into the team. In today’s big-spending game, Cardiff City shouldn’t be second. They shouldn’t even be in the top half, let alone the playoffs. Yet they are. The season is far from over. Warnock, an experienced player in this game of Championship chess, knows too well eleven games can make or break a season. Seven wins should be enough for a return to the Premier League and Cardiff, under Warnock, wearing blue and united as a club, would be better for it.