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Following last season’s stunningly inept end to the season which culminated in a dismal capitulation in the playoffs, it was clear there was going to be some soul searching at Cardiff City during the post-season break. Intense anger amongst a vocal group of fans and general disappointment amongst the majority, coupled with an obvious malaise amongst players and staff meant that Dave Jones’ time at the club was over. Jones brought stability over his tenure and took Cardiff to an FA cup final and a playoff final, achievements that should not be underestimated or forgotten. However, the side had become stale, inflexible and full of talented individuals that could not act as a team, so Jones had to go.
In searching for the right man to take the job the board rightly took their time. Names such as Chris Hughton and Roberto di Matteo were in the frame, and for a slightly terrifying 12 hours it seemed that Alan Shearer could be offered the job, but the board eventually settled upon the Watford manager Malky Mackay. Malky seems just the manager the club needs: young, hungry for success, decent track record so far, willing to play flexible styles of football and push youth development.
Unsurprisingly the line-up on the pitch this season has changed a lot as well. The high number of loan players meant there was always going to be a certain amount of churn, but with people at the end of contracts and the need for a bit of a clearout players such as Jay Bothroyd, Chris Burke, Craig Bellamy, Jason Koumas and Michael Chopra left over the season break. However the club has held onto the nucleus of a squad from which to build. The imports are either experienced pros who seem without too much ego or hungry young players eager for a chance to improve.
Surprisingly, given performances at the back end of last season, little has changed in defence over the summer yet it all looks stable and reliable. City have two quality goalkeepers in Marshall and Heaton, keepers who would command a starting berth in most Championship sides. Centre back options of Keinan, Hudson and Gerrard are no-nonsense physical types while utility men McNaughton (last year’s fans’ player of the season and website The Seventy Two’s readers’ player of the) and Blake offer pacier options. Full-backs include the aforementioned McNaughton and Blake, as well as Paul Quinn and new boy Andrew Taylor. There have been unconfirmed rumours that Lee Naylor is still hanging about somewhere and doing a passable impersonation of a professional footballer.
City seem to have plenty of options in midfield this year. The incredibly talented Peter Whittingham has stayed at the club and will doubtless be a fulcrum for the side, while stalwart Steve McPhail is still able to control the centre of the park. New arrivals such as Don Cowie offer dynamism in the middle, while Icelandic international Aron Gunnarsson looks to be a tough tackling no nonsense defensive midfielder who will be a fans favourite. Burly Scotsman Craig Conway is a direct upgrade on the departed Chris Burke, offering width for both flanks. Young players such as Aaron Wildig and Ibby Farrar could play a role as the season progresses, though their true quality is yet to be seen. Most intriguing is the signing of Slovakian Under 21 skipper Filip Kiss, apparently a tidy, technically gifted player and signed on a season-long loan from Slovan Bratislava. He could be one to watch.
Considering that for a week in the summer the only striker at the club was Jon Parkin, Cardiff’s attacking options have been strengthened a lot. The highlight of this is the return of the Zambian Prince, Robert Earnshaw. To say that Earnie is a legend at Cardiff is something of an understatement, his celebrations, his exuberance, his goals, the fact that he’s a Welsh international and a local lad means he’ll be cheered on every time he gets the ball. But it’s not simply nostalgia that makes him a great addition, he’s a proven scorer in the Championship and someone with a clinical finishing record when given a chance. The signing of Kenny Miller gives extra quality to the forward line, another proven goalscorer with a great record in the SPL, he’ll be expected to contribute 15 to 20 goals. Signings such as Rudy Gestede and Joe Mason look like something of a gamble, clearly talented (very much so in the case of Mason) but unproven. The attack looks like an area that still needs strengthening and a combo of Earnshaw and Miller does not match last year’s Bothroyd and Chopra. However if rumours of Craig Bellamy’s return to the club prove to be true then that problem is completely sorted.
All this adds up to a solid Championship side with some potential high level talent thrown in. Fans seem to have lowered their expectations for the season, which is only a good thing after last year where the feeling was that Cardiff should be winning every game. Realism has set in, fans know that a tilt at promotion is out of the question, the side has greatly changed in terms of personnel and playing style and it’ll take a while to gel together. A slow start to the season would not be unexpected and as long as they aren’t struggling too much come November then Malky should be given time and patience by the board, fans and media.
The hope will be that come the New Year the side will have settled itself and can then launch a push up the table. Malky has put together a decent Championship side, and a realistic aim should be a top 8 finish, while a top 10 would not be a flop of a season. However, an easy-ish run in at the end of the season coupled with a desire to avoid the kind of late slump that has characterised Cardiff over the past four years means I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bluebirds just edge into the playoffs come the final day. And then, who knows…