We are close to injury time at Cardiff, and the City support is bouncing. Dean Windass – who else? – has given us the lead, and we are manfully protecting it. We don’t really look like letting it slip, but we’ve not got the greatest of defences on the road and we alternate between singing urgent songs of encouragement and chomping on whatever fingernails remain.
Then a small pocket of City fans to the left of the away end suddenly go wild, and the cause for their outburst of glee is instantly obvious. Ipswich have scored, Ipswich have scored, Ipswich have scored, and the bedlam swiftly spreads until it envelops everyone.
The players must surely know – the City bench certainly does, the chairman does, and the final minutes are played out among scenes of total Tiger delirium last seen at Huish Park. Then referee Friend blows the final whistle – City have won, Leeds are still drawing, and only a miracle can now save them from relegation, relegation at our hands.
The permutations relating to Championship survival were pored over in the agonising days leading up to City’s trek to Cardiff, and with a few injury problems affecting City during the week, one supposes Phil Brown had some combinations of his own to contend with. However, with City able to call upon more of those hit by injury than expected, the City manager sent out the following XI at a sunny Ninian Park: Myhill; Ricketts, Turner, Delaney, Dawson; Parlour, Peltier, Ashbee; Forster, Windass, McPhee.
Fifteen hundred City fans had poured themselves into the curious combination of seating and hugely welcome terracing that constitutes the away section of the Grange End, and were boisterous throughout as City defended the goal nearest to us.
And we didn’t defend it terribly well in the opening minutes. Boaz Myhill came out to intercept a long ball outside his area, but his header failed to find touch allowing Whittingham to cross from the left, but Steve Thompson could only head it straight at the thankfully-returned City keeper despite being unmarked.
City looked desperately nervous, and Cardiff were in complete control, leading to Thompson having another free header which was comfortably pouched by Myhill. And with our defence creaking, desperate news reached us from Elland Road – the White Shite had taken the lead against Ipswich, and were a point clear of us at the bottom.
This quietened the City crowd, as the afternoon took on the surreal atmosphere of us losing despite the game’s goalless state. And Cardiff were still on top, with a rasping 35-yard drive by Roger Johnson forcing a flying save by the City keeper. We were unable to keep possession for any length of time, with endless punts being easily collected by Cardiff’s inexperienced back-line and returned straight to us.
The tension was unbearable in the stands, with Southend’s relegation-confirming capitulation at home to Luton providing only the faintest comfort. Whittingham was the next to come close for the Welsh, a low drive from him flashing only narrowly wide with Myhill by no means certain to have covered his goal had it gone on target.
However, this fourth missed opportunity appear to becalm Cardiff, who had nothing to play for and the match settled into a more sedate pattern. Peltier nearly snuck in after a horrible mix-up between home keeper Forde and a defender of his, but the ball was whisked to safety before the City loanee could pounce.
The match trundled unhappily along, Leeds continuing to lead and City struggling to create any pressure on Cardiff’s defence. However, they were now offering little up front, a relief to the anxious Tiger Nation who’d previously seen a worrying proportion of the action conducted immediately in front of them.
Deano brought a splendid save from Forde as the half approached its conclusion, a thudding drive denied by a very smart one-handed save. However, little else occurred and the match drifted to the interval.
It was a fraught affair at the break, as the Tiger Nation sought urgent infusions of alcohol and fretted over the prospect of needing to defeat Plymouth eight days hence and hope Derby would be sufficiently motivated by their league position to have the incentive to beat Leeds. A horrifying thought. The season teetered on the brink of disaster.
Recognising the imperative for victory, Phil Brown made a courageous half-time substitution, introducing Marney for the listless Parlour. It proved to be a terrific decision, and one must reserve the highest praise for the manager for making it, and Dean Marney for justifying it.
It worked instantly, as Marney had probably his best afternoon in a City shirt. He was energetic, intelligent in possession and fearless in the tackle. A complete midfield performance, and while we might justly wonder just where this kind of display has been all season, we should at least be thankful he had it in him yesterday.
The tempo of the game lifted, and this was not to Cardiff’s advantage, daydreaming as they were of the summer sun in foreign climes, leaving the Tigers to prosper in the unseasonal Welsh sun. And with City newly-energised and the Tiger Nation collecting itself for a final push, we surged forward.
The tireless Forster fired wide from an acute angle, but this early opportunity emboldened us for the glittering moment of glory that followed shortly after. Marney scurried into space on the right and sent a perfect pass to Forster, whose shot was parried by Forde. However, the home keeper could not direct it away from goal, and Dean Windass – praise be – was on hand to speedily contort those aging limbs into position to hammer the rebound home.
The ecstasy in the away end was electrifying – bodies writhed and guttural roars of triumph shook the air. The City players swarmed over to their exultant support, during which Deano was apparently booked for over-celebrating – a nonsensical notion, but it mattered not. City led, the one-point gap was restored, and the atmosphere was a thing of urgent vitality.
Cardiff’s response will probably not endear them to any Leeds United supporters who happen to witness it. Their season over, with injuries decimating their side and in horrendous form, they didn’t seem too bothered about cancelling out our advantage. Nor, it must be noted, did their fans, although the love-in didn’t quite extend to both sets of supporters declining to aim their customary witticisms at one another.
Whittingham had a couple of efforts at goal, neither of which challenged Myhill despite the alarm they provided to those gathered over a hundred yards away. McPhee wandered off on 62 minutes to be replaced by Nick Barmby, and Cardiff’s game was falling to pieces. Perhaps on another day, this tepid display might have earned a severe rebuke from one of the Football League’s more admirably partisan crowds – instead, we joined with them in a chorus of “we all hate Leeds”. Heh.
Flood replaced the lively Whittingham for the home side midway through the second half, Dawson was cautioned for pointlessly clinging onto the ball after being told by referee Friend to release it – and now, despite Cardiff’s performance not improving a jot, we were struggling a little. The official gave Cardiff a few generous 50/50 decisions, and more by luck than judgement they made a few half-hearted raids on our goal. However, Delaney and particularly Turner stood firm and were comfortably able to smother the danger, though it may be observed that it didn’t seem so comfortable at the time.
On we went, Gunter replacing McNaughton for Cardiff and then Dave Jones bringing on Ramsey for Parry – their new youngest ever player, the PA breathlessly informed the home fans.
And now, following a few half-chances and near-openings for both sides, we enter the game’s final, dramatic conclusion.
It is Ipswich’s goal, Ipswich’s vital, precious, beautiful goal, and now we are dancing, we are singing, we are cheering, hundreds and hundreds of Tigerfolk abandoning any degree of decorum and good sense to caper wildly in celebration of an imminent Great Escape. The Cardiff fans look on, part-envious of our frenzied celebration, part-pleased that it is Leeds who are the direct victims of it all.
And then, after four minutes that provide no incident of note (not that anyone was really watching anyway), it is over. The players, now fully aware of the Tractor Boys’ intervention at Elland Road, pile over once more to celebrate the salvation of City.
Of course, the now well-documented events at Leeds, with hundreds of their scum displaying all the good grace in defeat one would expect from that detestable institution, prevent us from learning of the confirmation that we sit three points clear until well after half-past five, and a minor element of confusion creeps in among the jubilation. Obviously, news of Leeds fans fighting each other gladdens the heart – Darwinism in action.
However, it really mattered not. Leeds are three points adrift with a disadvantage of nine in the goal difference column. Only a miracle of hitherto unseen dimensions can save them now, and judging by the reactions of their leaders – Messrs Bates and Wise, that unloveliest of duos – they are not expecting great things next Sunday.
City? Well, we can leave the lengthy critique of this season for another time. Likewise, Phil Brown’s prospects of obtaining the job on a permanent basis. Let’s enjoy this moment. Your humble correspondent’s favourite moment was the spontaneous eruption of pure delight that followed news of Ipswich’s equaliser. It certainly made for some surreal sights – City fans singing “we love you Cardiff” in recognition of our host’s contribution, home and away fans applauding one another at full-time, Tigers’ supporters chanting “come on Ipswich” to a group of people at a different game hundreds of miles away who obviously wouldn’t hear. Or maybe the sight of practically every City fan, including kids, old ladies, respectable folk, all bellowing “who the fuck are Leeds United” with mildly unhinged fervour. Madness. Yet it all made perfect sense at the time.
The team? Marney was the catalyst. This was easily his finest hour at the club. Windass was the hero, as usual. His return has been Roy of the Rovers stuff – local boy done good comes back in the autumn of his career to save his childhood heroes, it’s a simply beautiful team. Turner? Brilliant. A proper big bloke’s performance in defence. Many good judges consider him our player of the year. The rest? Good enough, yesterday at least. When it finally mattered, with two horrible away games pivotal to our hopes, at long last we stood up, harvested four points and crawled to safety.
This long, hateful, dismal season has ended on a stunning high. That those horrible defeats against Colchester, Barnsley, Ipswich et al could possibly be the prelude to a day of sheer joy that not only dramatically secured our own safety but also relegated Leeds United into Division Three would have seemed impossible. But it’s happened. We’ve clambered to safety, and sent the most hateful club in England marching down together. A day to savour.