“Thirty games, we’re still here”.
That chant had already been aired during the first half, but as the interval approached and yet another half-time deficit on the road neared, an eight-minute rendition reverberated around the tiny clutch of City fans huddled together in the Cardiff City Stadium.
No-one really does defiant, gallows humour like City fans. That’s probably because we’ve had more practice over the years. In some respects, it’s heartening to see that now the glory days are over and we’ve been pared back to the serious hardcore for fixtures such as this, that attitude has re-emerged. Could you seriously imagine many other clubs’ fans making sense of what is being done to us by singing “how shit must you be? You’ve only scored one”? Precisely.
That doesn’t excuse City, of course. Us making the best of a rancid situation offers no absolution to a bunch of players who have now managed an eye-watering, soul-destroying thirty away without a win. One observer whose opinion this dispirited observers attaches great weight to opined in the pub before the match that he’d rarely anticipated a City away game less than this one. It’s becoming a common view. City haven’t got within even a single goal of even drawing an away game in the League; while we fell to a humiliating defeat against Third Division opposition in the League Cup. No-one, either on the pitch or in the stands, has the belief that City are going to win an away game any time soon. This wretched run may now be in the 30s, but don’t bet against it ending soon.
Nigel Pearson looks a man in need of something, anything happening. He’s arguably been unfortunate that four of our first six games have been away. At home, we’re unbeaten and yet to concede. He’ll be greedily awaiting the pair of fixtures that await at the Circle next week, and desperate for them to kick-start the season. However, there was no reason yesterday couldn’t have been that day. Unfortunately his side never really looked like managing that.
That side, for the record, was: Duke; McShane, Ayala, Gerrard, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee (c), Koren, Barmby, Kilbane; Fagan. A 4-5-1 formation, and debuts for both central defenders, plus a first start of the season for Craig Fagan. It took the total number of players already used this season to a startling 21, and meant that on a sunny, breezy afternoon in Cardiff the Tigers were fielding a claustrophobically cautious line-up.
Perhaps it was done so with Cardiff’s potent attacking threat in mind. In the event, Messrs Bellamy and Bothroyd were ruled out through injury. They did however feature Seyi Olfinjana in midfield after the clubs agreed that the players they’re loaning from each other could play today. It was not to be a clever decision.
City started the game moderately well, though it was a poor spectacle. The defence looked relatively tight, though Ayala and Gerrard were visibly unaccustomed to playing alongside each other. Cardiff looked strangely hesitant and as such the Tigers strolled through what was expected to be a torrid opening.
Then Cardiff scored a revoltingly straightforward goal. A free-kick conceded on the City left was swung in, a huge leap was directed at the ball and it thumped into Duke’s goal. The scorer? Seyi Olofinjana. Atrocious defending.
Few of those at City today will remember that dismal afternoon at the Memorial Stadium in 2003 will remember what happened the last time the Tigers permitted one of their own players to play against them; indeed, only Adam Pearson, Andy Dawson and Ian Ashbee remain. The 613 City fans there, comfortably double our turnout in Cardiff, would bitterly remind them: that poison dwarf Ryan Williams scored against his own club.
The mood shifted a little. Earlier, we’d amused ourselves with chants of “how shit must you be? We’re drawing away” – this was reworked as Cardiff settled into an afternoon of depressingly untroubled superiority. City created virtually nothing, showed no spark or liveliness, and the result was already beyond doubt.
Richard Garcia had what was just about City’s only shot on target of the afternoon shortly afterwards, forcing a corner from which Ayala sent a header off target. Cardiff nearly doubled their lead when McNaughton ambled through City’s dozy defence and sent a well-struck shot narrowly wide. A rare foray in Cardiff’s final third shortly before the half-four saw City force a corner, and from that Paul McShane sent a header that was cleared off the line, though whether it was going in was unclear from our awkward vantage point.
That was about it for the first half, save for a bizarre flare-up between two City fans that saw one ejected. It’s odd when a trip to Cardiff sees the worst of the extracurricular activities occur not among the home fans, but then they seem to have caught newstadiumitis. A smaller, boxier version of Coventry’s Ricoh Arena, it’s a far cry from Ninian Park. That, on its day, could be a seething bearpit, though infrequently so in its latter days. I doubt their new place, within a few hundred yards of the old, will ever become so.
From time to time, there was a stonking noise. We were huddled together in a corner, with totally silent home fans to our left behind on goal, a single-tiered stand to our right from which a handful of half-hearted cries were heard, and at the far end behind the goal, came most of the noise. There, mass-standing was very impressively occurring (and indeed the stewards left us alone to do likewise – kudos), but although there were occasions when singing was taking place, the noise failed to transmit itself. Maybe it come across better on the pitch. And to be fair, we were probably impossible to hear at the opposite end too.
With the result effectively decided, entertaining ourselves took priority. A battery of songs heralding the heroes of yesteryear had already been undertaken, Montenegro’s achievement as the latest country-that’s-only-existed-for-a-few-years to embarrass Wales was saluted, but it was all in vain. If the City players had heard our rebuke about the imminence of the 30th successive failure on the road, they showed little determination to end it.
Kilbane, relatively good in the first half, was withdrawn for Cairney at half-time, but little changed. Koren sent a decent shot whizzing wide of Marshall’s goal. Cardiff offered almost nothing, but had no pressing need to. Ten minutes into the half, Dave Jones took off Olofinjana for Gavin Rae. Still little happened. On the hour, Nigel Pearson made a double substitution, withdrawing Fagan (we’ll come to him later) and Barmby for Jay Simpson and Mark Cullen.
City were now on top in terms of possession and perhaps territory, though much of it was some distance from threatening areas of the pitch. Jason Koumas burst through the middle, but was distracted at the moment of shooting and his effort went wide, while Simpson nearly made a similar break at the other end, but was effectively disposed by a covering Cardiff defender.
Sigh. It was poor fare, in truth. City appeared to have little idea how to break down a resolute side, and nine minutes from time Cardiff scored again – once more, in a desperately disappointing fashion. A neat move on the City right saw Wildig feed Rae, and he stabbed the ball at goal. Duke’s reactions were horribly slow, and the ball struck his leg and dribbled over the line. Worryingly poor goalkeeping. The Cardiff fans celebrated three easy points, we grumbled a bit before being released into the afternoon to contemplate a long, quiet journey home.
It’s too early for snap judgements. Nigel Pearson is not going to be the new Phil Parkinson. We hope. But the facts are clear, and disturbing. City are winless in five, haven’t come anywhere near an away win and sit 19th in the table. We rarely look like scoring; we always look as the next goal against is a matter of time.
It’s distressing to record this, but Duke isn’t a Championship goalkeeper. A replacement is needed. City have now tried six different players in the centre of defence, but the goals continue to be leaked. Ian Ashbee is slow, seemingly overweight and is raging against the dying of a light we fear was extinguished by his latest awful injury.
Craig Fagan is a trier, but is nothing when he doesn’t try. Yesterday he didn’t. Koren looks bemused and frustrated by the inadequacy of his team-mates, while Garcia hasn’t had a good game all season. Kilbane and McShane’s relentless industry is admirable, but their erratic nature hasn’t diminished by dropping down a division. Jay Simpson had a reasonable outing yesterday, but he clearly needs time to adapt to a new club. Cairney hasn’t got to grips with the Championship, while Dawson’s struggles are a surprise and yet another source of concern.
A mass of problems for Nigel Pearson, then. Some will remedy themselves with time. Many players will grow more used to their teammates, and fluency will improve. We must remain patient while that happens. The same applies for our younger contingent. However, there are some issues that require a more forceful intervention from the manager. He must be getting an idea of what they are. He could do worse than implement them soon, before a difficult situation grows into something more grave.