Celebrating the game’s minutiae, one tiny fragment at a time
As Cardiff City recently celebrated winning the Championship, I was reminded of last season’s Carling Cup Final. At that time the Welsh side were fighting on two fronts, contesting their first League Cup final while also hoping to achieve the promotion that had been elusive for four frustrating years.
Liverpool would eventually beat Cardiff on penalties, but not before the Welsh side put up a fight. They took a first-half lead through Joe Mason, before goals from Martin Skrtel and Dirk Kuyt restored the natural shape of the giants/minnows axis. With players tiring deep into extra time, Cardiff’s players were still gamely battling away, trying to find a way back in.
Somewhere around the 115th minute, the ball went out for a throw-in. Cardiff’s Aron Gunnarsson approached the touchline to retrieve the ball from his manager, Malky Mackay. Rather than hurriedly flinging the ball back to his player, impatient in the desperate search for an equaliser, his manager simply waited for his player to trot over on dead legs, before slowly and calmly handing it back to him, and telling him to take his time. Two minutes later, Cardiff defied the odds once more to equalise.
In that second, a mere atom of the final, Mackay demonstrated a faith in his players to get the goal they needed. There was no panic, no anxiety, nothing to fluster his team. In such situations we are used to seeing frantic managers gesticulating wildly, often while jabbering inanely. Gunnarsson himself would play a part in the goal, knocking on a corner towards Ben Turner, who gratefully slammed home a goal that warranted the Gold VIP shirt-off celebration, reserved only for the most dramatic of strikes.
There can be no telling precisely how influential Mackay’s subtle intervention was. Such a minuscule incident will have been forgotten, not least because Cardiff would go on to lose the subsequent penalty shoot-out as Liverpool went on to lift the cup instead. But this moment of sangfroid from Cardiff’s manager was emblematic of the approach that would eventually serve the club well. After years of collectively ruffling overpriced footballer haircuts against the glass ceiling, Cardiff have finally joined the elite. They will attempt to establish themselves with a squad largely made up of players who will seek to prove themselves in the Premiership for the first time. The likes of David Marshall, Kim Bo-Kyung and Peter Whittingham have excelled in the Championship, but will now be given the chance to mix it in England’s top tier.
If they are to succeed, they will require more of the belief and composure that Mackay demonstrated last season at Wembley. Such leadership has steered them through the haze of previous disappointments, as well as the turbulent change of colour decreed by the club chairman, Vincent Tan. It will take Cardiff some investment, greater application and diligent preparation, but if Cardiff are to thrive next season, don’t be too surprised if they grab some points by fighting until the very last minute, taking their time once more.