It’s May 3rd, 2014. I’m standing in the heavens of St James’ Park, just making out the coloured dots that pass for players. Cardiff City have just slumped 3-0 to Newcastle United – a Newcastle side playing in front of a mutinous crowd who jeers every time Alan Pardew, then Magpies’ boss, walks out of his technical area. Cardiff needed a win to have any chance of escaping relegation, but you wouldn’t have known it. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men were apathetic, laboured and devoid of confidence. A frenzied season of drama, controversy and back-page headlines had culminated in abject misery.
The novelty of the ‘Big Six’
The day out, at least, was fun – Newcastle being a great city for an away fan. But that is all that was, indeed fun, about Cardiff’s maiden year in the Premier League: the days out.
A season that promised so much excitement left me, and fellow supporters, feeling indifferent. Sure, we had our moments. Our advent Premier League match against Manchester City was perhaps the greatest atmosphere I’ve ever been involved in; our last-gasp equaliser against Fulham, ending 3-3, sparked delirious scenes in the away end at Craven Cottage; and there was a stoppage-time equaliser against Manchester United at home.
Yet largely, these moments of pure ecstasy were the exception to the rule. After the novelty of hosting the ‘Big Six’ wears off, the lie you told yourself, that you’d just enjoy the ride regardless of the results, rings hollow. Particularly in the case of Cardiff, not seeing your team win for weeks on end was a crushing experience.
Which is why, as I watched City players stretched on the floor, head in hands – probably embarrassed more than upset – I felt relief, not disappointment. The Championship had been exhilarating the season prior, and though we’d have to steady the ship with a few uninspiring managerial appointments post-relegation, Russel Slade and Paul Trollope, Cardiff eventually managed to lift themselves up under the blood-and-guts management of Neil Warnock. And boy, was it enjoyable. Without wanting to accidentally craft an ode to Warnock, it’s safe to say he united a fractious fan-base and brought passion back to the capital. Joining the mass of blue that descended onto the pitch as Cardiff’s promotion was confirmed on the final day of the season – cheers, Fulham – I felt unfettered joy.
Still, as the season approaches, I cannot help but harbour a feeling of caution. City have the lowest wage bill in the top flight and have a squad comprised of mainly Championship players, even if they are the very best that division has to offer. Warnock will no doubt get his men firing and the least you can expect from the Bluebirds is to see them put everything on the line, but I just hope it doesn’t end up as it did four years prior (You can currently get the Bluebirds at 23/20 to beat the drop).
Even if Cardiff do fend off relegation, what then?
There is a growing anxiety from supporters regarding the idea of a ‘successful season’ for those clubs from the top six or seven downwards. When you go into a season already dreading a dogfight to survive, expecting losses and inconsistency, where is the fun?
It may be a monetary success to retain Premier League status, but a lot of clubs – Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham, Brighton and so forth – find themselves simply playing to stay afloat. In some ways, it’s a fruitless moan. Nothing will change, given the financial muscle the top six exerts and so there is little point in deriding the current state of affairs.
Stripping it down to its most basic form, winning is fun and losing is not. In the Premier League, invariably, if you’re a new boy you won’t do a lot of the former but will suffer a whole lot of the latter. There’s a lot to be said for the entertainment the Championship brings, but would anyone genuinely pass up promotion just to keep winning? That would undermine the competitive nature on which the English pyramid rests.
There does not seem to be any viable alternative, and while I will certainly relish some of Cardiff’s upcoming campaign, there will surely be moments of anguish and agony – last-minute losses, stale encounters. I don’t like to be fatalistic and deterministic about things, which is why I still anticipate the new season with optimism, but there’s no escaping the stagnancy the Premier League is gripped with from the top six-downwards.
Image credit: Fox Sports