It’s one of the most iconic images associated with Cardiff City in recent times. Kevin McNaughton being carried off the pitch amidst a sea of Cardiff fans, arms aloft, the joyful release of a long-awaited success etched across his face. It’s a moment of intimacy of the moment shows how powerful the relationship can be between football club and supporters when it is based on mutual respect.
Kevin McNaughton announced his retirement from football this weekend. It’s been two years since he left Cardiff City, but his cherished place among the support hasn’t waned. Along with Peter Whittingham, ‘Super Kev’ was one of the last links with an era that has passed. An era when Cardiff City felt like a big deal at Championship level, consistently competing for promotion, embarking on cup runs to Wembley finals, with a standard of play many City fans never thought they would see.
When McNaughton arrived on a free transfer from Aberdeen in the summer of 2006 he came with some promise but not a huge level of expectation. There were reports Celtic had been keen in the past and McNaughton had even flirted with international honours. He was a highly rated young defender north of Hadrian’s Wall. However, given the largely dismissive attitude towards Scottish football south of the Borders, it was debatable how good he could be.
It didn’t take long for ‘the silver fox’ to show his worth. His committed and hardworking displays made him an instant hit and a key player as Cardiff lit up the Championship in the early months of the 2006/7 season. As well as those lung-busting displays down the flanks, McNaughton proved his flexibility and willingness to a job for the team, comfortable on either side as a full back and even filling in midfield or at the heart of the defence when injuries or the situation commanded it.
Down the years he became renowned for his all-action defensive displays. Despite a fairly diminutive stature he was never afraid of the physical side of the game, rarely got bullied on the pitch or out-gassed due to being deceptively quick over the ground. That pace meant he had fantastic powers of recovery and often made last-man interventions in defence of the Cardiff goal. Never afraid to put his body on the line for the cause, McNaughton’s intense play often meant his body paid the price.
For all his virtues of the defensive side of his game, ‘Super Kev’ wasn’t really quite the modern full back in the attacking sense. He was one of those players who could have done with the instruction not to cross the halfway line. In his early years, charges and forays into the final third were not uncommon. Where he was willing didn’t really make up for the lack of finesse. Passing wasn’t McNaughton’s strength and his crossing was largely of Cohen Griffiths-level quality.
It is not a freak that he only scored twice in his Cardiff career. Yet it was typical of the man that the first, when it did arrive, was very memorable indeed: a 20 yard volley that helped City to victory in an FA Cup tie at Hereford. It is one of the best Cardiff City goals of the past decade, which is some feat when you’ve played in the same era as Peter Whittingham.
While he was a fantastic servant for the club on the field, it’s the chemistry he had with supporters that earns his place in the pantheon of Cardiff’s all-time greats. His humility and his humour stands out above everything, happy to lend his dry wit to various promotional films down the years and his video message for Cardiff fan Louis Moore’s wedding earlier this year was a measure of the man.
Going back to that April night in 2013 when Cardiff celebrated promotion to the Premier League. Yes, it was undoubtedly a moment of great personal achievement for McNaughton; yet there is a real sense conveyed of the connection between ‘Super Kev’ and Cardiff’s fans. After all, McNaughton had been there through all the disappointments that had seen Cardiff labelled as a ‘nearly club’: the failed promotion challenges, the end of season flops, the three Wembley defeats, the tame Ninian Park finale.
The clarity of football’s unifying power is self-evident in moments of success, but McNaughton’s approach to game is a symbol of that ‘all for one, one for all’ togetherness. A player who never took the club or the supporters for granted, who gave sweat and, literally, blood for the jersey. In return, Cardiff fans were never shy in expressing their love – some even offering up their wives in tribute.
Cardiff gave McNaughton a testimonial this spring and while it was typical of Cardiff to organise the match not only during the weekend of a Wales away international, but on Mother’s Day, (rather than at the end of the season for example), it was right that McNaughton and Cardiff fans had the opportunity for a final fling.
Whatever the future holds for McNaughton, there is no doubt he will always hold a place in the hearts of the Cardiff faithful (even if we wouldn’t all go as far as that song promises). The club would do well to have an open door policy for ex-players with this kind of affinity with the community. If there is to be a ‘Cardiff Way’ it should be about bringing about a culture of continuity, where players who get the club and its support are involved to the extent they wish to be.
After all, while McNaughton may not be a South Wales lad, he’s the City through and through: tough, uncompromising and fully committed. He’ll always be blue!
Good luck ‘Super Kev’ in whatever you do next, and thanks for the memories.