Football is back. It’s been a long summer with no international tournament to speak of or sink your teeth into (the Confederations Cup doesn’t count). The Championship returns this weekend and Cardiff embark on another campaign with a renewed sense of optimism under the management of Neil Warnock.
It’s been a fantastic pre-season for the Bluebirds with the optimism building practically since the final whistle of last season. So far Warnock has signed seven new players and on paper the squad looks exciting with greater attention given to adding more pace, more creativity and (hopefully) more goals to the squad. Warnock’s transfer activity hasn’t been as extravagant or headline-grabbing as other clubs in the division; it’s been mostly speculative – but low risk – with a couple of exceptions in the form of Lee Tomlin and Danny Ward, who are proven performers in the Championship.
As a result nobody seems to fancy Cardiff to do much at all this season. The bookies have Cardiff between 15/2 and 10/1 to get promotion, which places them 14th if final position predictions can be extrapolated from start of season promotion odds. The consensus of opinion among experts and the media is that Cardiff are likely to endure a season of mid-table obscurity and won’t really challenge the top places.
When you consider Middlesbrough have spent around £30 million on strikers alone; Wolves splashed out £16m on a defensive midfielder and have reportedly bid a similar amount for Burnley’s Andre Gray; then there’s established promotion contenders like Sheffield Wednesday, Fulham, Derby, Norwich and Reading; Hull City and Sunderland will be armed with Premier League money. That’s before we even mention Aston Villa, who – let’s not forget – have probably spent more than the whole of the Championship combined in last 12 months (somewhere between £70 million and £90 million).
It’s a compelling case then: Cardiff face an uphill task to anything beyond simply steadying the ship. Except…
Well the league looks as open this season as it has done in years. There doesn’t seem to be any outstanding teams this year. Last season there was the juggernaut of Newcastle United to contend with, and given the year on year progress Brighton were making, it was inevitable they would eventually push on. In terms of the Championship they were as close as you could get to a proven force. Below them though, the Championship proved once again it is largely open season and there for anyone to grasp: who really predicted Huddersfield, Fulham and Reading to do as well as they did? I doubt anyone predicted Huddersfield and Reading would meet at Wembley in the season’s climax, while the likes of big spending Derby and Aston Villa languished in mid-table.
This is not exactly a rock solid argument to make Cardiff’s case for promotion, but it is instead an illustration of why Cardiff fans ought not be disheartened by what the bookies and the ‘experts’ are saying.
Wolves, for example, have become fancied on the back of signing a player (Ruben Neves) who is a revelation on a few of the Football Manager games for an obscene amount of money. They also spent a similar amount last season on another computer game wonderkid – Helder Costa – and they endured most of the season in a relegation scrap. Aside from Middlesbrough (who have kept the bulk of the squad promoted two seasons ago and added some serious firepower) nobody really sticks out.
Of the other fancied teams: Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County have the reputation of being bottlers. Fulham and Reading face the challenge of proving they are not just one-season wonders. Norwich appears to be a club on the decline. Hull have shelled half their Premier League squad and have appointed an unknown quantity in ex-Russia boss Leonid Slutsky. Sunderland look like a club in crisis, don’t be surprised if they go down again. You would think with Steve Bruce at the helm and having spent so much money Aston Villa really ought to come good – especially with former England captain John Terry marshalling the defence – but who knows.
While Cardiff may have not splashed the cash like others or signed any big name players, what they do have is a manager who knows a thing or two about getting a team up. Seven times in fact, and practically every time with a side that wasn’t fancied. Whether that makes a difference remains to be seen, but there is every reason to feel more confident with Warnock spending half a dozen million pounds than the tens of millions some of his predecessors wasted.
With all the pre-season optimism and some fantastic public relations work in friendlies at local club Taffs Well and in Cornwall, Cardiff will be an interesting study this season. Will the Warnock formula for success work in the modern game of analytics and micro-data, where even Championship is being forced to embrace ‘universality’ (Fulham being the trend-setters). How long will the feel-good factor last at Cardiff where catastrophe always seems to be lurking around the next corner? Will Kenneth Zohore prove more than a one-hit sensation? If it does click for Warnock and Cardiff will the missing 10,000 ‘supporters’ flood back to the Cardiff City Stadium to enjoy the party?
If I may allow myself a short venture into the first person, I am quietly optimistic about Cardiff this season. I know Warnock is not a tactical revolutionary – we all know that Cardiff will be a physical, direct side (but that suits Cardiff, the city, its support and heritage) – but he knows how to build a successful side at this level. Realistically Cardiff could finish anywhere between the top six and bottom six – it’s that sort of division. Separating the sides is a very difficult, as you will come to realise if you try and predict the final table. Whether Cardiff do make the play-offs or better remains to be seen, but I am confident City will be there or thereabouts for most of the season.
Let’s not get carried away though: before any talk of promotion can take place Cardiff need to start winning games and collecting points. So let’s just worry about Burton on Saturday and take it from there.