This was my first visit to the Keepmoat Stadium and my 3rd Cardiff away game of the season. Like the other two (Blackpool and Coventry) this one ended in a draw, and it highlighted the zip and fluidity that has gone out of the side since they destroyed Blackpool at Bloomfield Road in the most one sided draw I’ve ever seen.
One of the most welcome developments of Championship football over the past few seasons has been the increasing common-sense shown by clubs towards match-day ticket sales. I’ve missed no end of games over recent years simply because I’ve been unable to commit to attending a game several days in advance. I live 170 miles from the ticket office so any decision has to be made days in advance, and usually that’s too much of a risk. My desk drawer contains unused tickets to Charlton, West Brom and Swansea, not to mention flights to Cardiff and Bulgaria that were unfulfilled due to late fixture changes and work commitments respectively.
Doncaster filled the reputation as a friendly, admirable club by announcing away match ticket sales would be available to Cardiff fans, and this helped me no end. I had investigated the purchase of tickets from Cardiff, but this would have meant away travel membership charges of £70 for my group – more than double the price of match tickets. In an era when financial watchdogs are investigating the right to charge somebody for the right to buy something, I don’t see these fees as anything other than a rip-off, and I’ll keep on making other arrangements for my tickets until there are more reasonable fees.
I was on the staff at Ninian Park when David Temme took the club from a walk-up culture to a ticketed attendance, and believe me it was not an easy transition. There were large queues and delays as fans struggled to comprehend the lack of a cash turnstile, but the process eventually worked and the club saved thousands of pounds by being able to accurately predict attendances. They could print the right amount of programmes, order the correct amount of burgers, and employ a sensible amount of bar staff. The switch makes good sense for the club, but it has hampered the casual fan.
As it was, one of my sons suffered a late kick off in his morning game, and that meant he was left behind as we made our dash across the Pennines from north Wales. That route still amazes me. How can the main road from Manchester to Sheffield still entail a crawl through a single-track village the size of Gilfach Goch?
There’s not much to say about the Keepmoat. It’s bijou, neat and tidy. The walk-up from the usual makeshift industral estate car parks exudes all the atmosphere and pre-event excitement of a toilet brush manufacturer’s association annual conference. But at least the car park was £3, and not the tenner they charged us at Coventry, and tickets for the boys were a fiver each. Inside, it’s featureless like so many grounds these days. It was my 78th League ground, and the last stadium that felt worth the trip for me was The City Ground. Derby, Coventry, Middlesbrough, Leicester, Hull, Doncaster were all the same; convenient, functional, boring.
On the pitch, my low expectations were comfortably met, but not exceeded. Cardiff were efficient, tight, sound, hard-working, and also pretty dull. Doncaster are another side that put the shackles on Whittingham and watched as the rest of that genius’s team fumbled around for an opening that never looked likely. For their part, Doncaster were much more impressive than their relegation rivals Coventry, with El Hadj Diouf looking a threat alongside the quieter Billy Sharp. On this form, they are much less likely to go down that that God-awful sky-blue side.
Cardiff are not without elements to admire. Watching this side, you don’t feel that a calamity is around the corner. They look resolute, professional and organised. Opposition teams need to work hard to score, and they look secure defending set pieces. Marshall is a fine goalkeeper. Twice yesterday he saved Cardiff when Doncaster did manage to create something. A minute half-time, while loads of Cardiff’s impressively drunken following of 800 were still in the bar, he pulled off an excellent diving save from Sharp. And he denied the same player later on with quick reactions. He is much more secure than Heaton at the moment, but I applaud Mackay’s loyalty in sticking with his usual League Cup keeper.
At full-back, City missed McNaughton. For once, he wouldn’t have been required to make his usual covering tackles, but his energy would have been appreciated in attack. Even though his distribution is often askew, McNaughton’s driving runs create some uncertainty which can allow space and opportunities for others. Blake seemed to lack attacking confidence and energy.
There was one audible shout from the City followers which made me laugh: “Blake, you need to stop going out on the beer!”. I love these shouts which hint at an intimate knowledge of a player’s extra-football activities. Before the internet, this was how it worked. People would shout out stuff they knew. “Pikey, you should have been training instead of sitting in Whitchurch High Street bookies all day on Thursday”. “Tarki – you had much quicker feet on the Top Rank dancefloor last Friday”. Keep it up. If you know something, shout it out. Share the knowledge.
The truth is that with Blake and Taylor at full-back City have very little thrust down the flanks. There are no effective overlapping runs, or dashes upfield. Blake and Taylor offer solidity but little excitement; the personification of Malky’s team at left-back and right-back.
I was more impressed by the now regular centre-half pairing. I’ve never understood the criticism of Mark Hudson. He’s a high quality player, and alongside him Ben Turner really looks the part. This is a central defensive pairing that should see the side through to the end of the season.Don’t be surprised to see a disgruntled Anthony Gerrard look for a move as his playing opportunities become more limited.
As I said earlier, Whittingham in midfield was closed down quickly whenever the ball came his way. And this left Gunarrson free to receive the ball in areas where you would have preferred to have seen the laid-back Brummie in posession. Gunnarson is impressive, though I’m sceptical about the effectiveness of his looping pseudo-long throws.
The main thing that has changed from that Blackpool display is the performance of Cardiff’s wide players. Don Cowie struggled to make any impact at all. Where was the dynamic player that ran at Blackpool all game? Is there now a more conservative managerial instruction that is shackling the player? And Craig Conway has gone completely –nowhere to be seen. Joe Ralls followed on from his disappointing performance at Crystal Palace with another poor display, and maybe it’s a bit early for his undoubted promise.
I liked the look of Joe Mason when he was on the ball, but this didn’t happen often enough. He will benefit from maturity, and would be more comfortable in a more positive team performance. He has undoubted talent, particularly when running with the ball, but I’m not sure he can be an important player in a promotion-chasing side.
And then there is Kenny Miller. I am told consistently by people I respect that Miller has been in fine form this season, and I hear that some Premiership sides are tracking his performances. But I just haven’t seen it. He was profiligate at Blackpool and Coventry, where he missed several excellent chances, and on the televised performances I’ve seen, he has failed to make an impression, apart from his lucky goal at West Ham. Yesterday he looked sharp and lively, and I blame the system more than the player for his tough day at work. He is being asked to hold up the ball in unreasonable situations – at speed and up against three defenders with no nearby support. He made a fair stick of that job, but I still haven’t seen the player that has been so feted. He’s probably knackered by the time he gets a chance in front of goal.
So there we have it. 0-0 was about right result for a contest which will be easily forgotten by those who saw it. I keep being told by people that points are more important than entertainment and that they love watching this hard-working side. And yes, I left feeling more content with the effort than I did at most of the games under Dave Jones. You feel that the players are putting in a shift, and that Mackay is getting more out of his team than the sum of their parts.
But last year, I made the 10-hour round trip to Cardiff regularly knowing that I would be thrilled at some point during a routine fixture against ‘the likes of Doncaster’ even if we lost 3-2. I’ve yet to make that journey for this Mackay side yet this season, and that’s because I get no thrill from watching hard-work and effort. It may be all about points for a lot of people, but I want more from my day’s entertainment than numbers in the paper. Mackay is close, but he needs a pair of wide players and I think he needs a player like Gestede alongside Miller. I saw Malky’s Watford side’s destruction of Cardiff last year, and I’m sure Mackay would love another on-form Will Buckley out on the right. Give him that and a good centre-forward, and then he would have a side to challenge for promotion.