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Nathan Blake

The misused talent of Nathan Blake

Football is awash with tales of wasted talent – young players with a glittering career ahead of them who become distracted by the trappings of fame. These players are often mavericks with prodigious skill, but the very personality that brings imagination, creativity and flair to their game can also be their downfall. Think Robin Friday, Lee Sharpe, or Peter Marinello.  But in the case of Nathan Blake, it wasn’t his own attitude which saw him fail to realise his full potential; it was the way he was managed.  I believe that Blake was a player ahead of his time.

blake2 The misused talent of Nathan Blake

Nathan Alexander Blake, the nephew of legendary Great Britain rugby league international, Clive Sullivan, was destined for a career in sport.  He began his career as a youth player with Newport County before earning a trainee place at Chelsea. But Blake failed to make the same impression as his good friend Eddie Newton, and returned home to Newport in 1990. He was picked up by Cardiff City as a YTS player and soon made his first team debut at left-back.  Baring a close physical resemblance, and a similar elegant style to Cardiff’s usual number 3, Ray Daniel, the travelling support at Bristol Rovers that day initially mistook the unknown young player for his team-mate. But it wouldn’t be long before Nathan Blake was established in the first team squad.

blake young The misused talent of Nathan Blake

Blake, 1990

The young Blake was unusually versatile.  He could play with both feet, and it seemed he could cope with any position in those first few years at Cardiff. We saw him all over the pitch, but it looked likely at the end of 1990 that he would become a central defender. He excelled in this role and I’ve no doubt that he could have had a successful career as a footballing centre back. But Blake was too much of a gem to be kept in defence. His raw talent could create goals out of nothing and his midfield prowling terrified opposition defences.

The emergence of Jason Perry and Damon Searle in 1991 meant that Blake was given a more central midfield role before he won Pat Heard’s place on the left. He was tactically undisciplined and the older heads in that side would cover as he roamed freely. He played 40 games that season as a 19 year old, and in 1992 his form improved dramatically with the arrival of his old Chelsea youth team-mate, Eddie Newton. City finished the season strongly with Blake on fire, and he took that form into the 1992/93 season when Cardiff won the Third Division Championship.

He was still more of a provider than a scorer of goals and created plenty for Carl Dale, Chris Pike, and then Phil Stant.  Eddie May’s Cardiff lost only two games after Kevin Ratcliffe’s arrival in December and were worthy champions, with Blake starring as the team’s most exciting talent. He was quick, strong but above all he was mercurial. He had the pace and drive of a player like Laurie Cunningham with the footballing skills and vision of a Jason Koumas on top of his game.

blake600 The misused talent of Nathan Blake

It was about this time that I met Nathan on a pre-season club tour of Ireland. I was sharing a pub table with Damon Searle and Jason Perry when Blake joined us after an impressive stint singing Elvis Presley songs on the karaoke. He was confident, perhaps overly-so, and he asked me to name my favourite player, puffing his chest to accept my plaudits.  I told him that it might have been him if he’d worked as hard as Jason and Damon. “Yeah” he said “pointing his finger in my chest, “but name one person at this club who can do the things I can!” He was right – there was nobody. Not just at the club, but in the Football League.

1994 proved a watershed for Nathan Blake. Injuries to Carl Dale and a dispute between Rick Wright and Phil Stant over promotion bonuses saw him pushed up front. He did very well in a struggling side, scoring 14 goals from 20 games.  But he wasn’t a natural centre-forward, he was a partner to a target man in a twin attack.  And when he scored the goal that launched his career, he was playing alongside big Garry Thompson.

The 4th round Cup Tie against Manchester City in 1994 was Cardiff’s biggest game in years.  The match was live on television, a rarity for Cardiff, and Ninian Park was buzzing.  In the 64th minute of an exciting game, Cohen Griffith took a throw in from the right. Receiving the ball on the edge of the box, Blake turned inside, feinted and curled a beautiful left-footed shot beyond Tony Coton in the Manchester City goal.  He had created a work of art which would seal his future.

Controversially, Blake was sold to Premier League Sheffield United in the same week that Cardiff faced Luton in the 5th round of the Cup. Rick Wright needed the money, and the bargain £300,000 fee would become £500,000 if Blake helped the Blades avoid relegation. Some blamed the player for deserting but he had no choice. Bravely he went to that Luton game and stood amongst the City hardcore in the Canton Stand, assuring his iconic status among the support.

Still only 22, Blake had already played 131 games for Cardiff, scoring 35 goals from a variety of  positions.  And he did well for Sheffield United. His five Premier League goals didn’t manage to help them avoid relegation so City didn’t get the fee they deserved for their best player. Blake finished the next two seasons as top scorer at Bramall Lane, with an impressive 34 goals from 69 games.

But I noticed that his game had changed. The Sheffield United manager was Dave Bassett, a man known for his long-ball, physical direct style.  Blake was bulked up and became a bullish, physical centre forward. It seemed that his increased muscular strength and the Blades’ playing style had seen him sacrifice the subtlety that had been such a beguiling part of his game at Cardiff. Blake became a regular number nine. He wasn’t what you would call a natural finisher, but he was great in the air. He scored regularly and earned himself a £1.2 million move to Bolton.

blakebolton The misused talent of Nathan Blake

I hoped things would change for Blake away from Dave Bassett, but I was to be disappointed. He was relegated from the Premier League twice with Bolton, but did well in the Championship, scoring 38 times from just over a hundred games.  And from there, while his goal to game ratio remained respectable at about one-in-three, he struggled to establish himself properly after a £4.2m move to Blackburn. His career petered out at Wolves, Leicester, then Leeds. Blake was relegated from the Premier League a record five times during a career hampered by injuries.

blake blackburn The misused talent of Nathan Blake

Blake’s international career never really took off. It was notable for a spat with Bobby Gould about a racist remark, and he refused to play under the Welsh manager for a time. When he did return in 1998, Gould took the Wales team to visit a prison in Gwent and Blake was accidentally locked up. It was of course, not the first time he had been in a cell. In 1999 he was arrested, and charged with threatening behaviour after an incident in Newport town centre while on international duty.  Earlier in his career he had been accused of being involved with a break-in via the roof of an Amusement Arcade. This was found to be a case of mistaken identity, and he was cleared of both offences.

It may seem strange to say that Nathan Blake’s talent was misused when he had a long career in the Premier League and scored almost 150 goals. But I just think he could have been so much better had he been developed differently. This is just a personal view, and even Nathan may disagree, but I would have loved to have seen him playing in a modern 4-3-3 system as a wide attacking player. He would have perfectly suited the modern game and clubs would have been more careful with his fitness.

I really think he could have been a regular at one of the top Premier League teams and earned many more than 29 caps for his country. Blake’s heading ability and his physical strength defined a career that could have grown so much more if his skill had been nurtured and he had been allowed the freedom to play in a creative role.


Welsh rugby can learn from football

There was a time when amateurism was an honour – a fiercely defended status which drew great praise for those who played their sport for fun. But Welsh sport now seems to be imploding on the self-imposed clamour for professionalism.

I rarely touch on rugby in the pages of this blog, but there is a row going on between the self-appointed, manufactured regions and the WRU which has implications for the sport of football in Wales. And the row is taking place in public, with the bitterness between the rugby union and the professional businessmen of the regional franchises barely concealed. The argument resolves around star players and competition structure. International players are flocking in their droves to better paid jobs in England and France.  They used to leave for professional northern rugby league clubs, but now its rugby union clubs that have the clout. The regions want to halt this exodus by joining  joining an Anglo-Welsh league.  And a proud union does not want to face the unpalatable truth, which is that professional sport in Wales cannot  survive outwith English competition.

Professional rugby in Wales is unsustainable without subsidy from the union. The WRU are comparatively rich, turning over £63m in 2012 and showing a profit of £2.4m.  And only a £19m debt of the £75m cost of building the Millennium Stadium remains. The professional regional franchises were subsidised to the tune of £6m by the WRU in 2012. But still that is not enough  to compete with the professional English and French clubs who have decided that there is money to be made in this once amateur sport.

The truth is that rugby in Wales is funded by a series of international matches which are massively popular as a social event. It isn’t really the rugby that brings in the crowds. These spectacular corporate eisteddfodic jollies generate enough income to just about cover the costs of professionalism. But what’s the point of spending huge sums on keeping players on big wages at the fabricated regions, and how is any of this relevant to football?

Well firstly, for rugby’s regions ambitions, you only have to look at Cardiff City and Swansea City. These two large businesses ply their trade in the big money world of English sport and the rugby regions look on enviously.  Also –  you’d think that this conflict is something new, but as always history tells us that these problems have occurred before, and that lessons can be learned from their outcomes. So let’s go back to the start of competitive football in Wales and the birth of professionalism in our sport.

The best Welsh footballers were tempted by money from English cubs even before professionalism was legalised. Bolton enticed four players from the great Druids team after one FA Cup tie in 1883, just seven years after the competitive game began in Wales. The FAW, unable to stem the flood had no choice but to allow payment of players from 1893.

But this new rule had no effect. Players like Billy Meredith were forced  across the border to make a living, joining dozens of other Welshmen at English clubs. Those English-based players still qualified for Welsh national side selection, in contrast to the Irish, who complained bitterly.

“Even against Wales we are still at a disadvantage, which however arises from no other cause than our own conscientious scruples. The Welshmen have no hesitation in scouring the best of the English clubs, and picking up all their available countrymen who have gone over to professionalism. This practice we have not yet descended to, as we feel it our duty to recognise not only the ability, but the patriotism of the men who remain amongst us, and refuse to yield to temptation of English gold.”

The Welsh clubs dipped their toes into the waters of professionalism but soon found the commitment was overwhelming. They admitted openly that they simply could not find enough quality of opposition within our own borders, and looked for English competition to sustain growth.  Just look at the history of a typical Welsh club, like Rhyl FC, who have struggled ever since formation to find their place in the world.

Rhyl began life in The Welsh League in 1890, before taking part in the North Wales Coast League, North Wales Alliance and the National Welsh League (North).  A  period of post war success saw the club apply unsuccessfully to the Football League in 1929.  A frustrated Rhyl then migrated to the Birmingham & District League before settling in the Cheshire County League.  In 1982 this became the North West Counties League, and they were promoted to the Northern Premier. In 1992, under pressure from the FAW, they reluctantly decided to join the newly formed League of Wales .

Such a patchwork of history and status is common in Wales.  Most of our clubs’ natural level is amateur with just a few exceptions. Wrexham emerged as the top club in north Wales , though their early history replicated that of Rhyl.  The Robins were fortunate to have their Football League application accepted in 1921. This left them as the only professional club in a large geographical area and they managed to survive in the Football League until 2008.  That might have been Rhyl’s story had they been luckier in 1929. As recently as 1978 Bangor City applied for Football League status but were rejected in favour of Wigan Athletic. And now look what Wigan have achieved.

The development of professionalism in the south is slightly different. The emergence of Cardiff and Swansea as relative superpowers in the Welsh game can be traced back to the boom days of the English Southern League.

Between 1906 and 1910, a huge expansion of the game took place in the south, with the number of clubs affiliated to the South Wales FA rising from 74 to 262.  English scouts were regularly seen at south Wales club matches, keen to prise away the cream of local talent. Populations in the south Wales coalfield were expanding massively and the Southern League saw the untapped potential income in those hills. They only had to look at the  many thousands of supporters who travelled from south Wales to watch professional clubs in Bristol and the Midlands. League Officials toured the valleys signing up clubs, and at one stage the entire Second Division of the Southern League was Welsh.  Then as the Southern League was absorbed by the expanding Football League, the Welsh clubs were sucked in with the flow.  By 1926 there were six professional clubs in Wales playing in the English Football League. People who complain about Welsh clubs playing in the English system should remember that we were invited. We did the English a favour and helped to expand their domestic game,  at great cost to our own.

But it has always been impossible to keep the best players in Wales, even with our big professional clubs. From the days of Billy Meredith, to  Dai Astley, John Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, Welsh clubs have lost players to the English. But Welsh football has never wrung their hands over this problem; they just accepted the transfer fee, and developed some new players.  So why is Welsh rugby tearing itself apart instead of accepting the state of play and readjusting?

Rugby was in a healthy state in Wales when it was an amateur sport. Ponty played Pooler in front of several thousand fans and the players got a few quid in their boots and free ale at the clubhouse bar. That is the natural level of our domestic sport, and there is nothing to be ashamed about. Welsh club rugby was strong, popular, and sustainable.

Many amateur Welsh football clubs have tried to throw money at their team in Wales, but any success is short term and devastating. The League of Wales is littered with the debris of good community clubs spoiled by the gambling whim of a businessman or merely exhausted by trying to compete at an unsustainable level. Where now Llansantffraid, Oswestry, AFC Cardiff, Ebbw Vale, Conwy, Cwmbran, Llanelli and Neath? And how different would the landscape be if Bangor, Merthyr, Llanelly and Barry had all been successful in applications to join the Football League in 1947?

The answer is this. Welsh domestic sport is fine and healthy when we compete amongst ourselves as amateurs. The events are cheap and popular. But we can only attract enough support to pay players a wage when we are part of the English system. And that’s why the Celtic League was never an answer. The creation of supposed Welsh regions, which in truth was a thinly-veiled method of legalising unfair financial support for Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli, Swansea and Neath, has wrecked domestic Welsh rugby. Is there a single Welsh rugby club who is in a stronger position since the introduction of the regions?

The only way that sport can be professional in Wales is if our clubs can be a part of the English system. There is still enough flickering emnity to make these contests attractive and bring out the public. Domestically, we should settle for a lower standard but nonetheless satisfying amateur experience. I enjoy the semi-pro Welsh Premier League but the experience can be just as good in the more amateur Huws Gray Cymru Alliance.  One of the biggest events in the past two years in my region was a 4th tier Caernarfon derby between Town and Wanderers that drew almost 2,000 spectators. TNS are currently coping with professionalism thanks to regular European prize money, but who is benefitting apart from Mike Harries the owner, and his squad of players, half of whom travel from England?

The Welsh Premier League was founded to preserve Wales’ fragile national status in the World game.  It’s been successful in that respect, but its relationship with UEFA seems to cause more problems than it solves. Clubs run by volunteers are forced to meet stringent and unnecessary ground regulations.  Most teams are unable to play European fixtures at their own ground, and despite an obvious improvement in standards, crowds have remained stagnant. At the other end of the scale, Cardiff City and Swansea City have only tenuous links to the FAW and have even investigated membership of the English FA.

The WRU should learn from Welsh football’s struggles with professionalism and let the stars go to their cash-rich foreign fields. Instead of  propping up the business concerns of a few high profile franchises, they should concentrate on developing the roots of the game.  Let the regions stand alone, just like Cardiff and Swansea City, and forget centralised contracts. Welsh rugby is extremely lucky that the Six Nations have become the Spring Break of Europe. If the FAW enjoyed even a slice of that good fortune, I doubt they would employ players for Cardiff and Swansea at the expense of the grassroots game.

One Night in Bristol

On May 13th, 2003, Cardiff City travelled to Bristol City as underdogs in a Division 2 Play-off semi final. Though Cardiff were leading 1-0 from the first leg, they weren’t expected to keep a clean sheet at Ashton Gate. What followed was one of the best defensive performances in the club’s recent history. The game finished 0-0, Cardiff went on to beat QPR in the Final, and I wrote this poem commemorating the game.

One Night in Bristol

In a corner of West England
The people sat in wait
For seventeen hundred bluebirds
To pillage Ashton Gate
Their sounds of guilt were carried
On The Waterfront’s lapping waves
The streets were paved with gold they earned
By selling African slaves.

In a cold and windy tunnel
The ghost of Scoular howled
At the injustice of that April day
When the ref said Gabbi fouled
But tonight it would be different
As Lennie called them in
“Remember you don’t always need
To score a goal to win.”

The bridges were suspended
And Gareth Ainsworth too
So Wille Boland played out wide
And did the work of two.
Old Leggy ran away the years
Defending City’s honour
But when his limbs began to ache
We replaced him with Mark Bonner

The Robins swarmed around the pitch
But they found no way to goal
Their only hope a Christian,
Who they thought had sold his soul.
But you can’t turn a Cardiff man
With tainted trader’s plunder
And when he lunged to get sent off
We just began to wonder.

The daffodils wilted and the dragon breathed
A defiant roar of fire
And its spirit filled the heart that night
Of the reborn Spencer Prior
Then Wilson played his final cards,
But all their hope was gone
When they saw the man they had to beat
Was Daniel Gabbidon

The Celts stood strong against their foe,
And the Anglo-Saxons whined
As Tinnion’s header met the palm
Of Braveheart on the line
The night closed in and the lights came on
As the Bristol air grew darker
And still the enemy were repelled
By Weston, Croft and Barker

And as the moon shone brighter
The Men of Harlech sang
And they waved the black and yellow cross
Of Pembroke’s Water Man.
The whistle went, and battle-hardened
Men began to cry,
You won’t forget this famous night,
And brother, nor will I.

Watford 4-1 Cardiff City

066 300x224 Watford 4 1 Cardiff City

A shithole

I’m sure I must have been to an uglier ground than Vicarage Road, but I can’t remember one. I’m sure I must have been to an uglier town than Watford, but again, I can’t remember one.

This was a shit trip. It was a shit stadium, a shit atmosphere, a shit pre-match pub, a shit town, a shit game, a shit performance, and a shit  5 hour trip home. And all this shitness cost me in the region of £180.

I’ve been to grounds all over the country. This was my 74th League ground, the vast majority following Cardiff. Most have something going for them – some character, history, maybe some sinister intimidatory atmosphere, even tidiness and decent facilities are something. Vicarage Road was just horrible. It had no redeeming features, and the dark gloomy weather suited it. Absolute shithole.

062 300x224 Watford 4 1 Cardiff CityIt all started off so badly with the regular and predictable row with a steward. I took the boys and we got there an hour before kick-off to make sure we had seats at the front where we could see the game. And as usual we got the same old story.

“You have to sit in the seats on your tickets. We’ll make everyone sit in their own seats.”

“No you won’t” I countered. “When the 1500 pissheads arrive at five to three, they will stand wherever they want and you won’t stop them. You’re just picking on the families and OAPs that are easy prey.”

After a good ten minute argument, I got an escort to our seats in the 28th row for my trouble. As soon as they left, we went and sat in the front. It’s such an unnecessary cause of friction. Clubs are hiding from their responsibilities. Either allow me to choose my seat or give me the chance to make the best of a bad situation.

068 300x224 Watford 4 1 Cardiff CityThe highlight of the day occured in the warm up. Michael Chopra miss-hit a low drive when practising with Tom Heaton, and it smacked a bloke in the front row right on his chest. It nearly knocked him over. To his credit, after laughing for five minutes, Chopra came across and gave this bloke the shirt off his back.

The game started (unfortunately). Within five minutes, it was clear that Naylor was going to have a hard day. He simple couldn’t deal with the impressive Buckley on the Watford right, and Darcy Blake inside him was no help. The inevitable penalty was given when Naylor clearly brought Buckley down on the byline. Marshall saved it.

Things didn’t really get better though. Naylor was skinned again and again. His confidence was shot, and he started giving the ball away. Darcy Blake once again demonstrated that he is no more than a brave stop-gap if half your team is injured. Gyepes may make the odd mistake, but surely he is a better option?

City’s goal was a peach, and demonstrated why we are always a threat, even during our worst game of the season. Neat build up (punctuated by cries of “get rid of the fucking thing” from the City support), led to Peter Whittingham’s low drive hit the corner of the net, and City were unjustly ahead. Nobody felt that we could keep the lead though.

Naylor was skinned again by Buckley and this time Watford scored. They should have had a second penalty when Blake clearly fouled Graham in desperation. Naylor was substitued to a huge and unnecessary cheer. City fans really need to look at themselves and ask what they are doing to help the team these days. Yes, Naylor had a nightmare, but you should also look at Buckley’s great game. Naylor can’t suddenly get faster. He is what he is. Which is not great admittedly.

We were actually looking quite positive at the start of the second half when Watford scored their second. But once that went in, it was game over. City were gutless, spineless, lethargic, lacking focus and leadership. The team is now hugely dependant on Bothroyd, as demonstrated here. While Bellamy has generally underachieved in his individual performance he has at least offered leadership when he has played. I actually heard some fans calling for Jones to get rid of Bellamy, because “if he can’t play every game he’s no fucking use.”

As for individuals, I thought that Hudson came out of the game with credit, and Chopra worked hard in frustrating circumstances. The others were mediocre, apart from Blake, Naylor and Keogh, who offered no evidence that they are good enough for a promotion-contesting side.I have a problem with the lack of heart in Keogh’s play. He runs, but he won’t challenge. What exactly is his purpose?

Olofinjana is an interesting subject. What happened to that all-consuming force of nature that simply ate opposition players at the start of this season? I think it’s a tactical issue. Ever since Whittingham solved the problem that we were having with our deep delivery by dropping into a quarterback role, Olofinjana has been pushed into a more advance position. He’s not that type of player. One problem solved creates another.

The problems I see on the pitch aren’t short term. I don’t think Dave Jones did anything wrong tactically yesterday. If he is at fault anywhere it is by his failure to provide suitable cover for key positions. Andy Keogh is no Bothroyd replacement, and Jones should have sorted that out in the Summer. Jones also has a blind spot with left backs. Capaldi, Commingues, Martyn John, and Naylor have all been tried and all have failed. Kennedy wasn’t much better, but he was better than what we  currently have.

Much of the reaction against Jones’ tactics in this game has been the apprently insane idea of bring on Gavin Rae in midfield. It was clear that we missed an aggressive forward yesterday and Rae’s introduction would allow Olofinjana to act as a makeshift target man. It didn’t work, as Oli has no natural sense of how to play that role, but you could see the thinking behind it.

Less understandable was the use of Whittingham and Burke on their “wrong” flanks. Again though thewre was some sort of explanation. Without Bothroyd to attack crosses, what use are wide men? City have moved away from the long ball game in recent weeks, and the wide midfielders are looking to play through the middle. It didn’t work, but it’s a valid idea.

When we take the pitch against a very good, and well-rested Watford side with players like Naylor, Blake and Keogh, of course we’re going to struggle. Add to that a clearly unfit Chris Burke, a limping McNaughton, and the rest of a team with a game still in their legs from 2 days ago, and we’re up against it. “We should be walking this league”, is a common opinion amongst the away support, but not with that team we shouldn’t. If we don’t get a left back, a centre-half and a centre-forward, we won’t go up. It’s as simple as that.

Just one more incident of note. The Watford keeper had been subjected to insults all game. It didn’t matter that there was a row of children under the age of ten a few yards away, the boozed up blokes a couple of rows behind were getting stuck in. the usual tiresome “rent boy” chants were accompanied by the old “I fucked your Mother last night” abuse, and he was called all manner of things ranging from a cunt to a fucking arse-bandit.

When Watford scored, he sort of showed his arse to the City support. Well weren’t these people offended now. I saw two middle aged blokes hurtle down to the stewards demanding that action be taken against this hugely provocative gesture.  You didn’t mind that he was called a cunt repeatedly in front of a group of small boys, but you want him arrested for pointing his arse at you. Grow up and get some perspective.

078 300x224 Watford 4 1 Cardiff City

We can't see you sneaking out

The chant of the day came from Watford fans. In thickening fog it was almost impossible to see the opposite end of the pitch. I haven’t seen such thick fog since York City away in 1992, when we only knew City had scored when John Williams ran out of the mist with arms aloft like a Freddie Kruger nightmare. At Vicarage Road, with the score at 4-1 and City fans starting to leave they began singing “We can’t see you sneaking out”.

Cardiff City’s unprecedented success

cyrilspiers 300x193 Cardiff Citys unprecedented success

Cyril Spiers

The reaction to my recent post about Dave Jones has taught me a lot. Primarily, that if I am going to put forth an argument that is offensive to a lot of people, that I should make sure of my facts. Usually I can get away with a casual impressionistic style, but on this occasion, those people who disagreed with me were ready with pens full of red ink.

I was pulled up, justifiably, on points of blogging etiquette, of semantics, of typos, of chronological confusion, and most annoyingly, the misuse use of the term “reactionary.” It’s unusual for people to dissect a blog so thoroughly, but they were all correct, and it’s a lesson learnt.

Others made good points about Jones’s failures and weaknesses, some of which I concede, others I disagree with, but all valid arguments. It’s a shame that a few resorted to personal abuse and insults, but if you’re going to write a pompous, and opinionated blog, I suppose you can expect some of that.

The one thing which provoked ridicule, outrage and seemingly devalued my position completely, was my contention that Cardiff City were going through an era of success that was unprecedented since the 1920s. That’s the one thing that people thought was plainly wrong, and not just arguable. So I thought I’d have a look at it.

When I wrote that, I didn’t really think too hard about it. I tend to write in one sitting, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness. I don’t get paid for this, I don’t want it to take up my whole life, so sometimes I just convey my impressions rather than look up the facts. And my impression was, that apart from a couple of seasons in the early sixties in Division One, there hadn’t really been much more success. Scoular’s side of the early seventies was comparable to the current era, but Dave Jones got us to an FA Cup Final, which  to this old romantic, placed him above Scoular’s near-miss and that Real Madrid victory.

So let’s look at this with a bit more science and a little less romanticism.

The 1930′s began with Hughie Ferguson’s suicide, and that set the tone for the whole decade. (I can’t get away from that romanticism can I?) City played their football in Division 3 (South) until the war was over and the  team of 10 Welshmen, built by Cyril Spiers, but managed by Billy McCandless gained promotion to the 2nd Division.

It was this period that I had forgotten. When we think of Cardiff City we tend to skip this era. Everyone knows the great side of the 1920s, and the European heroes of the 1970s, but Cyril Spiers’ team rarely gets the recognition it deserved. He returned to the club after two years at Norwich and that’s when the most success was achieved.

From 1946-1952 Spiers’ team finished 1st, 5th, 4th, 10th, 3rd and 2nd, before finally gaining promotion to Division One in 1952. (I can’t resist wondering if Spiers faced calls for his sacking when they finished 10th).

In 1952-53 City finished 12th in Division One, and played in front of their record crowd of 57,893 in a midweek game versus Arsenal . Clearly this was the most successful post-war period, and I was wrong to suggest that the current side has matched that, even with an FA Cup Final.

But even in that 1952-53 season, the most successful side in post-war history went on a run of 8 successive matches without scoring – their worst ever. (Could you see Dave Jones surviving that statistic?) As it was, City finished 10th in the top league in 1954 and Spiers resigned. Our most successful post-war manager left in a dispute over money, and Trevor Morris took over. City immediately began to struggle against relegation.

The club went down for a few years, until Bill Jones got them a couple of seasons in Division One in 1961-62. You could justifiably argue that even this was a more successful period than the current era, as Bill managed to achieve that which has eluded Dave Jones thus far.

Jimmy Scoular’s arrival in 1964  saw him create the team that would get so close to Promotion in 1971. But it took Scoular a long time to get there. It took him 12 games to get his first win. A modern manager would not be allowed that luxury.

In his first four seasons, City finished 13th, 20th, 20th again, and 13th again. But the club’s patience paid off, and if we hadn’t sold John Toshack in 1970, thus losing the support of every taxi driver in Cardiff, we would probably have gone up. After that close call, Scoular’s teams finished 19th, 20th and 17th, yet he is still remembered as one of the greats.

Under Dave Jones, Cardiff City have finished 16th, 11th, 13th, 12th, 7th, 4th. We are currently 2nd.

So yes, I admit I was wrong. Cyril Spier’s period of 1946-54 was undoubtedly the era of unprecedented and thus far, unmatched success. Bill Jones can also be judged to have had more success than Dave Jones. My claims for the current era were indeed, “errant nonsense” and “emotional twaddle”. And for that I apologise. But it’s not over yet .

When Cardiff City played in women’s knickers

lisbon 300x225 When Cardiff City played in womens knickers

The Cardiff team board the flight to Lisbon in 1964

Cardiff City kitman Harry Parsons was a legendary figure at the club from the time Jimmy Scoular asked him to look after the juniors when he arrived in 1964.

Many former players turned up to his 1991 Testimonial and he continued to be involved right up until his death a few years ago.

Harry had many stories, including this one about one of his first European trips, a Cup Winners Cup Game game against Sporting Lisbon in 1964. Cardiff City’s 2-1 victory in Portugal that evening remains one of the teams greatest ever results. And it was all achieved in frilly knickers. Harry Parsons explains:

We were preparing to play a European match in Lisbon when the kit came back from the laundry and I found that all the jock straps were damp. In order to have them ready I left them overnight on a steam boiler. Well the next day we loaded up and set off and it wasn’t until the coach met us at Lisbon Airport to take us to the hotel that I remembered the jockstraps.

I managed to attract Lew Clayton’s attention without Jimmy Scoular seeing me, but he shook his head when I asked him if they had been packed. We were staying at Fulham Chairman Eernie Clay’s hotel in the hills outside Lisbon, and I couldn’t wait to get off the coach and find him to see if he could help us out.

Ernie was a smashing bloke and he whipped me into town in his Jag. Replacement Jock-straps were out of the question so I bought 18 pairs of womens briefs at a department store and charged it to the hotel. I handed them to the players an hour before kickoff, and told them to get them on before Jimmy noticed, and to take them home for their wives and girlfriends afterwards.

Anyway, the lads played in them, we won 2-1, and I thought no more about it until months later when Jimmy suddenly said “Oh Harry, I know something you think I don’t knew regarding womens knickers”. I had to come clean – he probably knew all along.

Middlesbrough 1-0 Cardiff City : Match report

This is a worrying period for Cardiff City. I have defended the team and its manager for some time now, and have blamed bad luck, physics and the rub of the green for the return of just 5 points from a possible 21. Today’s performance showed deeper concerns that need to be addressed.

I’m not angry with anyone. I don’t blame the manager, and I can’t criticise the players. Even the wannabe referee who was acting as linesman today escapes my wrath. I’m just puzzled. Cardiff City at the moment are an enigma, and I left the game trying to work out what the problem is. I heard Dave Jones’ interview in the car, and it sounds like he is also struggling for answers.

It all started so well. We were fizzing the ball around, and Middlesbrough were standing off. I said to my neighbour that “ if they give us this much space, we’ll just pick passes through them, and we’ll murder them”. But I was imagining the Cardiff side that played earlier in the season, not the team we’ve seen for the past month or so.

And here’s the first problem.  Imagine we’re facing a team like Middlesbrough who decide to sit deep at home, with two banks of four . An organised team that feel no embarrassment at admitting their inferiority of talent and ability, and combatting that deficit with discipline and structure . And then imagine this slick passing movement as Cardiff approach an opposition penalty area thick with bodies.

“Whittingham, to Bothroyd, a flick to Chopra. On to McPhail with an incisive pass to McNaughton, who plays in Burke with a beautiful slide pass. Burke plays in Bellamy for City’s opener.”

Can you see that goal? I bet you can. It’s easy to visualise isn’t it?

Now try this:

“Whittingham, to Keogh, a flick to Olofinjana. On to Drinkwater with an incisive pass to Naylor, who plays in Burke with a beautiful slide pass. Burke plays in Bellamy for City’s opener.”

Not so easy is it?

And therein lies our creative problem. Our slick passing between players of a high technical standard is being sabotaged by the interference of less adroit players like Keogh and Drinkwater. Olofinjana is being asked to play too high up the pitch, and is less of the destructive protective player that he was in September. Opposition tactics see Naylor being given attacking responsibility at the edge of the box. This is not his area of strength. We’ve been found out and it’s time to change.

The opening 30 minutes today were stultifying. Middlesbrough sat back and gave possession to our centre halves. We sat back, trying to bring them onto us. They refused. They were patient. We were patient. It was boring. Hudson must have spent twenty minutes of that first thirty in possession, playing the ball sideways and square. I didn’t complain, as I thought that was the right thing to do. To their credit, City were trying to play without Bothroyd with some intelligence. There were no aimless long high balls to Keogh, though Whittingham did try a series of quarterback dissections.

Nobody looked like scoring. Middlesbrough were devoid of ideas beyond hoofing the ball up to Emnes, who looked lively but ineffective.

And then one long hoof caught out Gyepes, who had already been lucky to escape a booking when he misread a throw out from David Marshall and took out Marvin Emnes with a desperate lunge early on. Then Gyepes watched the hoofed ball balloon up in the air, and come down at the edge of our area. He was the wrong side of Emnes but in no real danger. Both players competed for the ball and Emnes went down. I didn’t think it was a penalty, but it was enough of an incident for me to look instinctively  at the referee, and then the linesman whose flag was being held across his chest.

The referee had seen the challenge and ignored it. But his linesman was no sympathetic. He fancied being the ref today, and he called the penalty. Arca scored. Jones blamed Gyepes, and Riggotts will replace him next week, I’m certain.

From nothing, Middlesbrough were lifted. They still didn’t look brilliant, but now they had something to hang on to. There was even less chance that they would attack City and leave the gaps that we need. As Tony Mowbray said after the game. “When you play a team with Craig Bellamy in it, you can’t leave any space behind.” Rumbled.

At half-time I tweeted that City needed to get back to basics. I was pleased to hear Dave Jones utter that very phrase in his post match interview. And after 50 minutes (why not 45?), he brought on Chopra for Drinkwater. Chopra went up front alongside Bellamy, and he revitalised the team with his energy and aggression. He should have been booked for a bad challenge in his first contact, and he should have been booked for an awful lunge in the last minute. The yellow card that he did receive for an innocuous challenge on the keeper should have resulted in his dismissal. Nonetheless, City looked a much, much better team with him in the side this week.

City were shapeless. Players were getting in each other’s way. We have got ahead of ourselves, and have become too complex. We’ve recently been playing our centre forward on the wing and employing a convoluted far-post attacking strategy. Crosses are hit long in the hope of being headed back across goal. It was the same today. Keogh, our tallest player was out wide, and Bellamy was up the middle. It didn’t work.

I said earlier that I wasn’t angry with the players. They worked hard enough. Individually, they were fine. They just couldn’t produce that bit of magic that is needed to break down an organised defence. It’s hard to criticise players for not being exceptional, but we do, because we’ve seen their special qualities in the past. We demand that they reproduce it, but for some reason, they can’t at the moment.

If you are looking for underachievers, Bellamy is the biggest culprit. He works so hard, and he has amazing pace. But who would really pay £45,000 a week for a player whose biggest contribution currently is his unending energy and desire to close down goalkeepers. He did brilliantly all day in defending from the front, but he missed two good openings with poor shots. He was even seen in the deep midfield demanding the ball from Hudson, to start off moves. We need him on the shoulder of the last man.

When a team sits deep, so much responsibility lies on our full backs to move forward into space. McNaughton has a good partnership with Burke, and they can often create an opening (but not today). On the opposite flank we had Naylor and Keogh, both of whom have qualities, but none of which are conducive to creating an opening.  No wonder we had so few attempts on goal.

Keogh was poor again. I was looking forward to seeing him after reports that he had played well last week. And in the first five minutes he won two headers which gave hope. But after that he was a hindrance. Unable to exchange passes with Bellamy and Whittingham. Not enough pace to beat a defender.  Unable to challenge in the air. Enthusiastic enough, but out of his depth.

Whitttingham is playing so deep that his goal threat is reduced. And crucially, his effectiveness from set piece has diminished. Teams regularly foul us in attacking positions to break up the flow of our play. It happens every week, and today was no exception. The answer is to be dangerous enough from dead ball situations that they fear giving away free kicks. That was the case last season, but now our set pieces are easily dealt with. The result is more fouls, and no threat.

So back to basics. Every week, we watch our team full of players that are better than the opposition players. They apply themselves well enough, but something is amiss. Our second half performance was much improved today, and if our friendly linesman had  not interfered for a second time to give a free kick when Chopra was clear after his referee had indicated play on, City may well have got a point.

We need to simplify things. Let’s go 4-4-2, with Bellamy, Whittingham, Olofinjana (deep), and Burke getting wide to cross the ball into the box for Bothroyd and Chopra to attack. I have no doubt that those six players will eventually create enough chances for us to finally take the lead, after 6 games in which we’ve conceded the first goal. That is crucial, as we need teams to attack us to force an equaliser. We need that space behind them to take them apart. Once we get that, all will be well.

Just one more complaint. Dave Jones suggested that part of the reason for our recent poor form was the crowd’s impatience. That might be true at home, but  the 500 away fans today were extremely patient. There were no boos and howls of anguish. We let the team play as they wanted, but it just didn’t happen for them.  Jones shouldn’t be blaming us for that performance. Not today anyway.

Book Review: The Bluebirds by John Crooks

bluebirds 216x300 Book Review: The Bluebirds by John CrooksThe full title of this 1992 publication is “Cardiff City Football Club The Official History of: The Bluebirds”

In those pre-internet days, it was the first and only source of historical records ever to be published about the club. All copies were eagerly snapped up, and the reluctance of those people who managed to get a copy to sell it on means that it now sells for between £60-120.

I’ve bought every book ever published about the City, but if I had to choose one single volume to take onto that desert island, this would be it. Eighteen years on, I am still finding new information as I browse its well-worn pages.

This is a massive, weighty tome. It’s A4 size and 320 pages long. In reality, it’s a few books combined in one. There’s a history section, a list of players, some related articles and finally a full statistical record.

202 150x150 Book Review: The Bluebirds by John Crooks

The Bluebirds: John Crooks

The first 132 pages are taken up by a season-by-season history of the club. This is well-written, readable and entertaining. It’s accompanied by lots of photographs. And there is plenty of detail here that is sometimes missed by the statistician and the historian.

I open the book on a random page – it’s the 1974-75 season:

At York City, where the Bluebirds lost by 0-1, the club physiotherapist Ron Durham was apprehended by the law for throwing a bucket of water into the crowd after the Cardiff bench had received prolonged verbal abuse.

You won’t find nuggets like that on Soccerbase. The history section finishes on an optimistic note with the arrival of Rick Wright in 1991. After a few pages on the development of the Ninian Park Ground, we arrive at;

Section Two – The Men Who Kicked The Ball.

204 150x150 Book Review: The Bluebirds by John Crooks

The Men Who Kicked The Ball

This short section contains eleven pages of names, birthdays and the seasons that each player turned out for Cardiff City. While there are no playing statistics, or records of goals scored, those figures can be found in the extensive lists of stats at the end of the book. Some extra information is provided for the more prominent players.

ROBERTS, William (Bill) b. Birmingham, played 1928-32

Made his Cardiff debut a year after signing – the last match (for some years) in the First Division. Formed a solid, though somewhat ponderous full-back partnership with John Smith.

Section Three – Through the Players Eyes.
This is great – interviews from over they years.  These are full length interviews republished from City legends such as Fred Stewart, Ernie Curtis, Beriah Moore, Ron Stitfall, Ken Hollyman, Arthur “Buller” Lever, Stan Montgomery, Alan Harrington, Colin Baker, Alec Milne, Don Murray, Richie Morgan, Gil reece, Phil Dwyer, John Lewis, and the legendary kit man, Harry Parsons.

I’m afraid Robin Friday was just a rogue. He was bad through and through and definitely the worst character I’ve ever encountered in football. He had mild and bitter tatttooed under his nipples. He was already into drugs.

Section Four – Statistics:

206 150x150 Book Review: The Bluebirds by John CrooksEven now there is a dearth of reference information for the complete statistics of the club dating from 1910, and half of this book, 151 pages provide the complete record in all competitions of lineups, scorers, and even attendances. Team photos are provided for every season where they are available. This is an invaluable resource.

[amazon-product align="left"]B0024GAEYU[/amazon-product]I can’t praise this book highly enough. John Crooks has left a legacy of which he should be very proud. The title is not easy to come across, and it will be pricey. There is a paperback edition out there for around £20-30, but I honestly recommend you get the hardback version if you can. Its pages will be thumbed for years and years. If you’re a Cardiff City fan with an interest in history, you won’t regret it.

Ffordd Fred Keenor Follows Football Thouroughfares

ffk 300x214 Ffordd Fred Keenor Follows Football Thouroughfares[amazon-product align="left"]1859838286[/amazon-product]Ffordd Fred Keenor will be the name of the road leading to the new Cardiff City Stadium , which is an aural challenge even for those of us who practice bilingualism. Try and say Ffordd Fred Keenor with a mouthful of cream crackers.  Not convinced myself. But this isn’t a new thing, this tribute by street name. Cardiff is already a City chock full of local football heroes.

This all started in 1927, when City Road was built in memoriam to the FA Cup Final team. Hardy Place in Cathays was also a  tribute to a prominent member of that famous side.

[amazon-product align="left"]B0041OXRGU[/amazon-product]Ashcroft Crescent in Fairwater was named in 1983 after the Cardiff City manager who earned promotion from the old 3rd Division. Wearing an ill-fitting woollen suit, he attended a small ceremony where his eyebrows were ceremonally trimmed with the giant scissors usually reserved for the red ribbons on such occasions. Ashcroft is just one of the managers to be honoured throughout the City – we also have (Alan) Cork Drive in St Mellons and May Street in Cathays.

Perhaps the most surprising tribute is Barnard Avenue, just off Cowbridge Road. This tree-lined beauty was renamed after City’s blonde-mained midfield genius Leigh Barnard, on the occasion of his winning goal at the Vetch Field  on Boxing Day 1989. Nearby is Caldicot Road, named after Stacey Caldicot of course. Sullivan Close in Llanrumney refers to Wayne Sullivan, but then you knew that. Vaughan Avenue was so-named when Nigel Vaughan finished the 1985-86 season as top scorer.

[amazon-product align="right"]1904091458[/amazon-product]In the mid nineties, before word had reached Malayasia and Lebanon about the riches to be found at Leckwith, the club’s saviour was a man with giant spectacles. His name was Jim Cadman, and part of his investment deal was that a small corner of Tremorfa would ever be associated with his largesse. Thus we named Cadman Close, because we were close to going out of the league under his tenure. (I’m here all week).

Cardiff has named streets after international footballers too. We have Cae Yorath, Melville Avenue and Berry Road. From the 1992/93 Champions, we have the aforementioned May Street, but also Dale Avenue in Birchgrove. Fanny Street in Cathays was a tribute to Damon Searle.

My favourite of all is the traffic island named after our Irish international goalkeeper from the seventies, a Mancunian famous for being lobbed by Kevin Keegan on his international debut at Wembley. Despite his embarrassment that night, the City Fathers were so proud of his achievement that they named a roundabout after him. That’s why we now have Ely Roundabout.