Ninian Park, Cardiff
guestSteps, eh? You wait ages and then two come along at once, rather like…like… you know I can’t think of an analogy. This week, our chum and Newcastle fan Ben, author of Black & White & Read All Over and Silent Words Speak Loudest, takes us for a rare trip into the Championship.
My mission, should I choose to accept it (and I did – I’d come up with the idea, after all): to brave the anti-English sentiment and infiltrate the massed ranks of Cardiff fans on the Popular Bank Terrace for the clash with Championship table-toppers Wolves, relying on my diehard Bluebirds-supporting companion and trusty Spillers Records T-shirt for defence.
Cardiff are one of the very few Championship clubs with special dispensation to have standing sections – special dispensation the FA were no doubt only too happy to grant them when confronted by a bunch of Grange End regulars. As far as I can recall, my last experience of standing proper (rather than of stubbornly standing en masse in away ends despite the presence of seats) was over 16 years ago, at St James’s Park in September 1992, when we beat Bristol City 5-0 thanks in part to two dubiously-awarded Gavin Peacock penalties and a Franz Carr cross that sailed in at the far post to record our seventh successive win since the start of the season. Would the home side be so fortunate this time?
The terrace being uncovered, and this being Wales, there’s a sign at the turnstiles warning that in order to protect everyone’s line of sight umbrellas aren’t allowed. Good – no chance of bumping into Steve McClaren, then.
Attempting to rouse the crowd with a shout of “MAKE … SOME … NOISE!” which owes a clear debt to Martin Fitzmaurice’s “LET’S … PLAY … DARTS!”, the stadium announcer reminds us that the game’s being beamed out live on Sky so we should show the world how vociferously we can back the Bluebirds – forgetting, perhaps, that the world, if it is watching football at all, is rather more likely to be tuned in to Spurs v Liverpool. Still, any concerns I may have had that I might struggle to get behind the home side are dispelled at the realisation that Mackem muppet Michael Gray will be tarting about in a gold shirt right in front of us for the first half.
Passing a bookmakers earlier in the afternoon, I noticed them offering reasonable odds on a 2-1 home win with City striker Jay Bothroyd first scorer against his former club. Ten minutes in and any betting slips for that particular outcome will have found themselves turned into confetti: Bothroyd’s retired hurt and horrible mistakes from first Roger Johnson and then his centre-back partner Darren Purse in the fourth and eighth minutes have handed opportunities to the opposition’s two deadliest players Chris Iwelumo and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake. Iwelumo may have stared fixedly into the gob of a gift horse when making his debut for Scotland last month, but no such luck for the Bluebirds here and the ball hit the back of the net, just as it did shortly afterwards from the boot of Ebanks-Blake.
The evening was originally conceived as a kind of respite from the travails of watching Newcastle of late, but here City are seemingly adopting the very same cunning tactic of giving the opposition a two goal headstart. Leading goalscorer Ross McCormack might reply quickly with a neat control and finish from substitute Miguel Comminges’s left wing cross, my companion timing his return from the burger van to perfection, but they fail to build on it and all impetus is lost. For all the incisive runs of grey-haired right-back Kevin McNaughton – who’ll I’ll admit on this evidence does bear a passing resemblance to yours truly – it’s Wolves who continue to look the more dangerous side. The sight of arch threat Ebanks-Blake sprawled on the turf prompts the home fans into a cheery “Let him die, let him die, let him die!” and the rather less charming “Rent boy!”, but the stocky former Man Utd striker disappears off down the tunnel at half-time satisfied that it’s his goal that separates the teams.
During the interval I blow my cover in spectacular style with a whoop of delight and exaggerated punch of the air at the news that Sunderland have been trounced by Chelsea. With the wind blowing in the opposite direction, down towards the Grange End, the chances of any of the six Corner Kick Challenge participants managing to scoop the £400 rolling prize fund by curling the ball into the net are slimmer than a steamrollered Victoria Beckham.
This being Cardiff’s final season at the corrugated carbuncle that is Ninian Park before moving over the road to the brand spanking new stadium, they’re wheeling out former heroes at the break in every home game. Today’s pair sign so many autographs and ruffle the hair of so many pre-prubescent heads that they barely make it half way round the perimeter of the pitch before the players are ready to come back on.
The first real opportunity of the second period falls to McCormack, who takes advantage of indecision from the otherwise excellent Richard Stearman and Chelsea loanee Michael Mancienne to lob in a shot under pressure. Sadly for Cardiff that’s his last significant contribution, a second twanged hamstring of the evening robbing the Bluebirds of their one real threat. On comes Eddie Johnson, on loan from Fulham, to the beered-up American frat-boy’s chant of choice, “USA! USA!”, and proceeds to give a Shola Ameobi-esque demonstration of a player who barely looks to be in control of his own legs, let alone the ball.
As it starts to spit with rain, a spell of moderate pressure from the home side comes to naught with Roger Johnson heading wide from a good position, while the fans’ low-level grumbling is only interrupted when makeshift striker Paul Parry shoulder-charges his unsuspecting marker to the deck like an American footballer prompts guffaws of laughter from the terraces. The only other consolation seems to be the innovative chant “Oh wanky wanky, wanky wanky wanky wanky Wanderers”. Wanky Wanderers it is who come closest to scoring the game’s fourth goal, substitute Andy Keogh firing selfishly across goal when his team-mates are better placed, but such is the ineffectuality of the Cardiff strike force that they only force Carl Ikeme into one save late on, and that from Eddie Johnson in injury time.
The final whistle blows, to everyone’s scoffing incredulity Joe Ledley is rewarded with the sponsor’s man of the match award for petulantly throwing his hands in the air and giving up the ghost every time he was challenged (not, I imagine, the sort of thing his rumoured suitors Everton, Spurs and Bolton are particularly looking for), and the umbrellas go up for the wet walk home. To be honest, the vast majority of those present would have been glad had their line of sight been obscured by a brolly or two…