Cardiff have had a really mixed season and, despite a late flurry after Mick McCarthy replaced Neil Harris as manager, the play-offs are all but mathematically beyond them now.
Failure to beat Brentford, in Tuesday’s 6.00pm kick-off, will completely end their chances, but even if they do win, results elsewhere could confirm they will be in the Championship again next season.
The Bluebirds won their final three Championship games in 2019/20 to set up a play-off semi-final with Fulham, which they lost 4-1 on aggregate, but hopes of another top six finish this time around were damaged in the early part of the season. After nine games at the end of October, they were 17th in the table after two wins and four draws.
Things picked up as November made way for December with five wins in six games to take City up to 10th – only three points off the play-off places.
But then a run of five league defeats (including the one to us) and five draws in seven winless matches led to Harris’s sacking in January.
The appointment of McCarthy inspired an amazing turnaround in form as the team won six in a row, and seven out of eight, to take Cardiff back into the top six. However, since then they have only won one match (although it was the South Wales’ derby at Swansea) out of eight and that is what has cost them any chance of promotion.
Since 2003/04, City have spent all but two seasons – 2012/13 and 2018/19 – in the Championship (called Division One in 2003/04). The odd seasons out saw them in the Premier League but they finished 20th the first time and 18th this time around.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
Mick McCarthy has been in charge at Cardiff for nearly three months now, and recently signed a new two-year contract to keep him at the club until 2023.
His previous Football League job was at Ipswich where he replaced Paul Jewell in November 2012 and spent five-and-a-half years in charge – leading them to three top half of the table finishes, including a spot in the play-offs with us in 2014/15.
Before that, he was in charge at Wolves for nearly six years and had a similar amount of time as Republic of Ireland manager, with three years at Sunderland sandwiched in-between, while his managerial career began at Millwall.
Since leaving Portman Road, he had another spell in charge of Ireland and stepped down early into the coronavirus pandemic, with the side top of their Euro 2020 qualifying group. Last November, he started a brief spell in charge of Cyrpiot side Apoel Nicosia, but was sacked in early January, and later in the month arrived at the Cardiff City Stadium.
His managerial achievements include leading the Irish to the 2002 World Cup finals and taking them to the second round, and leading both Wolves and Sunderland back to the Premier League as champions of the Championship.
As a centre-half, Mick won 57 caps for the Irish while playing his club football with Barnsley, Manchester City, Celtic, Lyon and Millwall.
WE’VE MET BEFORE
Cardiff have been on our fixture list in all but one of our seven Championship seasons. We have won four, drawn two and lost five of our 11 meetings.
Past meetings in the Championship (Bees scores first):
2014/15 – (H) 1-2 (A) 3-2
2015/16 – (H) 2-1 (A) 2-3
2016/17 – (H) 2-2 (A) 1-2
2017/18 – (H) 1-3 (A) 0-2
2019/20 – (H) 2-1 (A) 2-2
2020/21 – (A) 3-2
Home – 2016/17
In 2016/17, the sides shared a thrilling 2-2 draw at Griffin Park on Boxing Day, thanks to two late equalisers for us from on-loan Crystal Palace winger Sullay Kaikai.
Peter Whittingham’s first half penalty put Cardiff ahead but substitute Kaikai curled home his first in the 83rd minute. Kenneth Zohore restored City’s lead six minutes later, but Kaikai rescued a point with a header in the first minute of stoppage time.
Away – 2014/15
Our pre-Christmas visit to South Wales in 2014 saw us race into a 3-0 lead by the 33rd minute with some superb goals by Alex Pritchard, Andre Gray and Jota.
Craig Noone and Kenwyne Jones pulled the red-shirted hosts back into the game after the break but we held on for a 3-2 win to move up to third in the table.
Q – It’s been a real up-and-down season for Cardiff. How would you assess it?
A – There was a good deal of optimism among Cardiff fans when the season started, especially given their late surge to the play-offs at the end of the last campaign under manager Neil Harris.
But an indifferent start, as they particularly struggled at home, suggested the reality of what might lie ahead.
A run of four consecutive wins going into December started to lift expectations of another surge, but that was promptly ended by a home defeat in the South Wales derby against Swansea.
And late in December, their feast or famine campaign, brought six consecutive League and cup defeats, leading to the departure of Harris and the arrival of Mick McCarthy, as the club hierarchy were spooked by the prospect of relegation.
McCarthy immediately lifted those fears and, astonishingly, put Cardiff in the play-off picture with seven wins in an 11-game unbeaten start.
But a last-minute home defeat at the hands of Watford, some key injuries and, frankly, the weariness of having put together a sustained uplifting run with relatively few team changes, took its toll.
The league table never lies. They are about where they deserve to be, requiring a miracle to keep alive their slim mathematical chance, but realistically not good enough to make the top six.
Q – What did Mick McCarthy do to change fortunes so quickly – simply a new manager bounce, or more than that?
A – There was definitely a new manager bounce, but it is more than that. His no-nonsense style has made a difference and it seems his insistence on players performing in training as he would want them to do on the pitch, has focused minds.
He has not been afraid of reputations – Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson was an unused substitute for McCarthy’s first game in charge – and he has also given chances to youngsters, such as Tom Sang, the defender who had been on loan at Cheltenham and has earned himself a new Bluebirds deal.
There are few grey areas with McCarthy. He speaks his mind to the players and the fans appreciate his candid opinions after games. He says it as it is.
The appointment of McCarthy was greeted in a lukewarm fashion (and with some downright hostility) among Cardiff supporters.
But he quickly won them over and many would probably say, in hindsight, had he been drafted in earlier and had more of the transfer window to work in, he might have been able to shape the squad more swiftly to his own liking and made the play-offs.
Still, he has earned himself a new contract and the Cardiff fans will be watching intently how he intends to change the squad – amid the inevitable financial restraints deepened by the Covid pandemic – during his first full transfer window this summer.
Q – How disappointing will it be if City miss out on the play-offs, having reached them last season?
A – As I said earlier, there was initial optimism about the campaign. But the disappointment of missing out on play-offs has to be tempered by the threat of relegation, which was starkly plain during the bleak mid-winter.
When McCarthy took over at Cardiff, they were sliding towards the relegation mire. The managerial change was made when Cardiff were on a losing run and just nine points from the relegation zone, while 13 points from the top six.
Early season, they flattered to deceive. Harris tried to develop a style which was more aesthetically pleasing and easy on the eye, but had to revert to the more direct style which was the hallmark of the Neil Warnock era.
McCarthy has freshened the squad by giving chances to youngsters and players like Aiden Flint, who had been out on loan to Sheffield Wednesday early season and whose future looked bleak. He is now a mainstay.
But Cardiff’s lack of creativity in midfield has been a constant weakness for some time. They desperately need more guile in their engine room and that is a major factor on why they are not in the play-offs.
There will be disappointment among Cardiff supporters. But they will also not forget – they could easily be in Derby’s position now, had not McCarthy inspired a revival.
Q – Cardiff’s away record is much better than their home record – is it just down to empty stadiums or something more than that?
A – No doubt the lack of fans in the stadium has been a factor. Plenty of other clubs could say that, too.
But the atmosphere of a seething Cardiff City Stadium has traditionally made it a venue which other clubs were wary about. That is clearly not the same.
Mind you, some Cardiff fans would tell you, had the supporters been in the stadium during their losing run, their discontent might have led to the exit of Neil Harris earlier than when it happened.
But the no crowd business is just one factor. Probably more relevant is the lack of creativity. They have midfielders who lack nothing in effort, but do not have a creator who can unlock defences or even make the most of the runs of Harry Wilson.
Cardiff tend to survive on less possession and make the most of their set-pieces. Indeed, no side has scored more from set-pieces in the Championship this season.
Maybe it’s not always intended, but Cardiff probably have a style more suited to playing away from home.
They tend to struggle most when they have to take the game to another team, which is usually expected at home.
The home stats don’t lie. Last season they lost just three games at Cardiff City Stadium. This season they have lost nine and won only seven, the lowest in the top eight.
An improvement in home form will be an absolute must next season.
Q – There has rarely been a dull game between the Bees and the Bluebirds in the Championship – which ones do you remember best?
A – Have to say there have been some belters – not least the Boxing Day game at the Cardiff City Stadium which Brentford won 3-2.
It was notable for an amazing long-range effort (from inside his own half) by Wales midfielder Will Vaulks to give Cardiff the lead and then a sizzling second half hat-trick from Sergi Canos.
Last season Cardiff trailed 2-0 after 21 minutes, only to level the game before half-time to draw 2-2.
Back in 2018, Cardiff were going for promotion and the unlikely figure of Sol Bamba scored a volley any striker would have been proud of in a 3-1 win at Griffin Park.
And for drama and incident, what could top the Championship meeting in March 2015 when Cardiff hit back from Andre Gray’s opener to lead 2-1 before Federico Macheda and Kadeem Harris had red cards, and the Bluebirds finished with 10 men in victory.
Q – Who should Bees fans watch out for in the Cardiff side?
A – The obvious suggestion is striker and top scorer Kieffer Moore. He has been excellent for Cardiff, and last Friday ended a run of four games without a goal by resoundingly firing home a late penalty at Reading.
Moore is not the archetypal tall target man. His ability to hold up possession should not be under-estimated and his skills have also transferred successfully to the international scene.
The former lifeguard crucially revived Wales’ hopes of qualification to the Euros in 2019. He is looking weary after shouldering so much of the burden to lift Cardiff this season.
But Mick McCarthy has said he will be ready for the delayed Euros this summer when he could further enhance his reputation.
Watch out too for the runs of Harry Wilson. He has not always been helped by Cardiff’s style, but has real quality on the ball.
And beware of Will Vaulks’ long throws and Cardiff at set-pieces in general. They are a big, strong side, whose aerial ability makes them a potent threat at corners, free-kicks and throw-ins.
Q – Finally can you give me a likely Bluebirds line-up and formation please?
A – It should look something like this. (3-4-3)
Smithies; Nelson, Flint, Brown; Sang, Vaulks, Pack, Ng; Ralls Wilson, Moore.
HOW TO FOLLOW THE GAME
The match is being played at the Brentford Community Stadium at 6.00pm on Tuesday, behind closed doors. The match is live on Sky Sports. Season ticket holders who froze their tickets have free access to watch the match on iFollow, and others can buy a match pass for £10.
Live audio commentary is also available on iFollow with Mark Burridge, Marcus Bean and Natalie Sawyer with a match pass available to buy for £2.50, and there is also live commentary on BBC London Digital.