Norwich go all intercontinental with a trip to sunny Wales. Richard Jeffery spoke to Cardiff City Season Ticket holder and WalesOnline Fan Columnist Scott Johnson about Vincent Tan, blood, guts, thunder, Pilks, transfers & rough diamonds.
Rich: Norwich are the visitors to the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday, for what absolutely nobody ever has called 'the small colourful bird derby'. It’s fair to say we’ve both had our ups and downs over the last few years, sometimes down together like in 2014. I know you’ve written on the subject a lot, but it’s kind of drifted out of the national media now, so let’s start with an update on your owner. You’re back in blue, but where are we at with Mr Tan?
Scott: Vincent Tan still bankrolls the club, but is largely an absent owner these days. He rarely attends games and has cut back on spending. He has indulged managers in the past and wasted a lot of money, so who can blame him? But Cardiff are drifting as a result.
What is the general consensus amongst Norwich fans with regards to their current league position? I imagine most would have expected a push for automatic promotion, rather than an outside chance of the top six?
Rich: Yes, you're spot on. We started the season well in terms of results, if not performances. We were top, all looked rosy, and were within a minute of a win at Newcastle, but ended up losing the game. We managed to win the next two and it looked like normal service was resumed, but we then threw away a two goal HT lead at Fulham which was the start of a run of only 3 wins in 14 in the league. Doubts for many continue over the manager, though that has subsided somewhat after winning our last two. They were at home though, our away form is dreadful.
Neil Warnock is your current manager. He strikes me as one of those who you’d like if he was your own manager, but who winds you up when he’s your opponent’s manager. But I like him, he’s usually funny and engaging when interviewed, jokes about scousers excepted. I saw you tweeting the other week that he’s not being backed in the transfer market as much as Solskjaer was and that you could see him walking as a result. How is that situation now?
Scott: Warnock is the right manager at the right time. Cardiff promoted Paul Trollope as manager in the summer, who promised more aesthetically-pleasing football, but it was a disaster. Cardiff became pushovers. Warnock has toughened them up, as you would expect, and is the kind of manager Cardiff fans have always warmed to; old-school, blood and guts. He's been very vocal about his lack of spending power though and could walk if the club don't match his ambition.
Are the majority still on-side with Alex Neil? I hope it works out for him. When he was appointed, he struck me as a very impressive guy, but he now looks a bit beaten down. Like he's doubting himself.
Rich: I think it's probably about 50:50 at the moment, it felt close to the end a few weeks ago so he’s pulled it back a little. He was very impressive at the outset. Confident, bullish, straightforward, and you felt he was the sort of manager the players would want to play for. He had that approach in matches and got us up via the play-offs (from an almost identical position to the one we're in now, coincidentally). A lot of people track the change in him back to another away debacle at Newcastle. We’d started the season back in the Premier League by having a go at teams and it was working, we were doing OK. We were 3-2 behind at Newcastle but all over them, and Neil took off a defensive midfielder (Tettey) to go for a more attacking option. This backfired and they scored on every breakaway after that, winning 6-2. From that moment, that attitude and certainty left him and doubt crept in. He’s not been the same since. So again, you’re spot on.
Glad to hear that it’s back to basics under Warnock. It's just what a club needs sometimes to find itself again. Of course we all love intricate passing and the flick, fart and fanny side of the game, but at the same time a bit of old-fashioned blood and thunder can be a wonderful thing to witness as a fan. So, how does Warnock set you up? Do you play two up front? Does he change it up depending on the opposition?
Scott: No, it's pretty much always 4-3-3, more like 4-5-1 in the interpretation, although he tried a more conventional 4-4-2 at the weekend. Cardiff expected more from Rickie Lambert, but they're not exactly playing to his strengths either. 35 next month, he doesn't have the legs to go charging round and could do with more support. Kenneth Zohore is preferred and he's like a less-effective Cameron Jerome, who Cardiff plucked from obscurity as a youngster. He's a rough diamond like Jerome was, but having seen Jerome again recently, he's still a rough diamond! There's no guarantee that a player will mature and become more sophisticated. Is he a fan favourite? I know he's got the play-off final goal to fall back on.
Rich: Haha, well he’s not so much a rough diamond now as one that’s not responded to polishing. Yes, he'll always have that goal, and the clincher in the semi-final against Ipswich. I have a lot of time for Jerome. He's a tireless runner in our system, which similarly to yours is pretty much always 4-5-1. He got 21 goals in our last Championship season, though failed in the Premier League scoring just 3 in 34, but then the whole team failed to be fair to him. He scored a great goal on Saturday, all about power and pace as he ran from the halfway line before cutting inside the defender and passing it into the corner of the goal. He did another typically strong run in the second half with Ryan Shotton hanging on the back of him but he shrugged him off, played a one-two with Hoolahan and then hit it straight at the keeper, encapsulating himself in one move. He does miss some sitters and it’s fair to say he splits opinion. Nelson Oliveira is available after suspension, but Jerome has done enough to keep his place I think.
I was sorry to see Anthony Pilkington leave us, and thought he was a great signing for you. He scored two in our narrow win over you earlier this season and was a great favourite at Carrow Road. Whittingham’s another player of yours I’ve always admired. Who else do we need to be wary of and who is your biggest liability?
Scott: Pilkington may be the most talented player in the squad. Sol Bamba was an inspired free-agent signing by Warnock and has brought much-needed leadership. Aron Gunnarsson has been rejuvenated by captaining Iceland at the Euros and there are no real weak links. They've already used four goalkeepers to try and replace David Marshall, formerly of your parish. That remains the main problem position.
Rich: Ah yes, Sol Bamba. Portman Road has that effect on me too. Marshall is a very good keeper and a hard act to follow, we’ve not mentioned a couple of other notable players who graced us both, namely Craig Bellamy & Robert Earnshaw. Another one who has played for us both is Tom Adeyemi, who you currently have out on loan at Rotherham, I had great hopes for him when he was a youth player for us, but he’s never really kicked-on.
I think Warnock will continue to steady your ship and if he’s backed, I could see you mount a promotion challenge next year. Do you think that’s a realistic expectation for you and where do you think our respective clubs will finish this season?
Scott: Cardiff have glaring weaknesses that need addressing; primarily a lack of pace and cutting edge. That will require a certain degree of spending that Cardiff appear uncomfortable with, but will lose Warnock if they don't. If they're lucky, they might finish mid-table this year, but they're not out of the woods yet. I would have had Norwich nailed on for the top six, but I've been surprised by their lack of spending this month. Is there any particular reason for that?
Rich: Yes, we have to sell before we buy. Having sold Martin Olsson to your pals, we're also waiting for Robbie Brady to be sold before we can get anyone in. We've signed the highly-rated Icelandic 16 year old Agust Hlynsson as one for the future, a policy we're pursuing as a club that I'm fully behind. We’re signing Mitchell Dijks from Ajax on loan (with a view to a permanent signing) as a replacement for Olsson. But that's it so far, we’re well used to underwhelming transfer windows. We desperately need at least one good centre-half so I hope we get one of those as well. On that note if Rickie Lambert gets on he could have some joy in the air against our defence.
So finally Scott, a score prediction for Saturday please?
Scott: Cardiff can give anyone a game on their day but struggle to see-off teams, so I'll say 1-1.
Rich was speaking to Scott Johnson who tweets at @roathboy Scott’s latest book - ‘Cardiff City: Rebranded’, an account of a club changed overnight, is in stores now.