The home leg of Cardiff’s third tilt in as many seasons at the Championship play-offs didn’t go to script. The first blow was that stalwart of the Cardiff defence ‘Super Kev’ McNaugthon was out with a hamstring niggle – As it turned out his lack of presence at the back was to be a major factor.
It all started very brightly, the Bluebirds created two quick fire chances, Whittingham unleashed a shot on goal which had West Ham ‘keeper Robert Green beaten but Whittingham’s effort took the slightest of deflections sending it onto the top of the net. Just a few minutes later, Kenny Miller also came agonisingly close via a half volley that the Hammers ‘keeper tipped onto and over the crossbar and behind.
Cardiff had West Ham under the cosh until, up popped Welsh international Jack Collison. Ricardo Vaz Te went down the left flank, beating Darcy Blake (who was making his first start in several months having been recalled into the side for the injured McNaughton) to fire the ball across the face of the goal where it found Collison, whose initial effort was parried away by David Marshall. Cardiff were to be unfortunate though, the rebounded ball went straight back to Collison, who beat the defender in the air at the far post and headed the ball home from close range.
The Cardiff supporters were stunned into silence, I was caught on camera by Sky Sports my head buried into my Cardiff scarf; a similar reaction was being echoed throughout the stands by my fellow Bluebird supporters. After what seemed like an age the silence was broken by a massive collective sigh.
The goal spurred the Hammers on while the Cardiff players lost the drive, fire and passion they had started with, West Ham took control of the game away from Cardiff. Neither side was playing particularly well, the final ball was missing for both teams and Cardiff became increasing sloppy; the ball being hoofed forward with too much pace rather than played on the ground via Whittingham, that is the undoubted strength of the side…the game became bogged down in midfield; messy, scrappy, ugly to watch.
James Tomkins headed wide for West Ham, Kenny Miller hunted the ball down then ran straight at the West Ham defence as if on some sort of kamikaze mission, somehow he arrived just outside the penalty area when with a murderous expression on his face he let go of a fearsome, vicious looking shot that flew just wide of Robert Green’s left hand post. At the other end Ben Turner pulled off a marvellous last minute tackle to deny Carlton Cole what would have been a simple chance.
City were holding on if they could just see it out in the last few minutes of the first half they could easily turn things around in the second half – West Ham weren’t playing well either, but were being flattered by the Bluebirds poorer performance. However, with four minutes left to play lady luck shined on the Hammers once more.
It was that man Jack Collison again! Who is very close to Cardiff City legend Craig Bellamy after their time together at Upton Park and with Wales, however, Collison could not hide his delight at scoring for his boyhood club on this stage. Bellamy had ultimately been pivotal in persuading Collison to take the nationality of his maternal grandfather to enable him to play for Wales at international level. So it was doubly cruel that it was his volley that took a slight deflection from the head of Liam Lawrence, the helpless City ‘keeper David Marshall (who had the original shot covered) could only watch as the ball flew past him into the Cardiff goal. 2-0 to West Ham the Cardiff faithful took stunned silence to a whole new level – Our team was playing poorly, but West Ham were little better and yet thanks to two lucky goals they were now in the driving seat, and with a minute left on the clock it could have been so much worse were it not for a spectacular save by Marshall stopping a Carlton Cole header from sneaking in at the near post.
The half time whistle saw Cardiff supporters stunned by the lacklustre performance of their team, the unfortunate almost fluky nature of the two goals they found themselves trailing by and also the overall poor half of football they had just witnessed. Chants of Earnie, Earnie and calls to bring McPhail on rang out around the ground. A quick round of the hummed version of the chorus of the Welsh National Anthem (a long held staple of Cardiff City terrace songs) rallied the Bluebird Supporters resolution to lift their team’ spirit in every way they could.
Neither team made any changes at half time – the Bluebirds came out and began the second half as they had the first full of passion and heart the tide seemed to be turning. Green fumbled a deflected shot that was then scrambled away, then Carlton Cole headed a Ben Turner header off the line.
Both sides had almost identical chances within minutes of each other, Kevin Nolan just heading the ball over from a few yards out and then young Ben Turner flicking his header just wide from a quality cross into the box from his former Coventry City teammate Aron Gunnarsson, and yet again Kenny Miller dithered too long in pulling the trigger and had the ball stolen off his foot! The Cardiff City fans started to chant Miller Off, Off, Off and Earnie, Earnie, Earnie patience having worn paper thin at the Scottish international’s failure to score.
The 75th minute of the game saw a flurry of changes. For The Bluebirds, Steven McPhail on for Don Cowie and Robert Earnshaw did indeed come on for Kenny Miller, and for the Hammers, winger Julien Faubert for defender Guy Demel.
Within minutes of coming on Earnshaw had a difficult chance on the volley, he flashed the attempt wide, Gunnarsson also shot wide from just outside the box. This was better from City with five minutes left to play the chance of the half fell to young Cardiff striker Joe Mason. A Peter Whittingham in-swinging corner presented Mason with a chance from close range but his shot cleared the bar. A minute later West Ham made another substitution Nicky Maynard coming on for two goal hero Jack Collison. Mason’s shot proved to be the final of the game, play became frustratingly broken up by niggly fouls given away by tired players.
So it’s on to Upton Park on May Day. Cardiff have a bit to do, but given that both teams away form has been better than their home this season and that statistically it had been an even match in terms of both possession and shots on goal, it’s not a foregone conclusion by any means. If The Bluebirds can find their scoring boots and have a little of the luck West Ham enjoyed in the first leg anything could happen – it’s not over until the fat lady sings! I’ve followed Cardiff City from the old Division Four to FA Cup and Carling Cup finals. So whatever the outcome on Monday I’ll continue to do just that with pride! Once a Bluebird always a Bluebird!