Selhurst Park greeted two and a half thousand Cardiff City supporters including Lord Neil Kinnock, lifelong passionate Cardiff City supporter who had gone to his first match with his father and grandfather as a very young boy.
The former labour party leader’s grandson was the Bluebirds mascot for the match – there was a symmetry to that and to the whole day. This was new manager Malky Mackay and his team laying to rest the ghost of the former team by matching their achievements and reaching the championship play-offs.
The City fans, some of them in fancy dress, gathered in jovial spirit -every man woman and child believed that this time City were going to do it by their own hand.
The game kicked off and immediately City showed their intentions. Gunnarsson linking up with Lawrence down the left who floated a tricky cross into the box where Palace ‘keeper Lewis Price collected it confidently. A minute later he was in action again parrying away a powerfully struck, long range shot from Lawrence. The ball fell to Joe Mason tight on the near post but before he could tuck it away. Price had scrambled to his feet and palmed it behind for a City corner.
It was all Bluebirds until 13 minutes when a misunderstanding in midfield gave the ball to Darren Ambrose who slotted the ball cleverly through to Wilfried Zaha -the winger was clean through on goal, a moment of ‘Marshall madness’ ensued! He charged out to get the ball but Zaha keeping his composure tucked the ball neatly through Marshall with two back tracking defenders helpless to do anything other than to look on as it went into a gaping net. It was a rare mistake from the big Scottish ‘keeper, this season he has been the Bluebirds most improved player.
Groans from the City faithful were quickly changed to cheers. Today we were determined to cheer, come what may, we’d all vowed, players and supporters alike we weren’t going down lightly we were taking our shot at going up fighting!
City continued to dominate and Palace had little to offer, happy to knock the ball about at the back, City instigated attack after attack at the Palace defence. The final ball was lacking again but the spirit, passion and determination that had been missing from the side was now in evidence – it was surely only a matter of time before Cardiff were level?
I could see a young ‘Smurf’ high on his dads shoulders, he was shouting out instructions to the team and trying to rally and lead the supporters chants, clearly he had an unquestionable belief and as a man standing next to me said “Who are any of us to doubt a Smurf!” We were one nil down but there was an amazing carnival atmosphere, it was pouring with rain we were wet, cold and losing but we didn’t care.
The second half started the same way the first had ended – all Cardiff. Palace defending deeply, the Bluebirds harassing, hounding, confounding the Palace defensive line, Miller came close to scoring whistling an angled shot across a floundering Price’s goal. Then 52 minutes into the game, Mason going down the right side was brought down resulting in a yellow card and a free kick near the corner post to Cardiff. Whittingham stepped up to take it – what came next was sublime! Whittingham spotting Price was ill-prepared and poorly positioned, whipped the ball in with a wicked curling shot that passed everyone without taking any deflection straight into the far corner of the net. Everyone connected with Cardiff City be it on the pitch, in the dugout or in the stands -screamed and danced with exuberance.
Dougie Freedman who had history with Cardiff after making inflammatory comments on the eve of the Carling Cup Semi Final between the two teams saying that Cardiff fans were scared (a comment he later withdrew saying he had been misquoted), nevertheless wanted revenge for that Carling Cup defeat, made an immediate change taking off Sean Scannell for Antonio Pedroza.
It was to be in vain, on 61 minutes The Bluebirds took the lead. The constant pressure played off thanks to a long Aron Gunnersson throw-in, level with the corner flag, club captain Mark Hudson met it nodding it down and back to Don Cowie on the edge of the box. Cowie connected with the ball sweetly hitting it on the volley with near flawless technique and the ball flew through a mass of bodies into the bottom hand corner of the net. There was mass scream of “YES!” in the Bluebird end, quickly followed by dancing and hugging. The Smurf threw his hat into the air for it to never been seen again, a chant of Eddie Mays Barmy army went up – in my exuberance I hit notes Sir Tom Jones would have been proud of! It was at that point my voice went and I know I wasn’t alone.
Cardiff City were now playing excellent football, the style and quality we all know the team is capable of. Better still it was with passion, belief, heart, conviction and flair! All of which had been lacking during the run of depressing draws which had threatened to blight the season but was all in the past now and those draws depressing as they had seemed at the time had counted to get us into the play-off positions we were now comfortably sitting in, with the knowledge that the current Cardiff squad are big game players, ask Liverpool!
City were cruising, Palace were a one man team. Only goal scorer Zaha having anything that caused any concern and his surges down the wings were dealt with easily, Whittingham playing in his favoured forward left midfield position was immense, the dominant force in the centre. In the 89th minute Bluebird legend Robert Earnshaw came on to be part of the play off party – it seemed right and fitting that when the final whistle blew a link with past glories (Earnshaw was part of the squad that had been promoted into the championship) was on the pitch.
I said at the beginning it was a day for symmetry, of full circles – Malky Makay has led a squad he had to build practically from scratch from slim pickings, thanks to a tight budget and an unyielding loan market, and he has not only matched the achievements of former Bluebird manager Dave Jones reaching the playoffs, he has trumped them with the Carling Cup Final appearance, an appearance which provided a day of magic and excitement that along with the 2008 FA Cup appearance will live in the hearts and minds of all Cardiff City supporters for the rest of their days.
The final results filtered through to us and confirmed it’s Thursday night May the 3rd and West Ham at Cardiff City Stadium, then on to Upton Park on Bank Holiday Monday the 7th of May for the return leg.
Cardiff City go into those play-off games with no pressure, all expectations exceeded, it’s the first time in recent seasons that’s been the case and they also have the knowledge they are the equals of anyone, West ham be afraid be very afraid!
The play off final it’s self is On May 19th Eddie May’s birthday, seems meant, written in the stars it’s our year.