Cardiff City are five points clear with a game in hand at the summit of the npower Championship.
The lead is testament to the incredible hard work put in this season - and with twenty one points out of a possible thirty taken in the last ten games, it seems right to run through exactly why things are going so well on the pitch.
Tuesday’s defeat to Brighton certainly curtailed the runaway leaders somewhat – adding weight to the Gaffer’s message that promotion is far from a foregone conclusion with fourteen games still left to play. Perhaps few sets of fans will appreciate this more than our own though, with the Play-Off heartbreak of the past three seasons remembered. That said, there is little doubt this Cardiff squad is the strongest since returning to the Championship a decade ago, and it is hard not to be swept up in the wave of optimism felt in the heartlands of South Wales. With hard work, determination and unity, it can come.
With the January transfer window now closed and loan signings at this stage at least not needed, Cardiff's squad for the remainder of the season would now seem to be set in stone. Malky characteristically preferred to conduct his business in a quiet and professional manner last month, securing striker Fraizer Campbell from Sunderland, as well as free agent Simon Lappin, previously of Norwich City.
Campbell enjoyed a dream début, scoring with his third touch to prove the difference in a tight game at Elland Road; he followed that up with a brace on his home début against Bristol City a fortnight later. Fans will have seen glimpses of Lappin previously, the defender having been brought in on loan as cover earlier in the campaign. Simon marked his first turnout in a Cardiff shirt with a red card, but the Manager clearly has faith in the versatile 29 year old, telling the press recently: “He is someone who has played a lot of Championship football and played a big part on Norwich City's promotion to the Premier League. Simon will bolster our squad and its great business for us.”
STRENGTH IN DEPTH:
City fans will struggle to recall a team with better strength in depth than Malky currently has at his disposal, but success so far has not come about purely from signing the biggest names or the greatest individuals, but by assembling a collective group with a die-hard mentality, working from the first minute until the last, both on the pitch and off. The loss of Nicky Maynard for the season after such a promising start was a blow to all concerned, but the Cardiff squad have responded, weighing in with fifty three goals – only two teams have scored more.
An assured back line has been able to defend a one goal lead on sixteen occasions to date this season, and City have only dropped eight points at home all term. We completed an historic ten wins on the bounce at Cardiff City Stadium earlier in the campaign, lest we forget.
Captain Mark Hudson has built on an impressive 2011/12 season to become a talismanic leader of the Cardiff squad, embodying the Manager’s never-say-die attitude in marshalling a defence that has conceded just thirty-three goals. Indeed City sport the second best defence in the division, with only Leicester having conceded fewer.
Matthew Connolly meanwhile has more than earned his place in the Cardiff back four, playing at both right back and centre back. No stranger to promotion after winning the Championship with Reading and Queen’s Park Rangers in recent years, the summer signing has proved his defensive worth, while weighing in with four goals to date. Ben Turner's partnership with Hudson in the heart of defence has provided visible solidarity, and with 19 year-old starlet Ben Nugent tipped by Mackay as a potential heir to the captain's armband after a series of assured performances when needed, the future is bright at the back. Andrew Taylor has earned the title of ‘Mr. Consistency’ at left back, whilst fan favourite Kevin McNaughton put in a fantastic display on Boxing Day to mark the Manchester United-bound Wilfried Zaha out of the game and characteristically put his body on the line with an heroic performance against Huddersfield earlier in the month.
A spot in the Cardiff midfield has never been as hotly contested in recent memory as it is now, but one place at the heart of the pitch seems nailed on.
With thirty-one starting appearances so far this season, Peter Whittingham has shown exactly why Malky was so keen to hone his game – Whitts’ positional maturity and ability to dictate tempo a constant in an ever rotated surrounding. The Cardiff play-maker stole the show at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers with an audacious hat trick including a free kick and penalty that summed up the threat he poses from set pieces, but a quiet professionalism has woven its way into the number seven's psyche in recent seasons too. Some have naively pointed to a lack of goals in comparison to a free scoring 09/10, but a glance at the league table suggests Whittingham's influence is broader than goal statistics. With an uncanny ability to execute an exquisite pass both from a dead ball and seemingly on a whim, perhaps the Championship's most consistent performer over the past three seasons has proved he can add more strings to an already impressive bow.
Accompanying Whittingham in the centre of midfield has been primarily the job of either Jordon Mutch or more recently, Aron Gunnarsson. Mutch, a typical box-to-box midfielder, excelled from the off, before a foot injury kept him out of contention, allowing Icelandic international Gunnarsson to rise to the occasion. 'The Iceman' has – like Whittingham – thirty-one appearances so far, albeit ten made as a substitute. He’s contributed six goals as well – epitomising the Mackay-ethos with his ninety minute, gut-busting performances. Filip Kiss has primarily continued his progression in the Development squad with a series of convincing performances, alongside creative left footer Joe Ralls, while long-time servant Stephen McPhail has worked incredibly hard to regain fitness after long periods out, and has started completing ninety minutes on a regular basis since the turn of the year.
The battle for the Cardiff wings positions hs typified the competition in the squad for a place in the first eleven, the versatility of the attack enabling Malky to be much more tactically flexible. Craig Noone, a known target for the Gaffer since January last year, has been impressive, scoring five league goals and assisting nine. Kim Bo-Kyung has shown why he is so highly regarded on an international scale, making nineteen appearances so far and finding the net twice. Tommy Smith played a key role in the early stages of the season before being ruled out for the winter months with a hamstring tear; his recent return has been a massive boost – his winning volley at Blackpool arguably the highlight of the past month.
Craig Conway had to wait for his chance in the team but grabbed it with both hands, scoring the only goal against Dave Jones' Sheffield Wednesday in December. He has since enjoyed a fantastic spell of form since, featuring in all but one of the subsequent twelve league fixtures. Don Cowie meanwhile has played a massive part as a versatile utility player with twenty-one appearances across the midfield. Nine of those have come as a substitute, Cowie having been brought on to help secure points, his incredible work rate helping to close down games to great effect.
Up front, the two most experienced heads in the Cardiff City squad have led by example. Craig Bellamy's quality – as well as his unquestionable love for the club - is known across the globe, his incredible athletic ability and commitment to the cause inspirational. Heidar Helguson could never be accused of not giving his all in the Cardiff shirt either. The former Icelandic international is the Club's current top scorer with eight goals in thirty-two league and cup appearances, and his aerial prowess and ability to play intelligently as a target man has given Malky a new option on the pitch this season.
Rudy Gestede has made the majority of his sixteen appearances from the bench this season, mostly replacing Helguson as a target man in a like for like swap. Young pairing Gestede and Joe Mason have made the majority of their combined forty appearances from the bench, and Mason's finishing ability in particular has proved valuable. The twenty-one year old striker has bagged five goals this season so far including a clinically taken effort at Blackburn and winner at Birmingham. Promising Slovenian striker Etien Velikonja is being slowly introduced to the British game too, scoring in Cardiff's pre-season friendly against Newcastle as well as bagging two hat tricks for the development side. One to watch for the future.
And finally, but by no means least, there’s the ‘keeper. David Marshall must surely be a contender for ‘Player of the Season’ for City – competing to the highest of standards in every second of City’s thirty-one League games so far. Considered by his Manager and many more as the best 'keeper in the Championship, his assured performances at the back have contributed to the defensive solidarity Cardiff have shown so far. Former England U21 Joe Lewis has waited patiently on the bench and played primarily in the Development league. His chance will come.
So with fourteen games to go, fate lies firmly in City’s hands. There are plenty of points on offer with three of those up for grabs at Molineux against Wolves on the weekend. This is the Class of ’13. Here’s to the run-in.