A bright, if blustery, afternoon at The Cardiff City Stadium, then, and what should be a routine day at the office for Cardiff City. They are still chasing the heels of Norwich City, but a home match against sixteenth placed Middlesbrough should bring home a comfortable three points today and keep the pressure on the Canaries as they travel to Fratton Park to play Portsmouth this evening. Within the space of twenty minutes, though, what might be a nervous evening for Norwich City becomes a pre-promotion party whilst Cardiff’s expectations of taking this battle to the last weekend of the season disappear in a puff of smoke.
At the start play, Cardiff are a point behind Norwich with a superior goal difference of a solitary goal. On three minutes, Leroy Lita heads Middlesbrough into the lead with a goal so soft that the Middlesbrough players seem almost hesitant to celebrate it andthen , ten minutes later, they double their lead with another goal from Barry Robson. Eight minutes after this, Richard Smallwood who, as part of what may be a local May Day custom, seems to have been given the freedom of the Cardiff City penalty area, makes the score a scarcely credible 3-0. Mayday, indeed. The Cardiff City Stadium falls quiet in stunned disbelief. This is not how the script was supposed to play out.
The home side had cause for disgruntlement. With the score still at 1-0, they should have been awarded a penalty when a Jason Steele free-kick is charged down by a Middlesbrough arm inside the penalty area, but the second and third goals carry the sound of nails being banged into a coffin. Norwich have won their last three successive matches and scored ten goals in the process. Relying on them to drop points this evening is a long, long way from being a sensible policy. To their credit, Cardiff come out for the second half looking considerably more positive, and within forty seconds Kevin McNaughton contrives to scoop the ball over the crossbar from three yards out. This brings the crowd back to life a little, but Cardiff continue to stutter and stall. By the end of the match, which finishes 3-0, The Cardiff City Stadium is pock-marked with visible blue tip-up seats. Middlesbrough settled for what they had a long time ago. Cardiff City couldn’t find a way through.
One hundred and fifty miles south-east of Cardiff, a party is starting. It seems scarcely credible that it is less than two years since Norwich City were starting their League One season with a 7-1 pasting at the hands of Colchester United, still less that twelve months ago, with Paul Lambert, the architect of that defeat, by that time in charge of the club, they were celebrating promotion back into the Championship. All of these things are in the recent past of Norwich City, but this evening they would stand on the cusp of a place back in the Premier League. Like Cardiff City, Norwich are playing a team with little left to play for this season, but unlike Cardiff their nerve holds in the face of the pressure under which they suddenly find themselves.
If there is one thing that today’s matches do prove to us, it is that there is still a propensity towards professional pride from teams with little to play for at the end of the season. Portsmouth aren’t merely here to make up the numbers this evening, much as Middlesbrough didn’t merely turn out in Cardiff earlier this afternoon. There is a yellow and green wall behind one goal, though, a wall of sound that sounds almost disbelieving at being here, at the point of a return to the Premier League. It’s evenly balanced and, although Norwich are the better team, there is something admirably obdurate about Portsmouth and they manage to keep the Canaries at bay until the break. Half-time arrives with the lusty choruses of “On The Ball, City!” that greeted the opening fifteen minutes of the match having fallen a little quiet.
Five minutes into the second half comes the goal that sends them back there. It’s a goal of simplicity and brilliance, a deep diagonal cross to Simeon Jackson, who stoops with a header inside the far post. Portsmouth continue to push forward in search of an eqauliser, but Norwich look comfortable for much of the time, and even the three minutes of stoppage time sees their defence batting away repeated Portsmouth crosses into their penalty area with the minimum of fuss. At the full-time whistle, the noise reaches crescendo, and even a line of determined stewards can only keep their supporters off the pitch for so long. This is a celebration that is irresistable, a joyous explosion of colour at the end of a remarkable season.
There remain two chances for Cardiff City this evening. There remains a possibility that the division champions, Queens Park Rangers, could yet be deducted points over the Alejandro Faurlin ownership affair. A big enough deduction could yet allow Cardiff a back door into the Premier League. Should that come to nothing (and for all the hysteria coming from one tabloid media outlet, there is still little to suggest that this will happen, although you can never fully discount possibility of the crazy pranksters that run our game pulling something out the hat), there are still end of season play-offs to play for. It seems likely that – though by no means certain, at this stage – that they will play Nottingham Forest, a team that have picked their form up after a wretched run of form between the middle of February and the middle of March. It’s a winnable tie, and a place at Wembley Stadium – quite possibly against their biggest rivals, Swansea City – could yet be on the cards for them.
This evening, however, is all about Norwich City. To win two successive promotions through any divisions is an outstanding achievement, and for that second promotion to be from the Championship, where are number of clubs are financially plumpened by ongoing Premier League parachute payments, is even more exceptional. Whatever tribulations Cardiff City – and, for that matter, Queens Park Rangers – may or may not have over the next few weeks are little concern of theirs. They are back in the Premier League, and their performance over the course of this season fully warrants this. It won’t be easy, and there are plenty of clubs whose experience there will confirm this, but just to be there in the first place is an exceptional performance in itself.
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