Being bottom of the table going into the new year is, unsurprisingly, held by most to be a somewhat negative omen. In a division of twenty-four teams in which three have to be relegated at the end of each season, that the one that is in the very bottom position should normally be one of those to fall through the trapdoor shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but the blind optimism of the football supporter tends only to see the gap between those at the bottom and the teams immediately above them. Survival remains attainable – expected, even – until it is mathematically impossible.
Sometimes, however, a team at the bottom of the table puts in the sort of performance that indicates hidden reserves of determination which may come in very useful over the next few months or so. Peterborough United have come a long way very quickly, and promotion into the Championship at the end of last season may have been a step too far for them. Rumours of their immediate demise may be revived by some if their performance yesterday afternoon in coming from 4-0 down at half-time to draw 4-4 with Cardiff City is anything to go by.
Cardiff City, meanwhile, had gone into the Christmas feeding frenzy as one of those expected to benefit the most greatly from it. They had won their previous four matches including away wins at pre-season promotion favourites West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough. Keeping the heat on West Bromwich Albion in second place in the table was the stated aim but, on Boxing Day, and completely out of the blue, they were beaten at home by Plymouth Argyle. With any hopes of a straight six points from two matches over the holiday period gone, though, they could have been forgiven a few nerves ahead of their trip to London Road.
Talk of “the comeback of the season”, however, doesn’t mask an absolutely woeful performance from Peterborough in the first half that left such a comeback as their minimum requirement in the second half. Cardiff were, in the first half, allowed the freedom of the Peterborough half of the pitch, with little as inconveniencing as tackling or marking to get in their way. Two early goals from Joe Ledley both came with the minimum of defensive intervention, and a further two goals in five minutes from Jay Bothroyd and Peter Whittingham saw a number of the home supporters deciding to duck out early.
What happened next was a warning for all supporters that give up the ghost so early in the match. Manager Mark Cooper’s half-time team talk probably scorched the paint in the home dressing room, but subsitute Josh Simpson’s goal six minutes after the restart still only felt like a consolation for Peterborough and their final chance seemed to have slipped away when goalkeeper Joe Lewis had to be substituted just after an hour had been played. However, five minutes later Charlie Lee pulled a second goal back and suddenly Cardiff nerves were starting to jangle. Even so, they were comfortably running the clock down until the last minute of normal time when George Boyd pulled a third back and then, two minutes into injury time came the equalizer. It was the sort of goal that we only ever see in the last minute of a match – twenty-odd players (including the Peterborough substitute goalkeeper James McKeown) were in the penalty area but it was Simpson that got the final touch to bring them level.
What went wrong for Cardiff City? A team with Premier League ambitions, after all, can ill afford to drop two points against the team that is bottom of the table. Did they, as manager Dave Jones implied in his post-match interview, simply think that they had won at half-time? Their one point from two matches against teams in the relegation zone has cost them dearly – they might have expected to have been breathing hard down the necks of second placed West Bromwich Albion this morning. Instead, they have dropped to fourth place in the table and Albion are eight points clear of them again. They might just be glad for the short break that the Third Round of the FA Cup will bring them.
Peterborough United, meanwhile, see a chink of light. They remain adrift at the bottom of the table, and the fact that this point may have felt more like a win than a draw doesn’t alter the fact that they did only earn the one point from the match and that they remain five points from the safety of the fourth from bottom place in the table. The psychological effect of the result, however, may prove to be worth more than just a solitary point to them. One of the beneficial features of the Championship is that the forty-six match season allows teams a certain margin for error. Mark Cooper’s heart can probably do without too many more afternoons like yesterday, though.