Football: Bruised Horton is left to pick up the pieces

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The Independent Online
Cardiff City. . . . 1

Manchester City. . .0

BY half-time, Manchester City's sodden supporters were still bullish enough to cheer the announcement of the birth of a boy, to be christened 'Francis Lee'. Then Nathan Blake's goal flashed in, the rebirth of the Blues went on hold, and pre-natal depression was rampant.

Ninian Park in the rain was hardly the most auspicious setting for the launch of the Lee era. The chairman-designate, displaying judgement that bodes well for City, missed it by being on holiday in Barbados. But for Brian Horton, whose appointment five months ago coincided with the campaign to oust Peter Swales, Cardiff offered no hiding place.

Horton is understood to have impressed Lee with his phlegmatic approach amid turbulent times. Now, as the team lying 18th in the Second Division shuffled through the scrum of scribes after their deserved victory, his trauma was transparent. 'Things have happened in the boardroom,' the City manager said. 'That performance typified why it had to happen.'

Fresh faces in the boardroom had to be followed, Horton implied, by new blood in the dressing-room. His back four had been 'all right' - a generous assessment - and Tony Coton 'excellent'. The rest were 'simply not good enough'. Lee is reportedly ready to make pounds 6m available - pounds 16m might be more like it - though his loyalty to Horton looks certain to be strictly finite if their Premiership status remains threatened.

City were already intimate with Cup capitulation; the names of Shrewsbury, Halifax, Brentford and Notts County each have a wretched resonance. And one by one, all the familiar, hand-wringing elements fell into place: Keith Curle's wrongly disallowed 'equaliser'; Coton's exit with a wound inadvertently inflicted by Terry Phelan; a weak 80th-minute penalty by Curle, predictably saved by Mark Grew; and the Cardiff goalkeeper's catch from the same player's injury-time header.

Topping the list was an exquisite goal by Blake, a failed Chelsea apprentice with a deceptively languid, Waddlesque gait. Feinting to his left and then spinning back inside, the Welsh Under-21 international left Curle, Phelan and Garry Flitcroft tackling fresh air before beating Coton for pace and placement with a curling left-footed shot.

Joy was unconfined on the terraces where they have endured lower-division dross too long. Behind the scenes, however, they were enacting the kind of intrigue which Maine Road must have thought it had under copyright, with Blake and the Cardiff chairman, Rick Wright, giving differing versions of why the match-winner remains on a weekly contract.

Wright, who is also looking for a Welsh Franny Lee to buy his pounds 2.5m stake in the club, insisted he had offered Blake pounds 700 a week. 'But if I offered him pounds 2,000 a week he wouldn't stay, because he wants to play in the Premiership,' he added. Not so, Blake was saying along the corridor; if pounds 700 had ever been suggested, he would have happily committed himself to Cardiff.

Blake felt they were 'going round in circles', a sensation the visiting contingent would have recognised only too well. Lee's takeover will be confirmed at a board meeting today. In the meantime, Horton has his work cut out to banish the mood of post-Nathan angst.

Goal: Blake (63) 1-0.

Cardiff City (4-4-2): Grew; Brazil, Baddeley, Perry, Searle; Griffith, Richardson, Aizlewood, Millar; Blake, Thompson. Substitutes not used: Bird, Adams, Kite (gk).

Manchester City (4-4-2): Coton (Dibble, 72); Lomas, Kernaghan, Curle, Phelan; Ingebrigtsen (Sheron, 66), Flitcroft, Rocastle, Groenendijk; Griffiths, Vonk. Substitute not used: D Brightwell.

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

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