Countdown to the FA Cup semi-finals: 'We are only one step away from the FA Cup final. That's an amazing feeling'
Local hero Joe Ledley understands just what a first final since 1927 would mean for Cardiff City, writes James Corrigan
Thursday 03 April 2008
When Cardiff City run out at Wembley for the first time in 81 years on Sunday there will be at least one player who knows exactly what it all means. Granted, the Finns, Dutchmen, Scots and even Englishmen in their ranks will be able to look around and take in the magnificence of the occasion. But as far as the history goes, Joe Ledley will have a privileged understanding.
"I first heard about 1927 when I was very young, as young as I can remember, I guess," said the 21-year-old at the training ground yesterday. "That's how it is in Cardiff – the fans still sing about it now. Hopefully, we can change that and make our own piece of history. Obviously, it was a great achievement what they did back then, but it would be great for Cardiff to move on, just like everyone has to move on. It's a bit like Welsh rugby in the 70s I suppose. Now this current Welsh team are making their own legends with their Grand Slams. I do see a parallel in that. Well, hopefully. Like I say, it's down to us."
Ledley does indeed like to say "it's down to us" on a regular basis. That is not through any lack of vocabulary, or any obsession with the phrase, but simply because he can plainly sense the tug of yesteryear at their backs as Cardiff head into their FA Cup semi-final with Barnsley. It is down to them to bury the folklore of Fred Keenor and his men who so famously took the silver urn out of England for the first and, so far, only time. It is down to them to put football back on the pedestal in the capital.
"Yeah, you're right: I'm not sure if the other players can know what this day will mean for Cardiff," said Ledley, while pointing out that Aaron Ramsey, the 17-year-old Caerphilly wonderkid, also has Bluebird blood in his veins. "They might, although to be a local lad and doing it with the club you've always supported and been with since you were nine? Well, that is special. It's an opportunity not many players get to feel. To think we're only one step away from the final. That is an amazing feeling. You can sense it out on the streets. Everybody's talking about it."
Well, alas, not everybody. Walking past the Cardiff pubs and hearing the roars last night would have confirmed an interest in Liverpool and Arsenal that any City diehard would understandably label unhealthy. "I supported Liverpool as a boy, like the rest of my family," admitted Ledley. "I did go down the City throughout that time, though, and started watching them when I was about six, having family days out down Ninian with my dad, mum and brother. I had two teams, like many in Cardiff did and probably still do. But hopefully, there'll come a day soon when you won't see children walking around the city centre in Man Utd, Liverpool or Arsenal shirts. There'll just be Cardiff tops. It's up to us to change this. In fact, it's already changed a lot even since I've been here. There's so many more blue shirts being worn now. That's great for the players to see. It's proof that we're doing OK."
"Doing OK" is not a description that has been applied to Ledley very often. Ever since he burst into the Cardiff team as a 17-year-old, and then into the Wales squad very soon after, the utility player – who will likely play wide left at the weekend – has been earning reviews on the ecstasy side of rave. Everton were thought ready to table an offer of £3.5m recently, but resisted when they discovered that Wolves had made a similar approach and Cardiff had apparently gone to Ledley with a bid considered marginal. Honest Joe turned Molineux down and stated his desperation to stay. He appreciates, however, that the choice may not always be his to make.
"I'm just trying to do what I do," he said. "Keep focusing on the game. Mates come up and say 'the papers say so-and-so is interested in you' and I hear people say 'oh you're going to be moving there'. Ultimately it's not up to me. If they accept a bid it's up to them."
If and when the offers enter "can't refuse" territory, the fans will miss Ledley as much as he will miss them. The constant chanting of his name shows that they regard him as one of them, which of course he was until all too recently. Intriguingly, both on the terraces and on the buses. "I only stopped catching the bus to the ground on matchdays when I passed my driving lesson about 18 months ago," he said. "I live in Fairwater, not too far away, and when I was on the bus, fans would come up to me and say 'Are you Joe Ledley?' And I'd say, 'Yeah."' And they'd say, 'What you doing getting the bus to the game then?' I was young then."
He was also without his best pal. "I was gutted when Danny Gabbidon went to West Ham and not just because he was one of my main mates, who helped me so much when I broke into the first team, was leaving. Gabbs used to give me a lift as well. I've got a car now, bought a Range Rover sport the other day actually. Yeah, everything's changed a bit."
Yet some things never do, particularly in Wales where touts become very rich very quickly on sporting occasions such as this. "The clamour for me to get tickets for family, relatives, friends has been huge," he said." I had to get hold of 50 or so. There was a lot of hassle and I'm glad it's all done and dusted. I don't know what I'll do if we get to the final. It's great, though, as all my mates are going together. They've just booked a coach and there's about 20 of them on it. It'll be noisy on there if we win."
And if it will be positively deafening if the pal they nicknamed "Deadly Ledley" happens to score. "They're all mates I've had from school and went down Ninian with," he added. "They keep my feet on the ground. They treat me like they do any of the boys. Actually, Cardiff's a good place for that. It's very down to earth. Although there's a bit more attention this week. It's going to be a great day out."
Even, it must be said, for Ledley. "I've never been to Wembley, never been to a FA Cup final, not even when they were played in Cardiff," he revealed. "We did use to go into the city centre before the matches though and the buzz was incredible. I felt what it was like for the fans and my mates and I used to say 'imagine if Cardiff ever get there'. And now we're one game away. Incredible. I do know how lucky I am.
"You know, some of my mates are builders and what have you. It is a great honour to be a professional footballer. There's a responsibility, because I suppose you are out there living the fans' dreams. They'd love to be in my shoes and would love to have the chance to get to the final for Cardiff. It's down to us now."
Young talent rolling off the Welsh production line
By James Mariner
*GARETH BALE aged 18 (born Cardiff) Attracted suitors after impressive first season at Southampton, labelled the "new Giggsy". Made Wales debut at 16. Joined Spurs last summer in £5m deal, scoring three in first five games before ankle injury ended season.
*CHRIS GUNTER 18 (born Newport) Apprentice of the Year after impressive first season before joining Bale at White Hart Lane for £3m last December.*JOE LEDLEY 21 (born Cardiff) Another product of the Bluebirds youth system, the midfielder rose up the ranks at Ninian Park before making his debut in 2004.
Won Goal of the Season award last year and has attracted interest from Everton among other clubs in the Premier League.
*AARON RAMSEY 17 (born Caerphilly) Midfielder trailed by Newcastle as an eight-year-old before rising through Cardiff's youth system. Made debut in April 2007, taking John Toshack's record of youngest ever Bluebirds player. Manchester United, Newcastle, Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton have all been linked with moves.
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