Can Cardiff profit from the Welsh feelgood factor?
The Championship's perennial bridesmaids may finally join their Swansea rivals in the top flight
Twenty-five years after Cardiff City and Swansea City played their derbies in the Fourth Division, the possibility of their meeting in what is colloquially known as the "top flight" for the first time is growing. A flight of fancy? Only in the sense that the capital City have had their opportunities for promotion before and blown it for four seasons running. But with every chance of Cardiff finishing the weekend as Championship leaders after playing at home to struggling Sheffield Wednesday today, the prospect appears a better bet than Welsh football's other dream: qualifying for a first major tournament since 1958.
Should Cardiff make it, they would do well to acknowledge the part played in laying of foundations by this afternoon's visiting manager, Dave Jones. Under the former Evertonian they were regularly thereabouts, just never quite there. In 2009 they missed out on a place in the play-offs by one goal, then lost in the final against Blackpool the following year and in the semi-finals against Reading in 2011.
Jones was sacked, which the BBC Wales pundit Kevin Ratcliffe feels was harsh: "Dave Jones was unlucky. It's a very fine line. For instance, if Jay Bothroyd hadn't been injured in the first 10 minutes of the play-off final, I honestly think they'd have been promoted instead of Blackpool. Now Malky Mackay's changed the team round a bit. The home form's been brilliant, nine wins out of nine, but they've got to sort out their away form."
Last season, the first under Mackay, brought another semi-final defeat, by his old club West Ham. By that time, however, a raft of players such as Bothroyd, Michael Chopra and Aaron Ramsey had left, and the manager had a hectic first couple of months rebuilding the squad. "It was different because there were so many players that had left – and even staff," he says. "We had to change things around, bring in 10 players and an influx of new staff with the season so close. It was a whirlwind of a time."
What he liked was the potential of a club who refashioned their image by following Swansea in leaving a run-down stadium for a smart new one and, more controversially, changing their historic blue strip for Welsh red.
Mackay phoned Jones soon after replacing him to offer commiserations, and hopes Jones will receive a good reception from the home support today. That view was backed up by Peter Whittingham, the midfielder Jones signed from Aston Villa. "He did wonders for the club and that should be recognised," said Whittingham. "It's hard to take when you go through failures, but it helps improve you. I've said all along I want to take Cardiff to the Premier League."
A world away, though not so far geographically, Newport County and Wrexham have overcome the worst of their financial woes and are high up in the Blue Square Premier, chasing a return to League football. It all adds up to a feelgood factor for the Football Association of Wales, who earlier this year unveiled a detailed strategic plan.
The chief executive, Jonathan Ford, claims major steps have been made in areas such as coaching and women's football, though he acknowledges, with a certain frustration, that FAs everywhere tend to be judged by the fortunes of their men's senior team. Suggestions that the country is either too small or too rugby-obsessed to reach major tournaments are answered with reference to Uruguay and New Zealand, and Ford says: "I remember putting on a presentation and saying that football is clearly the national sport in Wales, when three times as many play it as rugby and more spectate week in and week out.
"Last year we were the highest-climbing team in the Fifa rankings [117 to 45], but of course a few losses and you fall back down again."
The tragic Gary Speed was behind that leap to the top 50. His successor as manager, Chris Coleman, suffered a humiliating 6-1 World Cup defeat by Serbia in September and has only a lucky win over Scotland to show for four qualifying games. Yet Ford insists: "It's not a matter of 'if' we qualify for a tournament finals, it's a matter of when. We've got a fantastic crop of players that will be with us for the next two or three qualification cycles. We didn't get off to the best of starts in the World Cup, though it's still early doors, but the European Champ- ionship moves to 24 teams [for 2016] and we've got very high hopes we will make it."
Cardiff City v Sheffield Wednesday is today, kick-off 3pm
Fourth Division 1987-88
1 Wolves 46/27/9/10/82/43/+39/90
2 Cardiff 46/24/13/9/66/41/+25/85
3 Bolton 46/22/12/12/66/42/+24/78
4 Scunthorpe 46/20/17/9/76/51/+25/77
5 Torquay 46/21/14/11/66/41/+25/77
6 Swansea 46/20/10/16/62/56/+6/70
7 Peterborough 46/20/10/16/52/53/−1/70
8 Leyton Orient 46/19/12/15/85/63/+22/69
9 Colchester 46/19/10/17/47/51/−4/67
10 Burnley 46/20/7/19/57/62/−5/67
11 Wrexham 46/20/6/20/69/58/+11/66
12 Scarborough 46/17/14/15/56/48/+8/65
13 Darlington 46/18/11/17/71/69/+2/65
14 Tranmere 46/19/9/18/61/53/+8/64
15 Cambridge 46/16/13/17/50/52/−2/61
16 Hartlepool 46/15/14/17/50/57/−7/59
17 Crewe 46/13/19/14/57/53/+4/58
18 Halifax 46/14/14/18/54/59/−5/55
19 Hereford 46/14/12/20/41/59/−18/54
20 Stockport 46/12/15/19/44/58/−14/51
21 Rochdale 46/11/15/20/47/76/−29/48
22 Exeter 46/11/13/22/53/68/−15/46
23 Carlisle 46/12/8/26/57/86/−29/44
24 Newport 46/6/7/33/35/105/−70/25
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