'Fat Controller' puts Cardiff back on rails

Play-off final against Blackpool is the last stop for the often vilified City chairman who defends his track record
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The Independent Football

Within hours of that epic victory over Leicester City to take their place in next Saturday's Championship play-off final, Cardiff City chairman Peter Ridsdale's mobile phone was clogged up with 48 texts.

Ridsdale fully expected an immediate reaction from fans and friends celebrating the euphoric occasion and the prospect of a first top-flight appearance for the Bluebirds in half a century. What surprised him was that all of the messages were polite and not one of them slagged him off.

"It's the first time that's ever happened so I must have been doing something right," says Ridsdale, who is still held responsible for the demise of Leeds United at the turn of the millennium and has hardly enjoyed the best of relationships with Cardiff fans either.

Ridsdale brings that relationship to an end on Saturday with his final game in charge. When he takes his seat in the directors' box at Wembley he will look back on a job well done – even if not everyone agrees. "It's the culmination of five years' hard work but there are still some people in Cardiff who can't wait to see the back of me when the final whistle goes at Wembley."

Ridsdale has taken his fair share of brickbats over the years but it still hurts his pride. "The thing that frustrates me is that people keep talking about our money problems. When I walked into the football club it was not vibrant and healthy. It was on its last legs. It had £35 million of debt, was losing £10m a year, had no cash injection and a stadium scheme that was dead in the water. Most of these have been resolved. Yes the last 12 months, especially, have been difficult but we have a wonderful new ground and great training facilities."

The problem is that many Cardiff fans berate Ridsdale for breaking promises halfway through the season. Even, to use a stronger word, lying. He urged fans to back a season-ticket scheme for next season and pledged the money would be spent trying to strengthen the squad in January. Cardiff ended up signing not a single player and Ridsdale was vilified accordingly. "There are things I can't go into that conspired against me," he explains. "Monies that we were anticipating coming in never materialised and we couldn't bring any players in. I agree we misled people but it was not deliberate."

Wherever the truth lies, loyalty to his manager is something of which Ridsdale is rightly proud. Many chairmen, after the way in which Cardiff blew it 12 months ago after seeming a shoo-in for the playoffs, would have gone for expediency and sacked the manager. Ridsdale was not prepared to break up the double act with Dave Jones, the Championship's longest-serving manager, and chuck away five years of progress.

"In 23 years in football this is the best relationship I have ever had with a manager. Dave and I both had something to prove. We knew we would not be popular, having to constantly sell players to stay afloat. When people were crying for the manager's head at every hiccup, I wasn't prepared to bend. It wasn't the time, at the end of last season, for a knee-jerk reaction. How many other managers keep selling their best players yet progress every year? This club is unrecognisable from the one I walked into."

Jones is now on the verge of taking Cardiff into the Premier League for the first time, just as he did with Wolves, and will be a hot property if Cardiff beat Blackpool next Saturday. He has already been linked with a raft of clubs and Ridsdale isn't surprised. "He's a decent, honest, successful manager and that's hard to find. His reputation will never be higher if we win on Saturday. When you consider the stature of the teams who came down last season and others with parachute payments, if we get promoted you can't put into words how sweet it would be."

Ridsdale is equally proud to be handing over a thriving club to its new Malaysian owners even if there are those who are seriously concerned about whether the new regime will have the nous to wheel and deal in the transfer market. Cardiff are still in debt to the tune of £15m but it's structured debt under a manageable, agreed repayment scheme. "I hope this is not my last job in football but can't get emotional about not being a part of it any more," says Ridsdale. "I've done everything I set out to do. The club has financial stability but the new owners quite rightly want their own team. They've bought their own train set and are getting rid of the Fat Controller."

Tower power: Old pals' act for Evatt and Ollie after settling scores

Working relationships have been known to start better than the one between Ian Evatt and the man who will send him out at Wembley next Saturday with a friendly, encouraging slap on the back.

It was a few postcodes round the North Circular at Queens Park Rangers that the Blackpool central defender first became acquainted with the odd-ball managerial style of Ian Holloway five summers ago.

Evatt was on no more than a list of potential targets at Loftus Road when Holloway's family holiday was interrupted by a call from an excited chairman telling him the player's £150,000 move from Chesterfield was in the bag.

Holloway was angry the deal had gathered such momentum in his absence, told the player there was a delay and later admitted there were teething troubles even once the forms had been completed. The union didn't last. The manager went first (on gardening leave, then to Plymouth Argyle) and the player followed him out of Shepherd's Bush by joining Blackpool on an extended loan that preceded their promotion from League One via the 2007 play-offs. There were clearly no hard feelings, though, when the two were reunited at Bloomfield Road last summer.

"The way the gaffer likes to play is fine for me," said Evatt. "We play an open game which might not sound ideal for a central defender but he enjoys seeing us all on the ball. I love passing it out from the back and we're going into games knowing we have a lot of firepower and the ability to set things up for the forwards. The games against Nottingham Forest showed we are scoring plenty of goals and have a firm belief we can cause any team problems."

Evatt is 6ft 2in but baulks slightly at the suggestion that his four goals this season could have come only from set-pieces. Looking forward to next Saturday's Coca-Cola Championship play-off final against Cardiff City, he added: "Actually the one I scored against them in the League was a curler. I don't only head them in!"

Blackpool had already spent the first 10 and a bit of their 39 successive years out of English football's top flight when Evatt was born in Coventry in 1981. Having missed out on a ticket when his home-city club won the 1987 FA Cup, he made it to Wembley for the first time when Yeovil lost to Blackpool three years ago and has good vibes about this return visit.

"Keith Southern and me were saying a few weeks ago that the season was starting to feel just like that one in 2006-07. We have finished so strongly and our confidence is second to none."

The figures back him up. Three seasons ago, Blackpool won nine games out of 10 immediately before the final; this time it's eight out of 10 and Ian Evatt – "a fantastic lad" in the words of his manager – stands within touching distance of accompanying him into the Premier League.

David Instone