Lawrence's leap of faith gives Cardiff high hopes

Hammam's hard-headed approach encourages manager to let heart hold sway in pursuit of Premiership dream
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The Independent Football

On Saturday, the waiting will be over. After nearly 20 years in the nether regions of the Nationwide League, Cardiff City will be back - not quite mixing it with the big boys but one step away from what their owner, Sam Hammam, believes is their rightful place in the Premiership.

But as his rejuvenated Bluebirds prepare to travel to Rotherham for their opening First Division match, the Lebanese businessman has a more important date in his diary. Next Wednesday, his scheme to build a 30,000-seater stadium opposite Ninian Park goes before Cardiff council's planning committee. If, as expected, it is approved, the Welsh Assembly will have to decide whether to leave the plan in the hands of the council or hold a public inquiry.

Like nearly everything connected with the former Wimbledon owner, the scheme is controversial. As well as the ground, which could later be extended to hold 60,000, Hammam wants a five-star hotel and a 400,000 square-feet retail park. But the west side of the Welsh capital is already well catered for in terms of out-of-town shopping and not everyone is happy. A public meeting tonight will discuss the traffic implications and the impact of the plan on local shopkeepers.

Hammam has been making the right moves. The great and the good, such as the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, and the European Commissioner, Neil Kinnock, have become regulars in the Ninian Park directors' box, and Cardiff City's notorious hooligan element has been brought under control.

On the field, Hammam has delivered with two promotions in three years and a near miss in between, but he knows that a new stadium is the key to Cardiff's future. The Bluebirds are more than £12m in debt, their wage bill is just over £6m and their squad is worth nearly £5m.

Cardiff's financial position is reflected in the lack of big-money signings following their 1-0 victory over Queens Park Rangers in the Second Division play-off final in May. Midfielder John Robinson and defender Tony Vidmar have arrived from Charlton and Middlesbrough respectively.

"I'd been tracking John Robinson for ages," the club's manager, Lennie Lawrence, says. "He's a former Welsh international, he can play left or right-side and it was a good time for him to leave Charlton. I tried to get Tony Vidmar a year ago, but obviously he didn't want to leave Rangers and come to the Second Division so he went to Middlesbrough instead. He's also versatile and has played for the Australian national team.

"We still need a couple more bodies, but the biggest factor for us is how our existing players adjust to life in the First Division. One or two might find it more difficult than others and one or two might find it easier - you never know for sure, but a good number of them are under 25 and I think they can cope."

Much is expected of Cardiff's two home-grown Welsh internationals, defender Danny Gabbidon and the quicksilver striker Robert Earnshaw. Gabbidon returned after injury to steady the ship during last season's run-in and, with Spencer Prior out with a cartilage problem, is expected to play in central defence alongside Vidmar.

"It's going to be a step up because we'll be playing against quality players every week," says Gabbidon, a holder of four caps. "Last season, there were a few tough games and there were others which we expected to win, but now we're the underdogs. It'll be a challenge and I'm really looking forward to testing myself against these better players."

The 22-year-old Earnshaw set a club record of 35 league goals last season. His pace has terrorised Second and Third Division defences, but how often will his trademark goal celebration somersault be seen in the First Division?

"I know I'm going to be coming up against better defenders," he says. "It would be unbelievable to score as many goals again, but I doubt if I will. I have to be realistic: we've gone up a division and it's going to be tougher. I don't want to say what my target is, but if a striker scores anything from 17 to 20 goals, he's had a great season.

"I'm not daunted by the prospect of First Division football. I always like to play the game with a smile on my face and I just can't wait to face teams like West Ham and Sunderland."

Gabbidon and Earnshaw, who are both in the Welsh squad to face Serbia and Montenegro in Belgrade in a fortnight's time, are confident the Bluebirds will survive. Their fanatical supporters will have to lower their sights, but should Cardiff opt for consolidation or a place in the play-offs? Lawrence is in two minds.

"There's a different type of expectation now," he says. "Having spent heavily, there was a lot of pressure to get out of the Third and then Second Division. We are massive in terms of potential but we're not big in First Division terms, so I think most supporters will say they want us to do well but they don't necessarily expect us to win the league.

"My heart says we should challenge for the play-offs and my head says stay in the division. If we get a good start, my heart might hold sway - who knows? Millwall did it a couple of years ago and Reading did it last season, so let's go for it!"

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