Boxing. Rugby. Football: Cardiff chasing a 'Triple Crown'
Wales in the rugby and Cleverly in the ring – but they really will be singing in the Valleys if the Bluebirds can beat Liverpool
There will not, almost certainly, be a Welshman in their ranks when they step on to that Wembley turf in the Carling Cup final on Sunday afternoon and when the anthem blares out it will be less "Land of my Fathers" and more "Land of my Professional Contract". But still, the Cardiff City players were happy to go along with the daffodil-adorned hyping yesterday of a weekend of opportunity which has inevitably been billed "The Triple Crown".
In truth, Mark Hudson, the Bluebirds captain, would have been a brave/foolish man not to agree to the photoshoot outside the Vale of Glamorgan hotel. To his immediate right was Nathan Cleverly, the WBO world light- heavyweight champion who defends his title in the capital tomorrow night, and further right was Sam Warburton, who will lead the country against England at Twickenham earlier that evening – maybe not the best duo to snub.
Not that Hudson would have been minded to anyway. The atmosphere has been building in Cardiff this past week and it has been impossible for even a 29-year-old born and raised in Guildford to resist. "I was speaking to Nathan and Sam and we were all saying that this could be a great, great weekend for Wales," said Hudson. "We will definitely be watching both of them and be right behind them. If they can get two wins it will give us a lift and drive us on for the final."
The possibilities are indeed euphoric, but are not considered altogether probable. In fact, Ladbrokes go 15-1 the treble of Wales winning, Cleverly stopping Tommy Karpency and Cardiff finally following up their 1927 FA Cup glory. Seeing as the first two scenarios are rated odds-on chances, it is blindingly, if not insultingly, obvious what the bookmakers do not expect to occur. But then, if Cardiff are to prevail over Liverpool they don't only need to overcome the odds, but also history. In the Premier League era, no club from outside the elite division has won one of the major trophies.
Surely, you might think, the occasion will get to Cardiff, a team riding high in fifth in the Championship but with three defeats in the last four games. That certainly wasn't the tone as they took over the Welsh rugby team hotel yesterday. For starters, they made the point that they have been to the new Wembley three times compared with Liverpool's nought. And then there is the attitude of their manager, Malky Mackay. The Scot is taking his players to experience Wembley today and tomorrow – as he puts it, "to get them over their wow factor". Then he intends to take them back on Sunday with ambition and not wonder burning in their eyes.
"We won't be there as tourists, we'll be going there to win, believing we can win," said Mackay, who celebrated his 40th birthday last Sunday. "Our fans have been to Wembley three times in the last four years so have done all that 'great day out' stuff. There'll be 35,000 of them in the stadium officially and I'm sure 10,000 will find their way in by other means. With the rugby and the boxing – and, go on, throw in St David's Day for fun, too – it could be perfect. Why not? Last year it was Birmingham against Arsenal and nobody gave them a prayer either."
Cardiff will evidently not go short in regards of prayers from the locals. When Mackay joined in the summer he discovered a likeminded crowd populating his home from home. "People ask me what the Welsh are like and I always tell them they are very like the Scots – passionate and drunk," said Mackay, whose contract was extended by three and a half years on Wednesday.
"Outsiders think Cardiff's all about rugby, but you get here, talk to the people and feel the passion for the Bluebirds. We want to be a Premier League club. This is a capital city and within an hour of here there is a catchment of a million people. So why not achieve it?"
It was the dream he sold the Malaysian owners after they watched Dave Jones's own Premier plan come so near after travelling so far. But with the purse-strings being tightened, with the likes of Craig Bellamy, Jay Bothroyd, Chris Burke and Michael Chopra all departing, this would take a radical rebuild, particularly as the number of senior players was in single digits when he arrived. There were those such as Peter Whittingham who struggled to envisage success. Until, that is, the highly-rated midfielder talked to Mackay.
"The hardest decision I've had here was last summer, seeing Chops, Jay, Burkey and Bellers all leave," said Whittingham, "There were a couple of offers kicking around and I needed to speak to the gaffer. He sat me down and promised that we would go again. And that's what we have done. Seriously, to come in where there were only eight or nine players here and do what he's done since has been frightening."
Whittingham is key to Cardiff's chances of making that achievement positively X-rated. Mackay has transformed the former Aston Villa attacker into a central midfielder, who not only has the sweetest left foot in the division but also the creative instinct to feed Kenny Miller. Whittingham has been with Cardiff for six years and along with Kevin McNaughton and Stephen McPhail holds the distinction in this squad of appearing in all their recent Wembley appearances – the FA Cup semi-final and final of 2008 and the play-off final of 2010.
The most recent of those was the most unbearable. "The Blackpool game was horrible, just horrible," said Whittingham "You lose that game, there is no game for two months or whatever, and you spend the summer thinking about it. Then you see Blackpool playing in the Premier League and you think 'that should be us'. Yeah, it was a horrible feeling at Wembley, but now we want to tap into the feelgood factor of this being a great weekend in Welsh sport."
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