Managing Cardiff City and the enormous expectations that go with Wales’ capital city club has never been a particularly easy task.
But it’s fair to say that Steve Morison has been dealt a tougher hand than most. As a rookie boss, he was tasked with rescuing the club from relegation into League One.
Mission accomplished. With plenty to spare, too.
His next challenge is even more daunting as Cardiff face perhaps their biggest squad overhaul in history, one which would see as many as 21 players depart in the coming days and weeks.
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Yes, that figure is correct. TWENTY-ONE. Just for emphasis. That’s almost an entire squad, one short of two teams of players, underlining the scale of the huge task ahead.
For many Cardiff fans, the jury remains out on Morison as manager and those judgements will be made next season, pending results. But he has done well thus far and it is to his enormous credit that he has never once moaned about the prospect of losing so many players in one fell swoop, or a lack of major funds in the transfer window.
On the contrary, Morison is positively upbeat about what is ahead in the coming days and weeks and is asking Bluebirds supporters fans to share that excitement as a plethora of new players replace those going out.
Given the financial restraints in the current climate, and uncertainty about the way forward, the enthusiasm Morison openly displays is exactly what Cardiff need at this moment in time. A manager embracing the rebuild, who accepts the parameters he is working within and displays a determination to succeed with the task.
Whether he does succeed or not hinges on the quality of the personnel Morison is looking to bring in. But he has been chasing targets since February and is optimistic of getting the right blend of experience to complement the Academy starlets who hold the club’s future in their hands.
Morison inherited a lopsided squad that wasn’t fit for purpose in terms of the style of football he wished to implement. This was a legacy of transfer dealings by some of his predecessors in the job.
By the time the July 30 kick-off to next season’s Championship comes around, it is his intention to have a more streamlined group of players, but one whereby everyone is available for selection on a Saturday afternoon and capable in his eyes of making an impact.
Other managers might have complained about their lot. Morison certainly isn’t.
So, for differing reasons, who is either definitely on the way out, or could be leaving?
The out-of-contract senior stars
Isaac Vassell, Ciaron Brown, Leo Bacuna, Marlon Pack, Aden Flint, Sean Morrison, Will Vaulks, Alex Smithies, Joe Ralls, Josh Murphy.
Losing so many seasoned professionals in one fell swoop is alarming on the one hand; or an opportunity, if you’re looking through glass half full eyes. Morison is adopting the more positive approach, albeit there are some within that group he would rather retain.
Most of the above will be leaving, as a result of their contracts expiring and Cardiff having a more streamlined budget these days.
Some will be missed more than others. Smithies is one of those, he is among the better goalkeepers outside of the Premier League. So too the tenacity of Vaulks, although it has been abundantly clear Cardiff’s midfield has been in need of a restructure for some time.
Murphy actually has the talent to tear up the Championship and fit into Morison’s preferred style of play. But the general view is he’s had enough opportunities already and he too seems to be heading out of the stadium exit door.
Morison’s Cardiff XI will carry no luxury players, a description many fans would give to Murphy, although some latitude may need to be afforded for a mercurial, talent like Rubin Colwill. He has won games for Cardiff; he’ll win more in time, whilst developing his football knowledge off the ball in the way Morison demands.
Our understanding is a reduced terms contract is on the table for Ralls, while a short term deal could also come the way of skipper Morison as he fights his way back to fitness.
It remains to be seen whether those two stay. The choice is theirs. The rest appear to be departing.
The men who could be sold
James Collins, Dillon Phillips, Gavin Whyte
There is nothing certain about this, of course, but do they feature in Morison’s plans? Could they get more regular game time elsewhere?
Cardiff are being heavily linked with former England age-grade goalkeeper Jak Alnwick in what could be a rebuild of the entire spine of the team – new keeper, new centre-half, dominant centre mid and centre-forward. Not so far back that spine looked like being one of Smithies, a rejuvenated Morrison, a new midfielder and Kieffer Moore – a great prospect, but fate takes a hand quickly in football.
In Alnwick does come in, would Phillips be content to play second fiddle, having finally had some game time under his belt in the last few matches once it was announced Smithies would be going? Could Cardiff get a fee for Phillips? Would Morison actually prefer him to Alnwick?
It’s fair to assume these are questions that might be asked.
Whyte has become something of a forgotten man and after loan spells with Oxford and Hull he appears unlikely to feature under Morison.
Collins has been unable to unlock his goalscoring potential with the Bluebirds, having arrived from promotion-chasing Luton who were desperate to keep him. Something isn’t tying up there, but the demands and expectations of being centre-forward for Cardiff can be huge and it’s clearly an area Morison will be addressing in the transfer window.
Will he sign two new strikers? If so, where would that leave Collins in the pecking order, having already been behind Kieffer and two loan strikers Morison recruited in January?
Again, it’s not inconceivable to think another departure could be on the cards. Morison’s bid to land a goalscoring nine who goes straight into his side could be key to everything next season.
Cody Drameh, Tommy Doyle, Jordan Hugill, Alfie Doughty, Uche Ikpeazu.
These five January loan signings have already returned to their clubs. Will any of them return?
We’re told better teams than Cardiff want to sign Leeds right-back Drameh, so that looks a no. However well Hugill, Doughty and Ikpeazu have or have not done, Morison will want greater quality among his strikers and left-sided players next year.
Doyle’s return would be a massive fillip. It’s our understanding Morison is setting Doyle’s standards as the benchmark for early TwentySomethings and teenagers at the club.
The Manchester City man could well come back for another season. Whatever, Morison will need to be cute in the loan market this summer as he seeks to bring in up to five quality captures whose wages Cardiff would need to pay for a year, but not necessarily beyond. And, of course, there would be no transfer fee involved.
That might enable Cardiff to get such deals over the line, whilst being frugal in their general outlook.
The young guns
Sam Bowen, Tom Sang, Kieron Evans
These three could be among those heading out on loan to get regular football.
It’s a shame Bowen and Sang, who each look to have legs, energy and passing ability, haven’t been afforded a run in Cardiff’s midfield, but fellow Academy ace Eli King is ahead of them in the pecking order for Morison.
Bowen and Sang probably won’t be short of suitors if Cardiff do decide to let them get regular football elsewhere for a year.
Wide man Evans burst through under Mick McCarthy earlier this season, but Isaak Davies has overtaken him. He’s another who could be loaned out to get game time under his belt – bringing the number of potential departures to 21.
And most of this would be of Cardiff’s own accord, it seems, without factoring in potential bids for more established players from rival clubs. Or, dare we say, offers for young guns like Colwill and Davies who were among the brightest sparks in the season just gone.
What the shake-up means and how Cardiff could look next season
As stated earlier, everything hinges on who Morison actually brings in to replace the raft of departees.
The dream capture, of course, would be that of Gareth Bale. Let’s see how that plays out, Cardiff quite rightly pointing out that any potential move to join his home-town club would need to be pre-empted by Bale, given the salary scale.
Morison seems likely to sign a ball-playing, dominant centre-half, with Curtis Nelson and Mark McGuinness vying to play next to him and young Oli Denham also there as back up.
Two or three midfielders should be arriving, one of them potentially being Doyle again, plus a new striker, wide man, right-back and possible goalkeeper.
We’re talking here about players good enough to go straight into the first XI, because clearly lots of other back-up stars will also be required just to make up squad numbers and compensate for the many leaving.
Perry Ng, Ryan Wintle and young guns Colwill, Davies and Joel Bagan will clearly have major roles to play. Mark Harris is also in the mix. Collins and Phillips could yet be, too.
It’s a massive turnaround, but Morison is confident of finishing with a better squad than the one he inherited, with every player capable of fitting into the more progressive style he is trying to implement.
It may end up being a roaring success and Cardiff push for the play-offs; that has to be the hope. It may prove a disaster and they are in a relegation fight. More likely, it seems, 2022-23 will prove to be another season of transition as the youngsters gain more experience at this level.
To that end, perhaps a modicum of patience will be required. But surely, whatever happens, next year can’t be as dire as the season just witnessed when Cardiff lost 23 games and, certainly earlier in the campaign, produced some of the worst football in memory.
The truth is with such a major turnover of staff, it’s impossible to call Cardiff’s 2022-23 fate at the moment. But the fact that the manager is embracing the change so positively, rather than bemoaning his lot, has to be an enormous plus, at least.