In his 10th game in charge, Neil Harris travelled to Loftus Road on New Year’s Day and it was a massacre. QPR scored six and it could easily have been double figures as the likes of Eberechi Eze and Bright Osayi-Samuel ran riot.
It had been going well for Harris, who had solidified and revitalised Cardiff after they had become a soft touch at the tail end of Neil Warnock’s reign. Ironically, this match was also preceded by a win at Hillsborough. That was as bad as I’ve ever seen a Cardiff side play, though.
It was a stain that Harris never quite managed to scrub clean. One of an accumulation of blows that eventually knocked him out. Cardiff’s humbling at Sheffield Wednesday on Monday was not quite that bad, but it was not far off. It was also just as unexpected and a massive blow to morale.
Mick McCarthy had a pretty much faultless start to his Cardiff tenure. He went 11 games unbeaten and won seven of those. He was named the manager of the month for February, which coincided with his 1,000th game in charge. A deserved two-year contract extension soon followed, but since then, it’s not been quite so great.
Clearly Cardiff were not going to maintain that sort of pace for the whole season, but standards have clearly slipped. The pressing game that McCarthy reintroduced is no longer quite as tight and energy levels appear to have dropped. Suddenly their new one-size-fits-all shape no longer fits quite right.
In amongst all this was a glorious derby win at Swansea. A long-overdue courageous performance against Cardiff’s fiercest rivals, but that was their only win in the last six games and that already feels like a long time ago.
McCarthy’s 16th game in charge was the equivalent of Harris’ 10th and it has left us all reeling. At the worst possible time, Cardiff’s season has tailed off and their hopes of emulating last season and storming in to the top six now look dead in the water. Suddenly people are questioning the timing and length of McCarthy’s new deal, which is a ridiculous knee-jerk reaction, but that’s football for you.
There are actually plenty of parallels between these two brutal defeats. Sean Morrison was a noticeable absentee in both games and Cardiff’s captain has been sorely missed since the return from the international break.
Callum Paterson remained rooted to the Cardiff bench against QPR and could only watch on as the agony unfolded. He was once again a witness here, but this time played an active role in Cardiff’s demise, with a stunning goal, an assist and a typically industrious performance. He chose not to celebrate his goal and afforded Cardiff far more respect than he received when he was ushered towards the door in the summer.
The QPR game also brought an end to Cardiff’s brief flirtation with three centre halves and wing backs. From then on, Harris utilised a flat back four and never went back. It remains to be seen what McCarthy’s response will be to the defeat, but his response to Cardiff’s failing fortunes during Monday’s game left a lot to be desired.
Cardiff were already five goals down before they made a change of personnel. Wednesday were pouring through them time and again, but nothing changed until the 71st minute. Harry Wilson, a surprise omission, very quickly became Cardiff’s man of the match, but by then Wednesday were already withdrawing key players to rest them for more challenging encounters.
There is no doubting that it has been a strange old season, in every sense. The continued absence of fans makes everything feel a little bit soulless and insignificant, while opinions and reactions are heightened. Cardiff have spent most of the season neither particularly concerned about relegation nor troubling the promotion contenders.
There have been thumping 4-0 wins over Luton, Preston and Derby, but also toe-curling losses at Coventry, Wycombe and now Sheffield Wednesday. Cardiff are unpredictable, but not in a good way. Their inconsistency has been maddening at times, often within the space of 90 minutes. Who knows which Cardiff will turn up against Blackburn at the weekend.
It felt like Cardiff had turned a corner under McCarthy, but on Monday they turned another corner and somehow ended up back where they started. I did not see that coming.
If you were to look at the last 12 months as a whole, you would probably say that Cardiff are not quite as good as they were during the run-in last season or in McCarthy’s first few games, but also not as bad as they were towards the end of Harris’ time in charge or in Sheffield.
The conclusion, therefore, is that Cardiff are average. A mid-table Championship side. You can argue the case for either extreme, but were Cardiff to finish somewhere between 8th and 12th, that would probably feel about right.
In some respects, that is nothing to be ashamed of in such a competitive division, but it is unchartered territory for Cardiff, who have always been contenders since returning to this level. Maybe we’ve just been spoiled until now and this has been a long time coming. We’ll only know in time.
I used to think that Cardiff were underachieving, but now I’m not so sure. It’s more likely that others have overtaken them and they now need to find a way to bridge that gap.
What I do know is that football moves fast. Aden Flint was seen as a bum by some when he returned to the club in January and quickly became a cult hero. Harris now seems to be considered some sort of fraud in light of McCarthy’s success, but maybe his reputation will be revised now that Cardiff have recently returned to their bad old ways in his absence.
Who knows what Cardiff will look and feel like a month from now and hopefully Monday was a one-off that does not undo McCarthy’s impressive start, but it was certainly a slap across the chops. Now we find out whether or not it was deserved.