Cardiff City 2019-20 Season So Far with Steve Day and Owain Thomas

Cardiff City are set to restart their Championship campaign by hosting Leeds United later this month, so Gabriel Sutton caught up with supporters Steve Day (@SteveDayWriting) and Owain Thomas (@Owain_Thomas) to get their thoughts on the season so far.

When Cardiff were relegated from the Premier League last year, it seemed like the club stuck with the same manager and the same core of players that got you promoted and almost tried to ‘cut-and-paste’ the work in 2017-18. Do you think the club underestimated how much things can change in two years? 

Steve: I’m not sure it was a case of under-estimating the change. Neil Warnock and the players had earned the right to have the opportunity to get us back up. Our season in the Premier League was a spirited one. We perhaps lacked that little bit of quality and luck needed to stay up but we certainly had a squad capable of bouncing back. I think the losses of Aron Gunnarsson, Bruno Ecuele Manga, Victor Camarasa, and Harry Arter can’t be understated. I don’t think we effectively filled the void in central midfield and defence that those departures left. It’s also worth noting that the tragic death of Emiliano Sala certainly had a massive impact on the squad and Warnock in particular who was a shadow of himself after that happened.

Owain: I think it was more a recognition that in the PL year we weren’t prepared to throw masses of cash around like we did last time (and as Fulham did) – and wanted to by-and-large stick with the same squad that got us promoted. I fully supported that approach – it’s a low risk strategy that if we’d stayed up would have allowed strengthening, without financially crippling us if we got relegated.Yes, we probably could have done with a couple of new players coming in to add depth and quality last summer, but given we’d stuck with Warnock the whole time and he knew the squad, I understand why we didn’t spend a lot.

You swapped one Neil for another in November, with Harris replacing Warnock. Should Harris be given time to lower the squad’s average age and build a team that can play with a high-line, at a high-intensity like his best Millwall sides?

Steve: The persistent message with the appointment of Neil Harris has been to avoid drastically changing anything too quickly. The jury remains out on Harris and he’s currently dividing opinion. I think he was simply the most sensible option. He was free, available, and proven with a team on a budget in the Championship. I’m not sure he’s been given a directive that would allow him to sign younger, faster, and more energetic players to replicate the way his Millwall team played but he deserves more time to cultivate the playing squad he wants. The only exception would be if the team plummets down the table and relegation becomes a genuine threat.

Owain: Yes and yes, are the short answers. That would certainly be my favoured approach – get younger, quicker, energetic, skilful. But the manager and club may have different ideals.

We’ve got a pretty old squad which is starting to show its age and needs younger players. Trying to find youngsters on the market can be tough, but they can be valuable to either develop and get promoted with or sell them on at a good profit. Now with the extended squads and substitutes I’d love to see more of the younger players.

Neil Etheridge was brilliant, I thought, in the Premier League, but he seems to have gone down in the estimations of some over the last 10 months. Is he still a better goalkeeper than Alex Smithies?

Steve: The same issue happened with David Marshall when we got relegated from the Premier League the first time around. His performance levels dropped when we returned to the Championship. I’m not a goalkeeping coach but it must be tough for keepers to change from being active in a game quite frequently in a struggling Premier League side to suddenly being involved less frequently as a higher placed Championship side. I think Neil Etheridge found the shift in mentality from Premier League to Championship tough. Transfer speculation with West Ham probably didn’t help. Personally, I’ve always rated Alex Smithies so have no issue with him being our number one though.

Owain: I’ve been surprised at Etheridge being left on the bench so much as well, but the injury started his season off badly and he’s not really recovered. He was very good in the PL, but goalkeeper form can be very erratic. However, Smithies has earned his spot and played well all season. Better to have two good quality goalkeepers than none.

Lee Peltier went to West Brom in late January after a reported disagreement with Harris. How has Jazz Richards been getting on at right-back since Peltier left? Would you like to see Cameron Coxe get a chance?

Steve: Jazz Richards has been solid since coming back in but there’s always the worry that he’ll struggle to stay fit. I think I speak for most Cardiff fans when I say we’d love nothing more than to see a young academy prospect like Cameron Coxe be given more game time but, unfortunately, he’s probably not quite at that standard yet. A loan spell to League One would be ideal for him if it could be arranged.

Owain: Jazz has been doing fine generally. Having not played consistently for so long to then come in and hold down a regular place is commendable and he’s looked pretty solid. He’s not flashy but gets the job done, which typifies a lot of this team.

You’ve conceded just 10 goals in 11 with a centre-back partnership of Sean Morrison and Curtis Nelson. Do you feel an experienced defender like Morrison plays best when operating alongside somebody with more mobility like Nelson? Hoping to see more of Jack Bodenham?

Steve: The difference in our defensive line since Curtis Nelson came in for Aden Flint and Smithies came in for Etheridge has been unreal. Nelson is still learning to play at this level but Sean Morrison is a cracking organiser of our back-line when he knows he has a more agile option next to him like Nelson. Like Coxe, I’m not sure many City fans will feel Jack Bodenham is ready to start at this level regularly so a loan spell to a League One or Two club would be best for him.

Owain: Yes, Morrison definitely needs someone quicker alongside him. He’s notably lost a yard of pace over the last season or two. While Flint is certainly capable and useful at set pieces, it was like two statues in defence with them both there. Nelson has really improved that. And yes, it’s always good to start blooding the youngsters. Given the situation if/when the season restarts there should be more chances for him and the other younger players to get playing time. He’s a good player, but we need to be looking towards replacing Morrison now, not his next partner.

There have not been any great left-backs in the Championship this season. Do you think you could make a case to say you’ve got one of the most reliable in Joe Bennett?

Steve: I know Joe Bennett has a lot of admirers in the Cardiff fan base. There’s no doubt that his attacking play from the left back position is up there with the best outside the Premier League but he’s very fragile on the defensive front. His positioning can be a bit off and he can be prone to letting the opposition get in behind him. There are certainly a lot less accomplished left backs in this division though so we can’t moan.

Owain: Most consistent, potentially. Bennett’s very steady week-in, week out, but he’s not likely to blow your socks off flying up the wing and beat 2 guys before a killer pass.

You now have a full Northern Ireland international in the Under-23s squad in Ciaron Brown. Would it make sense to deploy him as the understudy to Bennett, rather than invest in a cover player from elsewhere?

Steve: Ciaron Brown is a strange one. He’s been tipped as a potential first team player for a number of years but, for whatever reason, it’s just not happened. The same has happened in years gone by with the likes of Tommy O’Sullivan, Joe Jacobson, and Cameron Coxe. We have Dion Sanderson and Jazz Richards that are both capable of covering at left back so there’s no need to risk exposing Brown to a level of football that a number of managers at the club now have deemed him not good enough to compete at.

Owain: Again, (spot the trend) assuming he’s got clearance with the Scottish season now over, this is a great chance to give Brown some playing time.

Will Vaulks was on a run of nine consecutive league starts before the lockdown. Besides his trademark long throw, what do you feel he offers your side?

Steve: I mentioned in one of my answers earlier that we hadn’t properly replaced the likes of Aron Gunnarsson et al. I think Will Vaulks is the closest replacement we have for Gunnarsson right now. Harris is managing to get the best out of Vaulks that Warnock never could. I’m not sure why that is but Vaulks is putting in the performances that earned him such a great reputation at Rotherham as a box-to-box midfielder. He’s added bite, energy, and fight to a central midfield that has been lacking all season.

Owain: Vaulks took a while to settle in but he’s really looked better now we’re playing the ball around a bit more. He’s got a good range of passing, tackles well and pops up regularly in the box, chipping in with a few goals.

I’m presuming Harris sees Vaulks as one of the first names on the teamsheet, so in a double-pivot, who is the most effective partner: Marlon Pack, Leandro Bacuna or Joe Ralls? Are you hopeful that somebody like Sion Spence, who made his Under-23s debut at just 16, could force their way in?

Steve: Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Marlon Pack. He’s clearly seen as a leader within the squad but I’ve felt his laborious displays and negative passing have held us back at times this season. That said, he has shown glimpses of what he can bring to the team. I just feel Joe Ralls is a far better option and even Leandro Bacuna has put in the displays that deserve more starts. There is a fair amount of hype surrounding Sion Spence. I certainly think the odd bench appearance wouldn’t do us or Spence any harm right now. I’m reluctant to compare Spence to the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Ledley but these talented youngsters need opportunities if they are showing enough potential.

Owain: I’d be inclined to go with Ralls but as the other CM, but that’s a pretty reliable and experienced quartet fighting it out, all of which would probably hold down a regular spot in most Championship midfields.

And as for Spence, am hopeful to see him? Yes, but I’m not sure if he’s ready yet and with that quartet we’ve got very solid depth there.

Albert Adomah joined on loan from Nottingham Forest at the end of the winter transfer window. With Nathaniel Mendez-Laing struggling with injury and Gavin Whyte looking full of running but inconsistent in end product, has Adomah given you a bit more proven quality?

Steve: The signing of Adomah drew a lot of groans from the fans and even Nottingham Forest supporters claimed he was short of pace and confidence. He’s started in a positive manner but the general feeling remains we need better out wide. Mendez-Laing is a fan favourite and Whyte has earned plaudits for his efforts. The fact Whyte also appeared to be improving with every game as he adjusted to playing at a higher level means his absence from the team has been frustrating. None are more frustrating than Josh Murphy who appears to only be performing at 10% of his potential this season. In a poor crowd, Adomah certainly seems like the best and most reliable option we have out wide at the moment.

Owain: First up this assumes Adomah’s loan (and others in the league) continue, which I think the presumption is it will. Adomah coming in was a pretty low risk move and while he’s not the player he was 3 or 4 years ago, he’s been a pleasant surprise. We needed something different and he’s already chipped in with a couple of assists so I think his patience around the box to spot the openings shows.

Lee Tomlin didn’t necessarily steal the show at Peterborough in 2018-19, so were you surprised that he was able to make such a compelling impact on the team at this level and be your go-to player for craft, quality and inspiration?

Steve: To be fair, a lot of Cardiff fans were calling for Tomlin to be involved months before he was brought into the first team picture. I wasn’t one of them. I always felt he was too inconsistent and unfit to deliver. There’s no denying that he’s had a massive impact on our season and Harris has found a way to tap into the best that Tomlin has to offer. Will it continue? We shall see. I hope it does because he’s proving to be one of our best players this season so far.

Owain: My only surprise at Tomlin being so good was whether he could maintain his fitness, his talent at this level is unquestionable. He’s been pretty open about his personal issues and since getting fully fit and playing regularly he’s been magic for us. For me, he’s easily our player of the season.

Senior cover for Tomlin looks limited – can you see James Waite getting a bit of a look-in when Harris wants to rotate?

Steve: Waite, like Bodenham and Coxe, is someone that is seen as a player that could do with a loan spell before being considered for a starting role. Callum Paterson has shown he can be a handful just behind a front man and Danny Ward always chips in with a performance when he’s given a chance to start. Junior Hoilett is also another option. So, sadly, I think it’s a case of too many other preferred options being available that are halting Waite’s break into the first team.

 

Owain: Yes, we are thin for that creativity at number 10/AM. Perhaps moving Murphy or Hoilett through the middle could work there. Paterson can also fit in there but with a very different style. Waite was playing upfront at Weston-super-Mare on loan until the break and scoring quite a few – 5 in his last three games, so I wonder if he’ll end up a striker. There’s certainly scope for him to get some time.

Junior Hoilett is an enigma who seems to be able to produce only brief moments of quality, whereas Josh Murphy maybe gives you more of a threat in transition. Would you be happy with either of those players starting regularly next term?

 

Steve: Both Hoilett and Murphy have been frustrating to watch for Cardiff fans. Murphy more so because Hoilett is slightly more consistent but you can see his legs aren’t what they used to be. Murphy is young and energetic when he’s up for it but those moments are becoming fewer and far between with every passing week. We’ve seen what both can do so if they are on their game they are both match winners. Unfortunately, neither of them are consistent enough to be considered regular starters right now with Adomah and Mendez-Laing probably seen as preferred options by the fans.

 

Owain: Sure, I’d go with (and hope) for Murphy out of the two. Not that Hoilett is done yet, but Murphy’s the better and more consistent player. Hoilett fits the impact sub/occasional starter for me now he’s a bit older too. Murphy’s shown he can do it in the PL and Championship, he needs the chance to show it again.

Robert Glatzel has struggled to live up to the price tag and Danny Ward seems to be preferred as an impact sub. Do you think you play best with Callum Paterson up top?

 

Steve: My friend said to me that the beauty of Paterson is that he has the ability to bundle the ball into the net by any means necessary and sometimes in the Championship that is exactly what you need. I love Paterson. He’s not necessarily the most technically gifted attacking option but he gets goals. He can’t play up top on his own but I’d certainly like to see him play more in a role where he offers aerial support for a Ward or Glatzel.

Owain: I love Paterson. How can you not love someone who posts photos swigging from a bottle of 20/20 and diving two-footed tackles the ball as a goal celebration?! But seriously, he’s full of energy, quick, competes for everything, and can play too – he’s probably our best right back, and ended-up being one of our best goalscoring threats the last couple of seasons. But I don’t think he fits the lone striker role the way we’ve played the last couple of seasons. He doesn’t have the natural physique or hold-up play skills, he’s much better and more talented as a number 10/AM pushing on supporting the striker, running past the defensive line.

 

It’s not Glatzel’s fault the club paid £5m for him and his lack of production is partly down to the lack of service for him – he really didn’t get much chance early in the season when we were struggling. I’m hoping with more time to work in Harris’ system he and the team will improve.

Isaac Vassell may have hopefully been given some time to work on his quad injury and Dan Griffiths has represented Wales at youth level. Hoping to have more attacking options when football returns?

 

Steve: Our lack of goals has been a problem since Michael Chopra left. We have always been a club that has been fortunate enough to have quality strikers down the years. John Toshack, Carl Dale, Phil Stant, Rob Earnshaw, Jay Bothroyd, and Chopra. It’s been lacking over recent years though. I’m not convinced Vassell or Griffiths are the answer. Proven strikers in the Championship are hard to find and when you do find them they’re extortionate. I don’t expect us to be solving this problem any time soon.

Owain: I’ve not been a huge fan of our striker dealings the last couple of transfer windows – paying a few million for peak-age players who are either unproven in this league or less likely to recoup any money from in a future sale, so yes, it would be good to see more from the youngsters.

 

I was disappointed we sold Rhys Healey. He’d been really unfortunate with injuries but had a knack for being in the right place – something Danny Ward seems to show too. Let’s hope he’s given more chance.

Can this side bridge the gap to the Play-Offs?   

 

Steve: The Championship is a cruel mistress at the best of times. I’m not sure any Cardiff fan expected us to be just 2 points off the play-offs with 9 league games left to play. Harris deserves credit for keeping us in the hunt but the club and the fans just don’t have that optimistic buzz about them this season. I think we’ve all been scorned enough times by disappointment that we’re just assuming we’ll be mid-table and if the play-offs happen then it’s a bonus. Our fans fully appreciate how long it can take to recover from relegation from the Premier League. We’re not in a rush for success. We will just keep supporting the team and whatever happens, happens. That’s the beauty of football. It’s all part of the story.

Owain: The outcome of this will inform so many of the questions and answers above.

This season, based on performances and statistics, it is quite obvious we’re an upper mid-table Championship side. Like several teams in that bunch – solid, hard-working, but aside from Lee Tomlin and flashes from our wide players, lacking real creativity and incisive edge.

If Tomlin is back healthy and things go our way then we could easily win the race for the final playoff place. Or if we get some bad luck, poor performances in the wrong games, then end-up finishing 12th.

The break will have given Harris some more time to get his playing style and tactical approach over which its not always easy to do during the season.

And the expanded squads, line-ups and substitutes should be a really good chance for Harris to see what the youngsters who’ve come back from loan spells can do. I really hope he uses it.