Written last year, prior to his sacking…
Cardiff City are entering the business end of the season just one point off 6th placed Sheffield Wednesday. Considering the financial restraint placed under Russell Slade, the current manager, and the considerable un-rest at the club, this is quite a feat. He has managed to juggle the tasks of slashing the wage-bill and instilling confidence in a dispirited squad, whilst having to ensure attractive football is played all as eccentric club owner Vincent Tan looks on.
Slade came in when City were creeping dangerously close to the relegation zone, and was directed to steer the side well-clear of this sinister pit; under the previous manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Cardiff would have sunk. They were 17th when Solskjaer was shown the door, three points off the relegation zone. The financial impact would have been devastating, and City may well have followed the path from Premier League glory into the depths of the football pyramid carved out by Portsmouth.
Under Solskjaer, Cardiff’s defence was shambolic; it is a surprise that the Welsh outfit didn’t concede more goals than they did. Indeed, Solskjaer penultimate game in charge saw City concede four goals at home to fellow Premier League outcasts Norwich City. The Norwegian focused on attacking play, disregarding the defensive organisation necessary in The Championship. Thus, Russel Slade was charged with the challenge of sorting such a mess out.
Slade’s tactics were criticised by fans and pundits, in which it appeared as though the financial restraints placed upon him translated into the style of play: conservative and rigid. April of last season is when this was most clear: the Bluebirds managed a pathetic three goals in six games. However, they only conceded three, and this defensive solidity was important; it showed the players what they can do if they defend as one unit, laying the foundations for the belief and community in the current City squad. Whilst the defence can be leaky, the relationship between the midfield and the defence is now compact and in-tune. It was necessary for Slade to employ defensive tactics in his first year, not only to ensure safety, but to remind the City team that if they play as a team, they can be hard to break down. The ex-Leyton Orient coach managed to guide the Bluebirds into a respectable 11th place, even if mediocre. The ability to fix a broken defence is not as easy as arm-chair bloggers would have you believe – Slade deserves great credit for this.
This season, however, has seen a gradual change in the football City are playing. The loss of Kenwyne Jones has forced the Bluebirds to play the ball on the ground, and into feet: it sounds simple, but it appeared incomprehensibly difficult for a large spell of time. As a result, Cardiff are playing in a fluid and direct manner. The Bluebirds have created 309 chances so far, just a hundred off last year’s grand total. Granted, there have been times when Slade’s men have been sloppy in possession, and haven’t fulfilled their potential on the pitch, but the signs are promising. Even before Christmas, when Cardiff struggled to finish games off and clinch three points, they were still playing appealing football; a much wanted changed from the air-born style that fans had been accustomed to in the previous season. By adapting the style of play from caution to swift attacking, Slade has shown that he is flexible, and that given time he will continue to improve the side, and return to the days when Cardiff fans were used to seeing two or more goals per game. Most recently, Slade has shown great tactical ingenuity by directing winger-made-forward Antony Pilkington to lead the front line. Five goals in seven games for the Irishman suggests that this inspired switch has been successful.
Not only has the football changed, but the mood around the whole club has improved. Cardiff’s return to blue initiated such a process: confirmation that Tan will liquidate City’s debt, and the news of reduced season tickets have propelled it. For the first time in a depressingly long time, Cardiff fans are mildly content. It’s been a big season for the City faithful. I’m not suggesting that Slade was the cause of all these things, but the modern-day manager doesn’t just pick the starting eleven; he has influence and constant contact with the hierarchy at the club, and it’s reasonable that he had a helping hand. Without the calming influence that Slade appears to wield, Cardiff may well still be engulfed in a riotous atmosphere. You would be hard-pressed to find any other manager that would be have the patience to deal with the ever-erratic Vincent Tan.
Donned in a tracksuit and a baseball cap, he has shifted a great deal of dead-rubber from the club, alleviating the wage-bill and parting terms with work-shy players. In doing so, Slade has established a principle at the club: pull your weight, or you’re gone. The monetary transition is not complete, however; the selling of Joe Mason demonstrated that the club are still in a phase of financial locks.
Even Slade’s transfers are proving more fruitful (I just can’t think of a better way of saying ‘getting better’?). Tom Lawrence and Lex Immers both look like they will have beneficial impacts on the Bluebirds’ push for the play-offs. The jury is still out on Kenneth Zohore, however, as his game-time has been limited. Once more, one can see that Slade is constantly improving as a manager. His early transfers were invariably failures, but his recent savvy in the loan-market deserves recognition.
Slade has been put under immense pressure since he arrived at the CCS; he has dealt with it better than most managers would have, and a sensible head has been welcome in a period of the club’s history that opposed rational council on an incalculable scale. It appears as though he has ridden out the financial storm, whilst implementing a team-spirit that is evident both on and off the pitch. He is continually evolving as a manager and has, despite much fault-finding from fans and pundits, benefitted the club: football-wise and financially.
Why disrupt and disturb the relative calm at Cardiff by bringing in a new manager? Avoid the danger of tumultuous change that this will bring about, and reward Slade with another year for what he has managed at the club.