By Matt Rowson
It's a Tuesday night in Cardiff, and it's raining. It's been raining, in fact, since we crossed the Severn bridge, almost symbolically. A thoroughly belligerent drizzle.
The interlude between arriving at the ground and kick-off quickly adopts the kind of surreal edge-of-plausible quality that normally characterises vivid dreams. Loitering outside the ground, our instinctive amusement at some stereotypically Welsh-sounding tunes through the tannoy is seized upon by a manically energetic gentleman dressed in a large anorak.
He turns out to be former top-flight referee Keith Cooper, out for an evening's entertainment, who proceeds to grill us on Football trivia as we reel in disbelief. "Can you name me eight former Manchester United players who've managed Premiership clubs?". I was slightly concerned about being accosted by locals this evening, but not in this fashion. We offer Strachan, Kidd, Robson and Bruce amidst guffaws and hearty backslapping from our enthusiastic host, who promptly disappears into the night to leave us pondering his riddle.
Things are only marginally more predictable inside the ground. The away end is split between a seated area (below) and a marvellous low-roofed terrace (above), both of which are spotlit and virtually empty as we make our way in. There's a homely enough roofed cove in one corner which serves as a makeshift bar area for clientele wishing to partake of a pint or two, albeit at £2.50/can. One punter makes the mistake of carrying the dregs of his pint to the adjacent food stand, only to be politely advised of licensing restrictions by the head steward who then proceeds to lay into members of his staff who have overstayed their welcome in the shelter from the rain. "You're here to work, aren't you? You've had two pints already!".
As kick-off nears, the home support launch into a fierce rendition of "Men of Harlech", prompted by the tannoy which then segues inexplicably and inappropriately into "Hey Jude".
The game starts, and the slightly disconcerting peculiarity evapourates to be replaced with altogether more predictable fare. Watford are all in white, perhaps bearing an unfortunate resemblance to City's neighbours and friends, with Wayne Brown in at left back trading places with Jack Smith on the bench the only change from Saturday's eleven.
We start quite brightly, and go on the offensive... Jamie Hand dinks a ball in from the right, the like of which he's developing into a bit of a trademark. Unlike Forest last season, however, we have no Heidar to bully the ball into the net, rather Danny Webber who's cushioned header goes narrowly wide with the suspicion that our man's forward momentum was rather contributed to by the marker behind him.
This passage is atypical for the half only in that it leads to us having an attempt on goal. Our passing is crisp and neat, our movement is reasonably good but through a combination of concentrated defending on Cardiff's part and a lack of bullishness either inside or outside the box on ours this amounts to precious little. City, meanwhile, offer us warning of what is to come when some slack possession in midfield leads to Kavanagh escaping and galloping a considerable proportion of the length of the field before sending a twenty yard shot curling away from the top right-hand corner of Lennie Pidgeley's goal.
This is the pattern of the first half... and it speaks volumes that although the abiding memory is of possession being concentrated the third of the pitch nearest to us, there's precious little to report in terms of interesting incident around Cardiff's goal. Our hosts seem perfectly content to give us possession up to the edge of the area, and to give away countless throw-ins and corners safe in the knowledge that we can't really do much to hurt them where it counts. Fitzgerald is working hard but is a nuisance rather than a threat. Webber is ineffective, and even Devlin, although he is evidently our best chance of creating something, isn't matching his success at tying Chris Barker in knots with a punishing final ball.
The soundtrack to all of this is persistent and boisterous from both sets of supporters, abetted by the low roof to the stand shared behind the goal. The height of wit and irreverence it isn't, however... City seem intent on making up for their lack of opportunity over the last twenty years by rolling out as many Elton John songs as possible, whilst our lot react with a comparable lack of imagination.
Back on the pitch, Wayne Brown isn't looking entirely comfortable either coming forward, when he almost invariably cedes possession to whichever teammate is nearest, or defending, when he is caught out of position more than once. Certainly he redeems himself in part with two ferocious and critical tackles in the second half, but he still looks like a centre-half filling in at left-back and doesn't look a long-term solution on tonight's evidence.
One such defensive lapse leads to Cox giving away a corner; Kavanagh's near-post delivery is met by Vidmar whose header across the face goes narrowly wide. Shortly afterwards Cox makes a vital contribution again to bulldoze possession from Richard Langley as the Jamaican international breaks through.
Unfortunately, the pivotal moment of the half and the game sees Cox yield under much less severe pressure, chronically underhitting a ball back to Pidgeley with Earnshaw prowling, leaving the prolific striker free to scamper round the keeper and put the ball away. The pace of his goal celebration is enough to suggest why so many defences are having trouble containing him this season.
It's not entirely accurate to say it was game over at this point, but Cardiff were certainly well set up to defend a one-goal lead against opposition like us... waiting for our attacks to break on their defence or our uncertainty before fleeing into the gaps opening up behind us. Before the break there was still enough time for Devlin to draw a yellow card as Barker lost his rag at being beaten for the umpteenth time; Ardley's clipped free kick was met by Fitzgerald on the near post who held off two markers to send a header narrowly wide across the face of goal.
The second half continued in the same vein. Most of the play was at the far end, most of the play of any consequence was right in front of us. An encouraging if slightly off-target curled free kick from Hand and a clouted 25-yard effort from Kelly were the best we had to offer in the opening twenty minutes in which we dominated possession, whilst at the other end Langley's shot deflected kindly wide and a fine Gary Croft ball released Earnshaw down the right who drew Pidgeley before crossing at speed past the stranded keeper narrowly too far in front of Gavin Gordon.
Lewington, reassuringly never shy to change things around when they're not working, brought in Cook and Dyer for Hand and the ineffectual Webber. Although both Devlin and Cook continued to have some joy in getting around their markers, however, there was neither a sufficiently inviting ball at the end of it nor, too often, anyone in the box demanding the vital touch. On the one occasion when Bruce Dyer ghosted in to find himself with a free header from the penalty spot he sent the effort narrowly wide.
Somewhat inevitably, we were made to pay. A Kavanagh corner (taken from outside the quadrant, irritatingly but irrelevantly) resulted in a goalmouth scramble and a weak clearance towards the edge of the area where the loitering Vidmar drilled in a low shot to end the contest.
Our resistance wasn't completely spent. Some welcome urgency was provided by Vernazza, who put some vim into another impressive display by putting his head down and bombing towards the City goal in frustration before laying off and seeing another attack peter out. Ardley did similar, capping his effort instead with our one noteworthy on-target effort of the night, albeit at a comfortable height for Alexander. These were death-throes, however, rather than the sparks of a comeback. Dyche came on for a hapless cameo sending Marcus Gayle up to join the attack... in seven minutes he had time to go missing on one occasion with Cox looking around in confusion for his partner, and either he or his ginger-haired colleague on the left were responsible for falling over in front of the advancing Kavanagh who sauntered through our defence to wrap up the scoring. Sorry for the sloppy lack of detail here, my head was in my hands by this point.
There was still time for Dyer to hold off a defender on the edge of the area, spin and send in a shot narrowly wide of the post before the end, the sort of bloody-mindedness which we'd been crying out for slightly earlier in proceedings. Get well soon, Heidar.
The post-match press conference saw the two managers in agreement that 3-0 flattered the home side. On the balance of possession this is indisputable, but Lewington to his credit added that we never looked like scoring, and we certainly made it easy for City to win without playing terribly well. Our performance was akin to walking into a pub, hitting the big bloke at the bar across the face with a wet fish and then sticking our chin out...
Stewart Houston. Ray Wilkins. Any help with number eight much appreciated.
Bring on the Rotherham. I guess.