THELast week, Neil Warnock borrowed Forrest Gump’s famous line, comparing the unpredictability of his Middlesbrough team to a box of chocolates. “You never know what you’re going to get,” he said, making his best impression of Tom Hanks. On Saturday he visits his former club, Cardiff City, whose form is anything but irregular after seven straight league losses for the first time since 1934, an alarming series in which they have scored a lone goal – a header from Sean Morrison from a corner while 4-1 at Blackburn – and conceded 17. If Derby had not been docked in points to enter the administration, Cardiff would be in the league’s relegation zone.
Warnock’s return to South Wales will naturally be a reminder of happier times, although apart from Morrison and Joe Ralls, comfortably the team’s longest-serving player, this group is almost unrecognizable from whoever won the promotion to the Premier League three years ago. They have proven to be easy to injure – only Peterborough have conceded more goals in the division, while Cardiff have just one clean sheet – on a nine-game losing streak in their last 10 games, a streak that started with their first team swept away by, in fact, the Under 23s of Brighton in the Carabao Cup. Goals were also a problem. Kieffer Moore has scored once this season. “Unfortunately, the teams have enjoyed playing against my team in the last six or seven games so it’s disappointing,” McCarthy said on Friday.
The Cardiff manager knows he is on bail. Cardiff has not been in the third tier since 2003 and his predecessor, Neil Harris, was sacked after losing six straight games, including five in the league. “If football is going as it is, we know what’s going on,” McCarthy said after a 2-0 loss to Fulham midweek. “I fully understand the rules of the game. The atmosphere in the camp is good – I don’t think we would have had this performance otherwise.
The Cardiff board decided to give McCarthy this week to turn the tide despite a stinging 3-0 loss to rivals Swansea last Sunday, their heaviest derby loss since 2014, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær was in charge . The first-half performance at Fulham has improved significantly – it seems there is a greater appetite to attack rather than contain – but fans’ patience is running out and some have joined the supporters locals singing “you get fired in the morning” during the whistle final. McCarthy, to his credit, handled the situation with great dignity, answering every question put to him, even those that have become monotonous in recent weeks.
Cardiff must find a way to shake off that familiar feeling of shipwreck. There were desperate figures and hands on hips as Fulham returned to his own half after celebrating Tom Cairney’s opener and, five minutes later, center-back Aden Flint, captain with Morrison fell, and Cardiff’s top scorer on four goals, has investigated how they allowed Aleksandar Mitrovic to double Fulham’s lead. Even before the kick-off in Swansea, questions were posed to Cardiff general manager Ken Choo after joking with fans aboard a fan coach about taking over managerial nominations. Choo said the comment was made “jokingly”.
Cardiff contacted South Wales Police over ‘issues of concern’ after the defeat, thinking they were focusing on what they saw as provocative Swansea celebrations. Swansea head coach Russell Martin and Jamie Paterson made the “swim away” gesture. He refers to an alleged incident in 1988 when Cardiff supporters went overboard as supporters clashed. In 2013, Jonjo Shelvey, then midfielder of Swansea, was “reminded of his responsibilities” by the Football Association for having made the gesture.
McCarthy isn’t naive enough not to expect criticism, but it would be unfair to blame it solely on his door. Warnock has worked wonders with a modest squad, but the current squad is thinner and weaker than the one that started last season under Harris, with Harry Wilson, Sheyi Ojo, Josh Murphy, Junior Hoilett and Sol Bamba now of Middlesbrough, among those leaving. summer. Too many recent signings – mostly free transfers – haven’t clicked. Luton striker James Collins has yet to score in 15 appearances and midfielder Ryan Wintle has been loaned to Blackpool two months after joining Crewe. Mark McGuinness, a 20-year-old defender who joined Arsenal, has shown promise, and Wolves-loaned Ryan Giles has arguably been Cardiff’s redemptive light.
McCarthy cleaned Warnock’s boots as an apprentice at Barnsley 44 years ago and knows his counterpart will receive a warm welcome. “He should be greeted as a hero after promoting them,” McCarthy said. “He will probably be better received than me, that’s for sure. Of course, he also has Sol Bamba returning with him, another hero of the club. It’s up to us to try to end all this excitement for them and beat them.
Cardiff supporters cling to the positives. Teenagers Rubin Colwill, wildcard for Wales at Euro 2020, and Kieron Evans, who entered as a midweek substitute, provide a welcome push, and Mark Harris, who also arrived from the bench, has had his moments without finding the net. “There are good kids out there, but we need soldiers right now,” McCarthy said. “We have to get a result from somewhere.”