Neil Warnock has been dialling himself down this season. He seems to accept that Cardiff City will most likely be relegated and, consequently, a different Warnock has stalked the sidelines. The last time Premier League crowds set eyes on him, he was pulsing with uninterrupted fury, making enemies and haranguing fourth officials up and down the country.
So far so different then – but Saturday brought a reversion to type and, really, it served little purpose other than to deflect attention away from what had been a very fine performance from his players.
Cardiff lost at Wembley, succumbing to Eric Dier’s goal and falling 1-0 to Spurs, but it was arguably their most competitive away showing of the season. Junior Hoillet had an excellent first-half chance to score and, were it not for Hugo Lloris shovelling his header onto the post, Sean Morrison would have equalised in the second. It all counted for little and City finished the weekend bottom of the table, but it was all quite encouraging.
But, the moment which needled Warnock: Joe Ralls seeing red for his clumsy, reckless foul on a breaking Lucas Moura. Had referee Mike Dean cautioned Ralls instead of dismissing him, it wouldn’t have created too much controversy. Nevertheless, the decision seemed correct: the Cardiff midfielder might have tugged the Brazilian’s shirt or offered a limp trip, but instead opted for something far more aggressive.
Warnock called it “soft”. In particular, he took umbrage with how many Tottenham players had surrounded Dean in the aftermath. He also believed that it had been a decision made by committee and implied that the referee had been instructed to send Ralls off by the fourth official. Then, to add an exclamation point, Warnock rounded on Harry Kane: why had he involved himself, should an England captain be behaving like that, and why were an under-par Spurs taking their bad day out on “little Cardiff”?
On past performances, Warnock was very much as advertised. Within its context though, it was startling behaviour. The incident to which Warnock was referring just wasn’t that debatable and, while Kane was clearly upset by the challenge on his teammate, it was proportionately typical; after all, Ralls was certainly guilty of a gratuitous foul and had rather needlessly put Moura at risk.
It was unfortunate in the sense that it became the game’s emblem. It was certainly a poor 90 minutes of football, played on a freezing, wet day, but Cardiff’s gameplan had worked remarkably well. Tottenham were understrength, but they still had enough quality on the pitch to dominate the match; they didn’t. It was scrappy for long periods, Kane, Son and Moura had failed to make proper inroads into the visiting box and, even after they were handed that man advantage, at no point were they ever in control.
It was great testament to Cardiff that with time running out, Spurs sought sanctuary by the corner flag. They enjoyed no sort of superiority and, by the end, were just grateful for the final whistle. Viewed from a certain perspective, that was really a mark of respect.
There is no greater currency in the Premier League than points and, obviously, Cardiff went back across the Welsh border empty handed. You just wonder though, whether their manager might have played this differently: he may have started that press-conference by talking of his pride, but that was quickly forgotten as “Colin” took over and he began to flail at the phantom injustices.
It just seems such a tired act – like someone needlessly deferring to their own caricature. Only the players themselves know how much attention they pay to such things, but one wonders just how useful a victim complex is to Cardiff at the moment. They’re already an underdog. Their players can’t help but understand that their odds of surviving are long.
Was this not the moment to celebrate their competence instead?
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