After a 51 year wait, Cardiff City have finally reached the promise lands of England’s top division, the Premiership. The Championship title is yet to be secured but Cardiff care little as they have managed to seize one of the two automatic promotion places with three games to spare. Manager Malky McKay has masterminded what many others failed to do and built a side capable of competing and more importantly winning in the Championship. Cardiff have flirted with promotion for the past ten years so to finally achieve it will come as a welcomed change to the faithful Bluebird fans. Their quest next season will be to stay in the Premiership and replicate the success of fellow Welsh side Swansea who capped a good year for Welsh sport with their League Cup final victory. But that’s not as easy as it seems.
History does not bode well for Cardiff next year as they embark on their debut campaign in the world’s most watched league. Promotion success has frequently been followed by relegation despair the season after as clubs fail to cope with the differences between the leagues. Since its inception in 1992-1993 season, the Premiership has welcomed 59 promoted teams (only two were promoted in the 1994 season due to restructuring of leagues) with 25 teams going straight back down the following year (that number will grow by 1 if Reading are indeed confirmed as relegated this year). In addition, of those that managed to avoid the drop in their first year, seven were relegated in their second year back (again that number will increase by 1 if QPR are relegated this season). So what lessons can Cardiff take from past failures and indeed successes to stay in the Premiership long term?
Lesson 1 – Buy only what you need to survive. Clubs have shown that you don’t have to replace your entire squad when you come up, only strengthen areas you deem as to be not up to par. After all you wouldn’t have claimed promotion if your players weren’t good enough. The misconception is that the gap between the Premierships top teams and the Championships top teams is too wide which is somewhat true, however the majority of the teams in the bottom half of the Premiership are likely to be on similar groundings, with most having come up only a few years previously. The age old adverb ” if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” rings true in this case. Look at Sunderland in 2006 who signed 14 players or Derby County in 2007 who signed a total of 19 players over the season during two transfer windows. Both ended the season bottom of the league after the squad failed to gel quick enough to compete. After spending the first four months trying to get to know each other, the team then found themselves being replaced by new arrivals in January and facing an already uphill climb to escape relegation. Buying to solve problem areas is a better solution as nine times out of ten; it helps the team avoid relegation. Well that is unless you are Norwich City in the 2004 season, who bought wisely with the likes of Thomas Helveg, Dean Ashton and David Bentley arriving but were unable to prevent their team escape the trapdoor.
Lesson 2 – Forward planning. Most clubs don’t look at the fixture list as an opportunity but the smart managers like Wigan’s Roberto Martinez and former Swans boss, Brendan Rodgers do. They studied the list like it was a manual to the Premiership, trying to work out where they could likely get the points needed to hit the magical, yet mythical 42 point mark. Facing Manchester City away from home at the start of the new season is not likely to be one of these places but tackling Norwich (sorry Norwich fans) at home in the middle of December may well be. Planning can give you an idea of what number you are likely to finish on and how close you potentially could be to the bottom three. It also acts as motivation when your team picks up a surprising win away from home against an Arsenal or Chelsea in September. The unexpected result making life a little easier and giving your team that safety barrier, just in case you lose one of your so called guaranteed three pointers.
Lesson 3 – Score more than you concede. It may sound like common sense but many teams fail to understand that it doesn’t matter if you concede three goals in a game as long as you have scored four. A healthy points tally always outweighs a healthy goal difference so promoted teams need to make sure that they have goal scorers in their team. Notice we said scorers plural as often its left to one man (e.g. Kenny Miller in Derby’s disastrous 2007 campaign) to hit all the goals. If he struggles, you lose. Derby found out the hard way as Miller chipped in only four goals all season and his teammates added another 18 for a total of only 22 goals. After only one win all season they were relegated with one of the lowest point’s totals (and one of the highest goals conceded totals) in Premiership history.
Lesson 4 – Build a back bone. Every successful team in history has been built on a solid backbone – solid goalkeeper, tough centre half, creative or strong midfielder and deadly striker. If you have these four and they work together, the other players seem to matter less. Not that they don’t contribute but the backbone appears to dictate what the result of the game is likely to be, with the rest of the team feeding off of them. QPR have found it tough this year without a solid backbone. Yes they had Julio Cesar and Ryan Nelsen but without a Joey Barton or an inform Abel Taarabt playing, they lacked the structure for their strikers to feed from. Similarly, like in most operations, substituting key vertebrae like Ryan Nelsen for Christopher Samba midway through the season was always going to be troublesome, despite how good Samba is. Harry Redknapp’s team has never recovered and looks destined for life in the Championship next year because of it.
Cardiff’s manager Malky McKay will be aware of the trials and tribulations of life in the Premiership having played (and being relegated) with Watford in 2006. He is a smart manager so will plan accordingly and will already know the areas in which he wants to strengthen. With owner Vincent Tan suggesting a sum in the region of $25 million being made available to MacKay next year, he has the funds to do so. In Marshall, Turner, Cowie and Bellamy, he has a strong backline, but experience may be the only thing he needs to bring in with few in his squad having played in England’s top league. It will be a test for his squad on how they cope under extreme pressure next year but this is after all what they have been waiting for (and their fans) for almost 51 years. If they can heed the lessons of teams gone by then there is a good chance that Cardiff will follow Swansea’s lead by cementing their place in the world’s most watched league.