It was surprisingly easy to get over the play-off heartbreak to Reading in May.
Switching off the TV, avoiding messageboards and the usual post-match comments from one Dave Jones. Quite an achievement in the grand scheme of things considering it took nigh on six weeks to get over the play-off final defeat to Blackpool the season before. As predicted by most supporters Jones was on borrowed time and eventually shown the door after a season of high-profile loan signings and a ‘promotion or bust’ philosophy once again. Too many sloppy goals given away late on (Norwich, Burnley, Barnsley and Millwall in particular spring to mind), petty squabbling between players on the pitch and Lee Naylor being the worst fullback in the league all contributing to our own downfall. An accusation of bottling it you say? Oh don’t be so daft!
So, who was the man given the job to steer things in the right direction? Step forward one Malcom Mackay. Appointed on a 3-year deal after the club agreed a compensation package with Watford, Mackay strikes me as a young and motivated manager with a strong desire to succeed. So far his conduct towards both the fans and local press has been nothing short of exemplary and he seems to have gained an understanding of what the club means to the supporters. I hate using the word ‘passion’ in football but I won’t shy away from saying that it was essential to many fans that we have a manager who shouts from the dugout for ninety minutes and gives a Mourinho-esque run down the touchline whenever a dubious penalty or two yard tap in is put away. I for one really couldn’t care providing he does his job to the best of his ability.
It’s safe to say that the Bellshill born centre-half has got a job on his hands putting together a team good enough to compete in what is being considered a very tough Championship. Notable departures included Chris Burke, Jay Bothroyd and the sale of Michael Chopra to Ipswich Town; and with the loanees returning to their parent clubs the squad is almost threadbare.
Needless to say Mackay has been busy at work and only three days into the job made his first signing in winger Craig Conway from Dundee United on a free transfer. Seen as a direct replacement for Burke it’ll be interesting to see if he adapts to the rigours of Championship football as well as his fellow Scot did. Then began a raid on Mackay’s former employers with David Kerslake, Richard Collinge and Joe McBride all joining the backroom staff, followed by the cracking addition of Don Cowie on a free transfer following a clause in his contract Mackay was only too aware of. Being at the heart of the Watford midfield I’m confident he’ll be an integral part of Malky’s plans to make this team a successful one.
The influx of players hasn’t stopped there with the free transfers of left back Andrew Taylor from Middlesbrough and the homecoming of one Robert Earnshaw after failing to agree a new deal at Nottingham Forest. I’m usually against players regarded as club legends coming back after so long and tarnishing any good memories, but with the only striker on the books being a rather useless Jon Parkin, it’s a no brainer . Even at 30 he still carries a fair bag of pace and given a run of games will score goals in this division. Aron Gunnarsson soon followed from Coventry City with a compensation fee to be agreed between the two clubs and will be desperate to make a name for himself after not living up to the potential he displayed during his first season at his former club.
Not afraid to ignore the need for youth development Mackay brought in young striker Joe Mason in a £250,000 deal from League Two side Plymouth Argyle and is thought to have impressed coaches whilst out on pre-season training in Spain. Whether he plays a key part into the season remains to be seen. Thursday say the first season long loan signing with 20-year-old midfielder Filip Kiss from Slovakian Champions Slovan Bratislava. French U19 striker Rudy Gestede is expected to sign imminently after impressing Mackay whilst on trial, scoring the only goal in the preseason win over Charlton in Seville.
The arrival of a 31-year-old Kenny Miller has provided much debate between City fans, from one of a striker with an excellent record in the Championship to the argument of a player with who is past his prime and commanding a reported wage packet of £25,000 a week. But he adds some much-needed experience to a team well short of firepower. Add to that his exceptional work rate and the service available to him from the likes of Whittingham, Conway and Cowie and I’m confident of him grabbing twenty goals with relative ease. No pressure, Kenny lad.
Two deals in the pipeline are that of highly rated Dundee United striker David Goodwillie and the potential return of Craig Bellamy. Based on the his performances last season it’s questionable as to whether the 32-year-old Welshman would be a good addition to a new look frontline. Showing his Premiership class in flashes, he’d be the first to admit he had an average season by his own high standards and his volatile personality wasn’t one best suited to the role of club captain. I can’t help but feel that if the club has splashed the cash on Miller then the same will apply to Bellamy.
Goodwillie on the other hand was more complicated until today when a rape charge against him was dropped easing concerns of any potential suitors parting with his reported £2 million price tag. However with an assault allegation hanging over his head it’s more than likely the waiting game will have to be played before any move is sanctioned. Then again, could the signing of Miller put any deal dead in the water? Personally I hope not as we’d still be one forward short and a Miller/Goodwillie partnership could be one of the best in the division.
As for the rest of the squad its positive to see that Peter Whittingham is not for sale despite interest from Ipswich Town, with Mackay stating he is central to his plans in what will be a new look midfield; his creativity will no doubt once again show why he’s one the best in the Championship and he should thrive at being the man to make things happen. A selection headache lies in the centre of defence with Dekel Keinan, Gabor Gyepes and Anthony Gerrard all fighting for that one spot alongside Mark Hudson; after the injuries suffered across the back four last season which resulted in constant rotation, fitness really is paramount in order to gain any sort of consistency after what was statistically a poor defensive record. As far as goalkeepers are concerned David Marshall and Tom Heaton will fight it out to prove why they’re worthy of the #1 shirt. Marshall is without question the all round better keeper, but his communication and poor handling of set pieces often let him down. However with the addition of new goalkeeping coach James Hollman to the staff it’ll be interesting to see if anything changes.
I never read into pre-season games, especially with a new manager at the helm, so defeats last week to Celtic and Bournemouth come as no surprise and any expectation levels already set shouldn’t be adjusted accordingly. After catching brief moments of the Celtic game my only thought was one of relief with the signing of Miller after seeing any forward play being largely ineffectual except for a few clever pieces of work from Mason and seeing a clear penalty claim turned down. I am however confident that Mackay does know his best team ahead of the opening day fixture against West Ham and as far as this division goes you couldn’t have asked for a harder to game to begin with.
Expectation levels for this season? Significantly lower than previous campaigns, to be blunt. I’m happy for 9 months of mid-table obscurity and some exciting attacking football and anything better is a bonus. That’s not to say there isn’t a positive vibe going around the club; fans have taken well to Mackay and he’s brought a breath of fresh air along with him. Patience is a virtue though; it will take him 5/6 games to get everything in order and any assessments of doing better need to be made after the transfer window.
So fasten your seatbelts City fans, enjoy the ride.
Written by Alex Wilson, We Are Going Up’s Cardiff City Blogger