There was a sense over the summer that we were going to hit the ground running this season. Before we kicked off against Wigan, our squad had been strengthened, we’d spent well and signed key targets, and our squad was much improved from the side that went up in 17/18.
But, by the time the sun had gone down on the final day of the transfer window, all of a sudden that optimism had been completely destroyed. Bobby Reid had gone, effectively replaced by Isaac Vassell and Marlon Pack, and the sky had fallen in.
This was closely followed by a close-run win, then a disaster of a performance against Reading and, all of a sudden, it seemed the calls for Warnock to leave and an overhaul to be made were outweighing the calls for a cool head. But is it really that bad? Or is it just a case of Cardiff re-adjusting to the Championship and wide-reaching changes at the club?
Warnock is a canny operator at this level. Two seasons he ago, he kept pace with free-spending Wolves for large parts of the season with a group of players who no-one gave a hope. He signed a rag-tag bunch of players – people like Craig Bryson, Liam Feeney – as well as some quality from League One, like NML and Neil Etheridge.
We started that season like a freight-train – five wins in our opening six games – and that’s probably the key difference this year. Our start to this season has been wildly inconsistent. But should that be a surprise? The final day of the transfer window saw us sign our final piece of the Warnock puzzle in Marlon Pack and with him already injured, the side has had to readjust to unexpected problems.
Reading aside, you can’t say that this years Cardiff is much different from 2017/18. We’ve been direct, we’ve dug in, and we’ve come up with gritty wins in our two home games. Blackburn was there for the taking but a 0-0 draw feels like us hitting the reset button somewhat. Our first clean sheet of the season for a new center-half pairing and a new goalkeeper actually gives us something to build on.
Yes, the football feels somewhat dysfunctional but there’s also green-shoots to be seen from this. Joe Ralls, who was much-maligned last season, has been the star of the show so far. He’s calm in possession and makes things happen while others still look a bit lost. With him making things tick, it’s about building the midfield around him to support him in the best way.
Warnock has also started to trust Tomlin again. This may not last the whole season but for many, Tomlin was going to be the creative key in that central three and while he’s not set the world on fire, he’s showing touches and moments that will obviously improve with more game time.
It’s also started to feel like the defence is settling. Flint and Morrison have their limitations but both have been improved in our last two games. Morrison, in particular, has started to step back up and show the solidity that was the cornerstone of our promotion-winning campaign.
While we aren’t running away with the league as many would have hoped, we are two points off the playoff places with five games gone. That’s 10% of the season. And you’d expect some of the teams up there will drop away as the season progresses and that may be the difference. Warnock knows this division so well and questioning him and his methods puts him right where he wants to be.
There will always be questions about the style of play and these are particularly loud when the results aren’t coming. Tony Mowbray commented that he could see how Cardiff were just starting now and I think that’s a fair assumption. We were naive against Reading, and Pack going off compounded things and Wigan was a real shock.
With players still on the fringes who we may have expected to see more of – Vaulks, Bogle, Paterson – likely to get 90 minutes against Luton in the cup, our home game against Fulham feels like an acid test. Fulham, despite their spending this summer, aren’t a million miles ahead of us and struggled against Forest this past weekend. The Fulham game has grown into quite a rivalry and that’s been fuelled by their signing of Bobby Reid this summer. It’ll be a tough game but I fully expect things to look very different if we get three points from this game.
We’ve gone from dead-certs for promotion to relegation candidates in some quarters but it’s neither one or the other. We have every chance to get into the top six this year and in a league as competitive as this, that should be our aim. We’ll grow into this season and when we need to dig in, Warnock will rally his team to do their best when our backs are against the wall. The Championship will cause teams with better squads than ours, on paper at least, to fail while others will succeed when others didn’t give them a hope. This seasons start has put us back under the radar – where Warnock is at his most potent.