“Virgil Van Dijk’s got better attributes on the ball, but I don’t think he’s a better defender than Sol Bamba” – Neil Warnock, December 2017.
With the International break providing a gap in Bluebirds activity on the pitch and having had some time to recap and review our start to the season, I’ve realised that I’m really missing Sol Bamba, but I don’t think it’s just me. One thing that has been absent from the Bluebirds start to the season, is a little bit of heart and Sol.
Casting my mind back to last season in the Premier League and to everything that was good about our campaign, Bamba’s input would rank pretty high up the list. Neil Etheridge was outstanding and Victor Camarasa was beautiful, but our “colossus at the back,” as Neil Warnock likes to refer to him, was putting in some stunning performances. That block following Leicester’s penalty miss was just one of the standout moments, a game we famously went on to win.
Sol had waited for years to have a crack at the Premier League and having achieved that goal with Cardiff, he wasn’t going to just sit back and enjoy it. He wanted to put on a show, to prove that he deserved to be there and Cardiff fans expected nothing less from their hero. He’d been at many clubs before with varying success, but he was definitely in fantastic form at his new home with Warnock at Cardiff. We, as fans, love his blood and thunder defending just as much as it seems he loves us. Cardiff have always loved a player who gives everything to the cause and Bamba is the type of player who, by his own admission, thrives and excels when the crowd powers him on.
“I love defending. Absolutely love it,” Bamba said last year. “When I go into a game I set myself a target; I don’t want to lose a header anywhere on the pitch. Sometimes I see defenders and I ask myself; ‘does he actually like defending?’ But I love going into a tackle, winning a challenge or a header. That’s why it’s good here because the fans appreciate that. In France or in Italy, when you do a good defensive tackle, they’re not bothered. But here they like that and that makes me want to defend even more.”
So then, it was utterly heart breaking for everyone to see him unable to finish the season last year after rupturing his ACL in the 2-0 loss to Wolves in early March. Many fans would even say that losing Sol with nine games to go could well have been one of the big factors in why, eventually, we were relegated back to the Championship. That may sound unfair on the players who did play the remaining games and it might be questioned how one player could have such an effect. Especially when that player is Sol Bamba, a player who, by his own admission and by Neil Warnock, is prone to making mistakes.
“Don’t be Beckenbauer, just kick or head it. When it’s on, pass it, but if it’s not on, just put it up there,” is what Bamba said Warnock told him after one such occasion. The thing with Bamba though, is that his defensive ability is just one part of what makes him such an influential figure and, in my opinion, we have massively missed him this season.
One thing that has been a noticeable feature of our first few league games this season is that, unusually for a Neil Warnock side, we have seemed very lacklustre. We’ve done alright, but when you look back at how we started the 2017 promotion season, it pales in comparison. Back then, in our first 6 games, we won 5 and drew 1 (coincidentally, also a 1-1 draw with Fulham). But they weren’t just wins. We were emphatically beating teams, with big energy and enthusiasm that opponents couldn’t handle. We conceded only 3 goals in our first six games, but more importantly, we only allowed 13 shots on target in 540 minutes of football.
Burton Albion (A) – 0 shots on target
Aston Villa (H) – 1 shot on target
Sheffield Utd (H) – 4 shots on target
Wolves (A) – 3 shots on target
QPR (H) – 1 shot on target
Fulham (A) – 4 shots on target
The players looked inspired. They were fighting for everything and for me, a major reason for that was Bamba. He is famously nice off the field and I know he would probably distance himself from my claims because he would likely say that it’s a team game and the team won those games together. Every team needs a leader though. A talisman or a hero and unfortunately that doesn’t always come through a captaincy. This isn’t a criticism of Sean Morrison, Aden Flint or any of the other defenders in particular.
I love Morrison. He is a fantastic captain and an excellent defender, but the players this season seem to have been missing the x-factor. An enthusiasm or an energy which was there in 2017 from the very start, but hasn’t been in 2019 so far. Bamba’s love of defending, his telescopic legs, outstanding anticipation and interception skills. His rallying cries to the other players, his determination to seemingly want to be in every single position on the pitch at the same time and his chest thumping, roaring goal celebrations is exactly what this Cardiff team has missed.
I think Warnock knows that, which is why we saw Marlon Pack arrive from Bristol City. “He’s the leader we’ve been looking for since we knew Gunnars was leaving,” was what Warnock was quoted as saying at the time. We definitely looked more solid when Pack was playing, before his unfortunate injury, but I think leadership is the wrong word. I think Cardiff have missed inspiration rather than leadership. Someone who excels in their role, who inspires those around them to perform better just by their sheer enthusiasm and desire to not to lose a challenge, a header, a pass and ultimately, the game.
The return of Lee Tomlin has definitely captured fans’ imaginations going forward and Joe Ralls certainly seems to be stepping forward this season as an inspiration to his fellow teammates and I hope that continues because we need more of that. Having torn my own cruciate ligaments in my mid-twenties, I know it’s not an injury that is easy to come back from and at the age of 34, it’s going to be a lot harder. The surgery fixes the injury and he will have top physios working with him, yes, but it’s such a challenge mentally to trust the knee again, especially for someone like big Sol, whose style of play doesn’t allow him to go in half hearted. But I really miss him in our team and I can’t wait to see him back.
“Sol always there for us and it’s his presence that makes the difference. He epitomises Cardiff City fans, that’s why they like him, you know those legs will come round like an an octopus when someone thinks they’ve gone past him. The other lads all respond to him. Anybody goes out of line, he sorts them out.” – Warnock
Our inspiration, our talisman, our heart, our Sol.