On the 19th January 2019, following a heavy defeat away to Newcastle United, Cardiff City confirmed they had made a new signing; Argentinian striker Emiliano Raúl Sala Taffarel and at a reported £15m, he became the club record signing.
The City had been awash with excitement in the preceding days as the media frantically scrambled to keep up with a protracted transfer saga. It even fell upon Bluebirds supporters to begin conversing with their Nantes counterparts in French, to determine the latest updates via social media.
At one stage, in the days prior to his signing, it appeared to have all fallen through, with press reports stating the players’ reluctance to sign for a club that was fighting against relegation from the Premier League. The Nantes chairman Waldemar Kita had become something of a pantomime villain for purportedly pushing through the transfer, despite the players’ wishes. This was later called into question as Sala spoke of his pride at signing for Cardiff. Nevertheless, the transfer remained a spectacle.
During this time, I was working at Cardiff Airport, working from the cargo terminal as a freight forwarder. My job was to assist Welsh businesses with their importing and exporting needs and our office was a prime location for all things football. Situated adjacent to the Arrivals lounge, I would sporadically make my way there in hopes of catching a glimpse of our newest heroes. I was also uniquely placed to see the players and staff as they made their way into the airport to fly to away matches. I have met members of the playing staff on multiple occasions and had numerous selfies with the stars.
The excitement surrounding Sala’s arrival was palpable at the airport. This was to be the man to save us from ourselves. Until this point, Cardiff had bravely struggled in the top flight, but had a serious lack of goal scoring power. Hence the significant expenditure on a proven goal scorer. Let’s not forget that Sala had outscored some of the biggest names in European football during that season and was single-handedly keeping Nantes’ season afloat. He was set to be the next Michael Chopra, the next Robert Earnshaw, the next Carl Dale.
When someone calls your house phone (remember those?) in the middle of the night, it normally signifies bad news. You answer it in trepidation, wondering if someone has died and how you’re going to tell your kids. That is how I remember that fateful night, when Sala and his pilot David Ibbitson disappeared.
It was January 21st and barely 48 hours had passed since the confirmation of his arrival, yet here was my phone buzzing loud enough to wake me up in the middle of the night. It was a tweet that merely said “A plane has disappeared off the coast of Jersey, Emiliano Sala was due to fly back to Cardiff City tonight, hopefully they’re not linked”.
Immediately your heart begins to beat that bit louder. Surely not? Surely he’s tucked up in his new flat in Cardiff Bay sleeping away and awaiting training with his new team? The next morning brought no news, and in this instance, no news was most definitely NOT good news.
The jersey coastguard became the focus of unprecedented scrutiny as they bravely continued their search in the most horrible of conditions. With the official search sadly producing nothing concrete, social media became ever more frenzied as a crowd-funding campaign (supported by many of football’s biggest names) raised money to continue searching for the aircraft.
Despite all of our thoughts, best wishes and prayers, the wreckage of the aircraft was discovered 63 metres below the cold waves on February 3rd, bringing to an end all hopes of a miracle. Sometimes in life, something happens that wakes you from the malaise and just for the briefest of moments you get some clarity. The tragic loss of the two lives aboard that Piper Malibu aircraft jolted us all from our Premier League haze. Two people had died and there was nothing anyone could do about.
Neil Warnock, so often the face of Cardiff in the last three years, made a few choice appearances, including a press conference in which he admitted; “This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with.” Overnight, the stresses and strains made themselves plain on a face well-weathered by football. Warnock looked every inch his seventy years and the Bluebirds didn’t know how to respond.
Flags, scarves and a multitude of different tributes were laid outside the Cardiff City Stadium as football drew together for a rare show of solidarity, as we grieve for the Bluebird who never was. The shadow of Sala looms large still over the club, and rightly so. I can scarcely think of something so important to Cardiff in the last 10 years as Emi and his flight. It transversed football and reminded us all that, whilst it may feel like life and death at times, it really isn’t.
Sing a song for Sala,
We will never let you go,
You will always be,
At City with me.