It was April 23rd, 2011. Having fallen to Blackpool in the play-off final the season prior, this was the season our club seemed destined to get things right. Peter Ridsdale had said his goodbyes, Vincent Tan hadn’t yet divided the fanbase, Craig Bellamy was home and Jay Bothroyd was an England international striker. 42 games had been played and Cardiff were just two points behind second-place Norwich, with a game in hand.
It was a promising position, but the visitors happened to be a QPR side for whom promotion was all-but finalised. His Holiness Neil Warnock was in the opposite dugout, while past, present and future Bluebirds Wayne Routledge, Matthew Connolly, Tommy Smith and Heidar Helguson were all lining up for the away side.
In hindsight, there are too many eventual commonalities between the two clubs for this to have gone how Cardiff fans imagined, but when stepping into a then-record Cardiff City Stadium attendance, there was a unique positivity in the house. The sun was shining and this was supposed to be our day.
Five minutes in, that mindset was bolstered. Bothroyd, having found himself with the ball on the right wing, cut inside to smash a perfect strike into the top corner of Paddy Kenny’s net. Writing for The Guardian, journalist Joe Lovejoy described the crowd’s reaction as “stratospheric,” and he’s right. I can remember the stadium erupting louder than at any other City game outside of Wembley, including Chopra’s last minute winner against Swansea.
A four-minute party followed, but Moroccan magician Adel Taarabt turned on his talent faster than promotion hopes had heightened with a clever lob to level things up. Fans slumped, but going against their own stereotype, Cardiff continued to show top flight promise by hammering away – eventually taking the lead for a second time through Bellamy before half time.
It was all going so well, but a player with Taarabt’s quality will always have the final say in the Championship, as was the case with less than 20 minutes to go. Making a nuisance of himself while being marked by Kevin McNaughton, the man who finished the season with 19 goals managed to tuck away a superb finish, killing off hope for good.
Many will wonder why I would consider this to be such a pivotal moment in the last 10 years – we’re talking about a draw against the eventual league winners, after all. But as someone who had only ever really known Cardiff City with Dave Jones at the helm, I can remember thinking – knowing – that this was the beginning of the end for our long-term Mersey manager.
We had lost just three games in the 18 prior, a squad boasting four double digit scorers and a deafening crowd supporting them all the way, yet there was still that lack of conviction and guts we had become used to. If we couldn’t take advantage now, we were never going to.
Of course, that’s exactly how things panned out. Instead of leapfrogging Norwich into second and picking up the required confidence to push on for promotion, the next home appearance consisted of that famous first-half implosion against Middlesbrough, shortly followed by the miserable 3-0 play-off drubbing to Reading.
Had that side held on against QPR for a mere 19 extra minutes, we could be supporting a rather different club today.