Well it looks like the season will soon return, rightly or wrongly, and it’s not the easiest of tasks to recall what has gone before. I’m partly writing this to jog my own memory. Who is Cardiff’s Player of the Year thus far, for example? Here, I shall make a case for three of this season’s star performers.
The name the jumps straight off the page is Lee Tomlin. He certainly has the best narrative. Signed to be Cardiff’s creator in chief, he was ill-equipped for the role and barely featured in his first couple of seasons. He has since been inspiringly frank about his mental health struggles and it has been a joy to see him fit and firing once more.
Tomlin leads the way in goals and assists, seven of each, also chalking up by far the most yellow cards (eight). Cardiff have yet to lose when he has scored, having netted against Luton, West Brom, Birmingham, Leeds, Barnsley, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday.
Having injured his knee just before the season was suspended, Tomlin was expected to miss most of the remaining games, and as he is still not quite there yet, would have sat out the remainder of the campaign.
Fortunately, like Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, he is nearing full fitness and looks set to play a significant role in the rearranged run in. Cardiff’s hopes of breaking in to the top six increased significantly as a result.
A Marmite player before this season got underway and a whipping boy when Cardiff made an uninspiring start, but surely Bacuna has now gone some way towards winning over the doubters. Third in terms of minutes and starts, behind only Joe Bennett and Marlon Pack, Bacuna is a far classier operator than he is given any credit for.
He has filled in at a number of positions and although not a traditional Cardiff type, he does a lot of the cleaning up that allows others to shine. If you play in a midfield three with Tomlin, despite his improved fitness levels, you’re going to have to work that much harder.
When Cardiff were struggling, Bacuna was one of the few players that continued to excel. He also popped up with the winner against Stoke too. With Tomlin unopposed as Cardiff’s favoured number 10, there is a fight between Bacuna, Pack, Joe Ralls and the resurgent Will Vaulks for the remaining two places. I wouldn’t bet against Bacuna, who is a player’s player and Cardiff’s unsung hero.
Until this season, it was a case of Alex who? With Neil Etheridge in career-best form last season, Smithies never got a look in. Etheridge never even went to the Asian Games at the start of the year, as promised, to represent his native Philippines. Smithies also struggled with a series of niggly injuries.
When Etheridge picked up a bad hamstring injury on the opening day at Wigan, Smithies had one foot out the door and was expected to leave on loan. He may never have played for Cardiff again, but it was instead a turning point in his Cardiff career. He has been excellent ever since.
He made way when Etheridge returned, and I was one of those calling for his recall, but that has harsh on Smithies and in retrospect the wrong call. He has since regained his place and Etheridge now looks the one more likely to depart.
Smithies may not be as physically imposing, but he is currently a more consistent, better all-rounder than Etheridge and his distribution is also a real asset. As one of Cardiff’s highest earners, that is the least you might expect, but Smithies’ on-field comeback is in many ways every bit as impressive as Tomlin’s. He is the sort of low maintenance goalkeeper every team craves.