Recently released by Cardiff after eight years of sterling service, View From the Ninian recently caught up with Matthew Connolly to discuss his time at the club and plans for the future. In the first of two parts, we cover his arrival, the managers he worked with and his suprise loan to Watford.
First things first; how are you and where are you?
I’m very well. Back in London at the moment.
Starting at the beginning, you joined Cardiff with the club in the midst of a rebrand-related spending spree. What was your reason for joining and your first impression of the club? They were in a good way in terms of putting together a side equipped for a title challenge, but all over the place behind the scenes and on the terraces.
When I joined, I had just got promoted with Reading. I was on loan there from QPR and from what they had told me, they were going to sign me, but that never happened in the end. I went back to QPR and at that time they were spending a bundle, so said I could leave. My agent told me that I had a choice between Nottingham Forest and Cardiff, but Cardiff had been enquiring the whole summer and were more keen. Heidur Helguson had just joined as well, so I called him to find out what it was like and he said it was really good. I spoke to Malky Mackay and joined.
How did you find working with Malky Mackay? He was incredibly popular, but his reputation has since been reappraised of course and in many respects he’s been airbrushed from history.
I loved working with him and thought he was a great manger. He got the best out of our team and made some really good signings. The way we played was great and training was really good. It was really disappointing for him and us that it all got tainted in that way. He was intense, but I definitely enjoyed working with him. He would push and push because he wanted the best out of us. We went up and I think he had stayed, we would have stayed up as well.
During this period, you were something of a promotion machine! Cardiff led from the front in your first season and never looked like letting it slip. Did it feel like that from the inside?
When I joined, we got beat 4-2 in my first game at Bristol City and that was tough to take, but we got going and were overrunning teams. We had quality, we had pace, we were strong and everyone was organised. I thought early in the season that we had a great chance and I was pretty confident. We were clear at one stage, then had a couple of draws and people got on our back a bit, but we were quite comfortable in the end.
You joined during a rebrand-related spending spree. I know the club were already red when you joined, but did you get a sense of the drama relating to that?
The fans were talking about it loads, that they should be blue. I’m an Arsenal fan and if they changed to blue, I would be pretty miffed. Owners buy clubs though and if that’s what they want to do, these guys are businessmen and they’ll make those decisions. They’re back to blue now and that’s how it should be.
How did you find playing in the Premier League with Cardiff and how did you find playing at right back? Is it a position you enjoy?
I prefer centre back, but I can understand why I was moved to right back. I was probably more athletic than the other centre backs and able to do a job and I didn’t mind it. I had Craig Bellamy in front of me too, which was a good experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t play that many games because Kevin Theophile-Catherine came in and did a good job. That Manchester City game was probably the game I’ve ever played in.
That season saw the ongoing soap opera with Malky and Vincent Tan, which finally came to a head. Do you think that derailed Cardiff’s season, or were they not quite good enough for that level?
Like I said, if Malky had stayed, I think we would have had a really good chance of staying up. It definitely had an effect because he left and then there was a pause before anyone else came in, then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in without really knowing who or what we were, so that took away the momentum we had because we had had some great results. We were holding our own and when we lost, it was close. It definitely derailed us, for sure.
How did you find working with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? What changed when he replaced Malky and with them being such different characters, was it a bit of a culture shock?
They were so different. Ole was more laid back and calm. He speaks to you like a team mate really. They both had their qualities and he’s clearly done well for himself! I think the fans were a bit pissed off when he came in and the players were also a bit annoyed. I think he probably just came at the wrong time and it wouldn’t have been easy for anyone at that stage because of all the controversy. Sometimes things just don’t work out.
You were a key player for Russell Slade, who went back to basics. What was he like to play for? He was considered beneath the post, but did well to steady the ship and you had one of your best seasons under him, winning the club’s Player of the Year.
I really enjoyed playing under Russell. When he got hired, I don’t think many of the fans were happy, but I think he gave us a bit of freedom to play. He made some good decisions, like putting Anthony Pilkington up top and he definitely steadied the ship. I think we were unlucky not to make the play-offs, throwing away leads at times, but that’s our fault, not the manager’s. I think he did a really good job and he’s underrated.
Can you explain what happened when you were shipped out on loan to Watford for a few months during this period. It was sold as a business decision, but how was it presented to you and was the plan always for you to return?
That was a bit weird because I was made aware that Watford wanted me in January and they were up near the top of the league. My agent asked me if I wanted to go and I said that it was the club’s decision. I would go if they wanted me to, but I was fine because I liked Cardiff. I saw Russell and he said he wanted me to stay. Then on my day off later in the season, I was out with my girlfriend and my agent called and said I could go on loan to Watford the next day. They would pay my wages for the last nine games and I thought it was a bit pointless, but I went and they got promoted.
Watford was actually about 10 minutes from where I was living at the time, so I would finish games and walk home. It was ideal in that sense and they had a really good team. Slavisa Jokanovic said he would sign me, but then got sacked in the summer. I would have liked to have played with them in the Premier League, but I was happy to stay at Cardiff because all of my friends were there and I liked it there.