You signed for Cardiff injured, having suffered a bad knee injury at Coventry nearly 10 months before. What sort of shape were you in when you joined and were you concerned about how your knee was going to hold up?
I wasn’t concerned for how my knee was going to hold up because I felt like my rehab was on the right track and that my knee had healed, but when I signed, I had done hardly any running or pitch work. I was miles off where I needed to be and I wanted to have hit the ground running and show people what I was about straight away. I had a lot of hard work still to do, but had to be patient. It took a while and I had explained all that to Malky Mackay, but he wanted me to finish off my rehab at Cardiff and get going again.
You came through the ranks at Coventry, so what convinced you to join Cardiff, who were pretty much rebuilding a squad from scratch at the time?
Speaking to Malky, he sounded so sure of everything he was doing. He said he was trying to build a squad ready for the Premier League and if that didn’t quite happen, that he could get me ready for the Premier League regardless. To hear that as a young player, from someone that never really said anything half-hearted, that was it for me. I was sold on the idea.
I had a couple of other offers, where they were trying get the finances together and see if they could make an offer to take me to their club, but having spoken to Malky, I just thought that this was the kind of guy and club I could play for and do well for. It just felt like a really good fit and by that point, I just wanted to be there and around the environment he was creating.
When I got there, the level of professionalism and drive from the players he had brought into the club, they were very strong mentally. Willing to put in the hard yards and be there for each other. What he said wasn’t a bluff to try and sign a player, it was the exact environment you walked in to. You could see straight away that it gave us a chance of success.
The highlight of that first season was the Carling Cup final. I have to confess that, as a fan, I was bricking it ahead of the game, but Cardiff showed no sign of nerves on the day. Were you nervous?
I think we were all nervous. The manager would have been nervous too and he would probably admit that now because you don’t want to take a pasting, but the mentality and the work rate of that squad meant that we were not going to get rolled over. We were tight knit and we were going there to give them the toughest challenge that we possibly could and we did that. After they missed those first couple of penalties, I was thinking ‘hold up, we might win the cup here!’ It was devastating at the end to not do that.
Years and years on, there’s not a month goes by where I don’t get a message on social media from a Cardiff fan saying thank you for one of the best moments in my life! At the time, you don’t think that you’re giving fans something that they’ll remember forever. Its just amazing to be a part of something that is means so much and the longer it goes on, the more I appreciate it.
Malky Mackay built a young, hungry side and picked a bold, attacking side. Did he instil confidence and belief that you could go on and win it?
He approached every game the same. We were always there to win. To fight them, outrun them and outbattle them. We got to the final being that team. When you get the fitness stats for a game, that team was by far the hardest running, hardest working team I’ve ever been involved with, by a long way. I think that went a long way. We ground teams down and that year we won the league, we weren’t flashy and didn’t have loads of fair, but we won it with multiple games to spare because what we had worked. He didn’t change that for Liverpool, he said to go out and do that. We gave them the best we had and it gave them a good fright.
What are your memories of how that game unfolded? How did you find facing Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll?
It was tough because they were Premier League players and Suarez was world class. He could have played for any team. When me and Mark Hudson went out there, you knew if you gave Suarez an inch, he would score and there were a number of times when he would get down the side of us, but we would cover each other.
You also had the aerial threat of Andy Carroll, who was probably the best in the air out of the whole of British football. He’s a monster. Two completely different challenges and I can look back with pride because neither of them scored, but that was a tough, tough game.
When I look back at that partnership, we both lacked certain things, but when we were together, we were more than the sum of our parts. We really wanted to do well for each other, so we would cover each other or put our head in where it hurts.
I remember after the game, I’ve never been a natural runner like Don Cowie or Craig Conway, brilliant players to have around for a 120 minute game, but on the day, I felt like I wasn’t getting tired at any point. It was only in the week after that it caught up with me and I felt really tired and drained. I had never had that before.
Your goal was probably the single greatest moment of my time supporting the club. I remember thinking just before that I couldn’t be prouder of how Cardiff had performed, then you popped up with the equaliser!
I get goosebumps thinking about it! It was a massive moment in my life and my family were there. I know everyone says it, but I honestly loved playing for Cardiff. The celebration, it just happened. It wasn’t planned, it was just raw emotion. I wasn’t expecting to score against Liverpool! It wasn’t until I got booked for taking my top off that I realised I had done it. When I watch it back, the emotion from myself and all my team-mates, all the Cardiff fans going mad, I was like a man possessed. Anyone could have scored, I just thank my lucky stars that it was me. That was my moment.
You could see on your face that its like you’re not really in the moment. You’re in the zone and I guess with what you’re saying about not feeling tired, it must have been like an out of body experience. Top off, round your head like a helicopter!
The whole game was just happening. The first 10-20 minutes, I was very aware of the occasion, after that, I was just playing football. I had put the training in, I had worked hard and was very comfortable with my team-mates. I sometimes think, imagine if we had won. It would have been off the charts.
In some respects though, had you won, as amazing as that would have been, it couldn’t have got any better than your goal anyway. That moment, in some ways, can’t be topped.
I guess it was an underdog moment because we lost and we didn’t need to win the game to do ourselves proud. I was injured for eight months before I signed and six months after signing for Cardiff, I was playing in a cup final at Wembley. To do that was unbelievable and as an injured player, barely able to walk in to the stadium, I was at the final the year before, when Birmingham beat Arsenal because my family are Birmingham City fans. I remember sitting there, as a young professional, imagining playing here in a cup final. Twelve months later, I was having my moment and that’s still unbelievable to me.
Cardiff missed out in the play-offs and were rebranded in the summer. They spent a lot of money and were a very different proposition, leading from the front. From the inside, could you feel that promotion was on the cards from the off?
We got beat by West Ham in the play-offs and they were the better side. We started badly and they hey had more experience and talent. It was a season where we showed what we were about. If you’re asking did I feel like promotion was always going to happen, then the answer is no because we weren’t ridiculously talented individuals.
The group before us were considered a more talented team, with Jay Bothroyd, Michael Chopra and Whitts. When you speak to the lads though, and there’s no secrets inside a dressing room, the thing that let that team down was their drive. The togetherness and bloody-mindedness to get over the finish line. They didn’t have it as much as we had it. I’ve played for teams before and teams since and that thing you need, we had it.
We had Whitts, who was an unbelievable player to have in the Championship, but we had to be at it every week, every game and we just were. With three or four games left, we were already promoted and we won so many games by the odd goal. We could see out games and that was because of the group’s mentality. We wanted it badly and went out and got it.
I guess that filters down from the manager, but you also had Craig Bellamy coming back and his standards are through the roof.
Absolutely. It’s the day-to-day training with Bellers. Sometimes he would rip someone’s head off because they were one or two percent below where he thought they should be. He would let you know. He would be the same if one of the young lads bought a car that was too flash. He was a star and everyone looks up to someone like that, but he was still at it and you had to respect that. He trained like a beast, looked after himself and gave everything, on and off the pitch. He was a massive name, but at the same time, he was just a component of the success and he knew that.
Joe Ralls was at the club with me and got involved with the first-team the year I arrived. Sean Morrison is a good mate of mine too and they epitomise that era as well. They were involved in the second team that got promoted and we still keep in touch. There’s no doubt that they’re carrying on some of that spirit. It’s no coincidence that Mozza is captain and Rallsy is still there because they’re brilliant professionals, very good players and good team-mates. I want those guys to do well and keep driving the club on.
When you talk about the spirit of Cardiff, everyone was devastated by the passing of Peter Whittingham, who was one of the true greats. What are your memories of him, as a player and a man?
That was unbelievably devastating. To be hit with that last year, with everything else that was going on during lockdown, I just really couldn’t believe it. He’s the best player I ever played with. He was laid back Larry, with his own body language and sense of humour, but Cardiff were lucky to have him as long as they did because the guy’s left foot was ridiculous. He was a great guy as well and a great guy to have a beer with. He was just brilliant.