Last week Neil Warnock borrowed Forrest Gump’s famous line, comparing the unpredictability of his Middlesbrough team to a box of chocolates. “You never know what you’re gonna get,” he said, doing his best impression of Tom Hanks. On Saturday he visits his previous club, Cardiff City, whose form is anything but irregular after seven straight league defeats for the first time since 1934, an alarming run in which they have scored a solitary goal – a Sean Morrison header from a corner while 4-1 down at Blackburn –and conceded 17. If Derby had not been docked points for entering administration, Cardiff would be in the Championship relegation zone.
Warnock’s return to south Wales will naturally act as a reminder of happier times, though aside from Morrison and Joe Ralls, comfortably the team’s longest-serving player, this group is almost unrecognisable from the one that won promotion to the Premier League three years ago. They have proven easy to wound – only Peterborough have conceded more goals in the division, while Cardiff have a sole clean sheet – on a run of nine defeats in their past 10 matches, a streak that began with their first team being swept aside by, in effect, Brighton’s under-23s in the Carabao Cup. Goals have also been a problem. Kieffer Moore has scored once this season. “Sadly, teams have been enjoying playing against my team for the last six or seven games, so that is disappointing,” McCarthy said on Friday.
The Cardiff manager knows he is on borrowed time. Cardiff have not been in the third tier since 2003 and his predecessor, Neil Harris, was sacked after losing six successive games, five in the league. “If football is true to its usual stuff, we know what happens,” McCarthy said after a 2-0 defeat at Fulham in midweek. “I fully understand the rules of the game. The mood in the camp is good – I don’t think we would’ve got that performance otherwise.”
The Cardiff board decided to give McCarthy this week to turn the tide despite a chastening 3-0 defeat at rivals Swansea last Sunday, their heaviest derby loss since 2014, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær was in charge. The first-half performance at Fulham was vastly improved – there appeared a greater appetite to attack rather than contain – but patience is wearing thin among supporters and some joined the home fans in singing “you’re getting sacked in the morning” at the final whistle. McCarthy, to his credit, has handled the situation with great dignity, answering every question thrown at him, even ones that have grown monotonous in recent weeks.
Cardiff must find a way to shake that familiar sinking feeling. There were forlorn figures and hands on hips as Fulham ambled back into their own half fresh from celebrating Tom Cairney’s opener and, five minutes later, the centre-back Aden Flint, captain with Morrison dropped, and Cardiff’s leading scorer on four goals, led an inquest into how they allowed Aleksandar Mitrovic to double Fulham’s lead. Even before kick-off at Swansea, questions were being asked of the Cardiff chief executive, Ken Choo, after he joked with fans on board a supporters’ coach about taking managerial applications. Choo claimed the comment was made “in jest”.
Cardiff contacted South Wales police over “issues of concern” after the defeat, thought to centre on what they deemed provocative Swansea celebrations. The Swansea head coach, Russell Martin, and Jamie Paterson made the ‘swim away’ gesture. It refers to an alleged incident in 1988 when Cardiff supporters went into the sea as supporters clashed. In 2013, the then Swansea midfielder Jonjo Shelvey was “reminded of his responsibilities” by the Football Association for making the gesture.
McCarthy is not naive enough to not expect flak but it would be unfair to lay the blame solely at his door. Warnock worked miracles with a modest squad but the current squad is thinner and weaker than the one that started last season under Harris, with Harry Wilson, Sheyi Ojo, Josh Murphy, Junior Hoilett and Sol Bamba, now of Middlesbrough, among those to depart this summer. Too many recent signings – mainly free transfers – have not clicked. The striker James Collins, prolific for Luton, is yet to score in 15 appearances and the midfielder Ryan Wintle was loaned to Blackpool two months after joining from Crewe. Mark McGuinness, a 20-year-old defender who joined from Arsenal, has showed promise, and Ryan Giles, on loan from Wolves, has arguably been Cardiff’s redeeming light.
McCarthy cleaned Warnock’s boots as an apprentice at Barnsley 44 years ago and knows his opposite number will get a warm reception. “He should get a hero’s welcome having got them promoted,” McCarthy said. “He’ll probably get a better welcome than I will, that’s for sure. Of course, he’s got Sol Bamba coming back with him as well, another hero of the club. It’s up to us to try and pull the plug on all that excitement for them and beat them.”
Cardiff supporters are clinging to the positives. The teenagers Rubin Colwill, a wildcard for Wales at Euro 2020, and Kieron Evans, who entered as a substitute in midweek, provide a welcome thrust, and Mark Harris, who also arrived from the bench, has had his moments without finding the net. “There are some good young ‘uns, but we need some soldiers at the minute,” McCarthy said. “We need to get a result from somewhere.”