x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Win over Swansea reveals Cardiff tug-of-war

On Sunday, at least, the volatility of Vincent Tan's Cardiff was subdued by the quiet effectiveness of Malky Mackay's Cardiff, but which version of City eventually supersede the other is still unclear, writes Richard Jolly.

Malky Mackay has Cardiff in 12th on the Premier League table through 10 matches, with 12 points. Stu Forster / Getty Images
Malky Mackay has Cardiff in 12th on the Premier League table through 10 matches, with 12 points. Stu Forster / Getty Images

In its own way, the Premier League’s first Welsh derby was both a tale of two countries – England and Wales – and of two Cities. Not Cardiff City and Swansea City, however. Because there are two Cardiffs.

There is the Cardiff City that appears determined to become the division’s next crisis club, the one where the lights were switched off 20 minutes after the final whistle in an attempt to hide a protest against the owner, Vincent Tan. The Malaysian multimillionaire is performing a convincing impression of an interfering idiot, reportedly trying to have an input in substitutions and tactics.

He has sacked the club’s head of recruitment, Iain Moody, and replaced him with Alisher Apsalyamov, a 23-year-old Kazakh with no pertinent experience (although he did help with the painting and decorating in the summer).

Apsalyamov apparently signed a player, Etien Velikonja, without telling Malky Mackay, the manager; that the striker has played only 73 minutes in the 56 league games during his time at the club is an indication he is nowhere near good enough. In this Cardiff, Tan, unaware of the preposterousness of his persona, is a source of amusement to neutrals and a cause for concern for the long-suffering City fans. He may have funded their promotion to the Premier League but the worry is that his erratic behaviour will extend to pressing the self-destruct button in particularly needless fashion.

But there is another Cardiff City: Mackay’s Cardiff City. They were the team who understood the importance of the fixture and deservedly defeated a more talented Swansea side.

This is a group constructed in the manager’s image: committed and honest, industrious and effective. Young managers who flout their philosophies are increasingly in vogue but there is nothing particularly ground-breaking about Mackay’s brand of football. Instead, he constructs organised, effective teams who overachieve because of their team spirit and because of his judgement. It is a question of character, both theirs and his.

It was a quintessential Mackay performance on Sunday, from the clean sheet Cardiff protected so tenaciously to the goal Steven Caulker scored from a set-piece. They were personified by the midfield terrier Gary Medel – like Caulker, another of those signings Moody helped Mackay make – and the recalled Craig Bellamy, who defied his 34 years and dodgy knees with a display of nonstop running and ceaseless snarling.

And yet, in what tends to be one of the most explosive derbies, they were also disciplined and intelligent. It was the sort of game that, under any circumstances, should be seen as both victory and vindication for a manager. Given the off-field issues at Cardiff right now, it is a particular testament to Mackay’s professionalism.

It is little wonder that the Cardiff fans who chorused his name cherish the Scot. In the 114-year history of the club, arguably he ranks second only to Fred Stewart, winner of the FA Cup in 1927, as their finest manager.

In his first season in charge, Mackay took them to the League One Cup final; in his second, he ended Cardiff’s reputation as chokers with a remorseless procession to promotion. Thus far this year, he has overseen perhaps the biggest upset of the Premier League campaign by beating Manchester City and piloted Cardiff to a respectable 12th place.

It is little wonder Mackay is being mentioned as a replacement for Chris Hughton if a vacancy emerges at his old club Norwich. He has admirers aplenty at other clubs.

The mystery is how success in Wales has not rubber-stamped his position at Cardiff. Instead, it looks increasingly precarious as Tan’s behaviour grows more bizarre.

So this is the paradox of Cardiff, a divided club where both supporters and players appear united behind the manager. Perhaps it is, Tan’s idea of Cardiff against Mackay’s altogether more rational interpretation. It has the makings of a civil war in a place where the mentions of the enemy normally incorporate mentions of Swansea.

At any other club, a derby win with historic significance would earn a manager the unqualified backing of the boardroom. But Cardiff are not any other club. They are at a crossroads where different directions offer sensible and senseless ways of continuing their journey, and no one knows which route they will take.