Should Cardiff City stay up this year, it would be nothing short of a miracle. Full stop.
Granted, the arguments will already by circling around in your head. Manchester City could well win three trophies this season and Jurgen Klopp could guide Liverpool to their first ever Premier League crown with a club-record points haul, as well as a potential Champions League title.
Yet, speaking purely on the basis of domestic football, what Neil Warnock has achieved with the Bluebirds has so far defied belief.
February 8 2019 – a day where all our fears were compounded when Emiliano Sala’s body was confirmed to be the one found after the plane he was travelling in had crash landed in the English Channel en route to the Welsh capital.
It was an utterly heartbreaking tragedy that shook not just the footballing world, but those beyond it.
On a human level the Argentine’s death evoked feelings of immeasurable sadness, and on a footballing level it was hoped the club’s £15m club-record signing was going to provide the firepower they so desperately craved in their bid for Premier League survival.
Such a cruel and abrupt ending to a person’s life undeniably has a huge bearing on those closely affected, as well as those looking on.
However, following the news that Sala’s plane had gone missing, Warnock had to pick his side up and focus their attention towards their first home match since the news, a crucial clash with Bournemouth.
Bobby Reid’s double handed the home side a vital three points on that occasion, and an occasion it certainly was. The overall feeling of grief inside the ground was evident even watching on from the television, as an emotional Warnock was reduced to tears at the full time whistle, stating ‘Emiliano would have been proud of us’ in the aftermath of the game.
With games coming thick and fast, the day after news broke about the discovery of Sala’s body, Cardiff once again had to keep their emotions in check as they traveled to fellow relegation candidates Southampton.
Kenneth Zohore’s 93rd minute winner rewarded Warnock’s men with a 2-1 win that evening, demonstrating more than just tactical superiority, but a willingness to fight in the face of adversity and honour a player whose memory will forever be etched into Cardiff folklore.
It’s simple to say galvanising a team through such a dark time isn’t easy, but I’m not Warnock, so to merely label it ‘not easy’ would be grossly ignorant and unfair on a man who has been Cardiff’s face throughout the entire devastating saga.
There are other mitigating factors, however, as to why the Yorkshireman has performed admirably for his club this season.
His team are poor, really poor.
Cardiff’s squad is not a Premier League squad, its bereft of any real quality, and yet, here we are, talking about them being in with a chance of survival in mid-April.
Take Fulham, for example, who spent £100m on arrivals and are already down, by contrast the Bluebirds’ spent £28.5, with arguably their star player this season coming in the form on loan acquisition Harry Arter.
Warnock’s decision to essentially build a defensive foundation around 34-year-old Sol Bamba highlights a tactical nous the 70-year-old has of playing to his side’s strengths. That said, Cardiff have still conceded the third highest number of goals this season – but they’re not out for the count yet.
Bamba has since been ruled out for the season, thus hugely deteriorating their chances of survival, and at the other end, goals have been in short supply. Warnock’s decision to begin much of the campaign fielding Callum Paterson as their lone striker raised eyebrows.
The unorthodox role bestowed upon the Scotsman had the desired effect, with Paterson the club’s second highest scorer in the division on four goals, this despite naturally being a right back.
Yes, a right back.
Oh, and he too is now crocked for the remainder of the season.
On paper, looking at the Cardiff team, it’s unfathomable to think they are still in with a shout of staying up. It even stretches back to last season, where Warnock’s men showed spirit and resilience having been assembled on a relative shoestring, accumulating 90 points from 46 league games, to somehow achieve promotion.
His ability to squeeze absolutely everything he can out of a more than mediocre side deserves immeasurable credit. If they had come up this season and reached 20 points there would have still been a case to say he’d done an excellent job. And this is without delving into any number of poor refereeing decisions that have gone against his side this season, of which a whole different article could be written.
Instead, with four games to go and just four points from safety, he could arguably surpass his previous exploits and keep Cardiff in the Premier League. It would not only be his greatest achievement but, in my opinion, means he should be lauded as the best manager this year – and given a shiny trophy to show for it.