By Matt Rowson
Division Two, we are told by a Football League press release, is the fourth best attended football league in Europe. Behind only the German Bundesliga, the Premiership (not Premier, not a ship), and the Spanish Primera Liga, aggregating a 9.8 million audience across last season which I make a game average of around 17,750. I suspect that it's in terms of the former statistic rather than the latter that the division outstrips twenty club Serie A (which could boast an average gate of well over 25,000 without exceeding our Division's aggregate) but it's still a remarkable statistic.
All the more so when you consider the fare on offer. Last Saturday, the first day of the season, what do Sky select as the big curtain raiser? Sheffield United against Leicester City. For pity's sake. You look at the selection in the paper, you wonder what on earth made them select this most spartan of encounters (and I don't care if there were five goals, the first half - watched in defiance of the bloody cricket in the Estcourt - was terrible). Then you look at the alternatives. And really, only the Southampton - Wolves fixture had an obviously higher profile; this, too, was televised on Saturday evening.
That's it. That's what ten million afternoons or evenings are spent watching over the course of a season. That's why Sky resort to showing Cardiff City versus Watford of all bloody things on a Friday night. A game between two sides that have gone through the sort of summer overhaul normally reserved for non-league teams... those watching on Sky will at least have the benefit of commentators telling them who their players are. Cardiff, like ourselves, handed competitive debuts to five newcomers at the weekend with several more waiting in the wings. As for the Hornets... Tuesday's injury to Lloyd Doyley might mean that a greater number of the Watford side that started this fixture last season will be lining up in blue on Friday night than in yellow (Neal Ardley and Neil Cox to, at best, Paul Devlin and Gavin Mahon).
Cardiff's summer clearout owed more to a pressing need to reduce the wagebill than to a frenzy of bored-of-this-let's-knock-it-all-down-and-start-again-ness. The Bluebirds' debt is reported to include one loan amounting to £24m, and in a well-publicised development the PFA stepped in to pay wages at the end of last season. Cardiff, meanwhile, oddly added to their playing staff and Gordon Taylor's nasal heel-digging was replaced by a mumbled explanation from a PFA spokesman that the interests of members would not be served by Cardiff being relegated. That aside, perhaps a straightforward set of financial arrangements at a club run by Sam Hammam and employing Peter Ridsdale, who this week appointed a new finance director, might be a bit optimistic.
So out have gone big earners Peter Thorne (to Norwich), Jobi McAnuff (to Palace), Danny Gabbidon and James Collins (to West Ham) whilst a number of others left over the summer at a rate that often suggested a fire sale. It has been reported that three other players must still be shed from the wagebill; one-time Middlesbrough prodigy Andy Campbell and former QPR midfielder Richard Langley, now sporting the biggest haircut seen on a footballer since George Berry, are likely to be two names on their way out of Ninian Park.
The "g" word has already been mentioned in dispatches by new Cardiff boss Dave Jones, not least after Saturday's defeat at Ipswich. Encouragement to be taken from what sounded like a stirring victory over Leeds United on Tuesday, then... sufficiently solid or not, a 2-1 victory in this fixture looked a very remote possibility just a few weeks ago.
A considerable amount of credit for that victory has been placed at the feet of Jason Koumas; on-loan from West Brom where his career has taken an unscheduled sabbatical, he came on for the last half hour on Tuesday, scored a fine equaliser and invigorated the Bluebirds' performance. He's still short of match fitness, but seems certain to feature on Friday night. Cardiff have an option to sign him if they can find £2million by the end of his loan spell.
If Koumas starts on Friday he'll displace either new pitbull Jeff Whitley or, more likely, long serving Irishman Willie Boland; Phil Mulryne, a Northern Ireland international linked with ourselves over the summer following his release from Norwich, may also be on the bench but teenager Joe Ledley, who made an impact in the first team last season, is out with a foot injury.
Plenty of experience on the flanks, where Kevin Cooper's summer capture adds to the presence of Neal Ardley, who we know all about. It will be interesting to see how the ex-Watford contingent approach this one - in particular, though, we'll have to hope that our goalkeeper shows a bit more conviction in coming for crosses than he did on Tuesday evening. Mr.Ardley's delivery doesn't tend to be very forgiving.
Where Cardiff still look weak is up front, where winger Paul Parry has been plugging away alongside the enthusiastic and exciting but hardly prolific youngster Cameron Jerome. The persistence with an out-of-position Parry is a little odd given Alan Lee's presence on the bench... Lee hasn't pulled up any trees at Cardiff, but reports suggest that he is looking leaner and more convincing than he did last season, so may get a start on Friday night. Other attacking options are nineteen year-old Stuart Fleetwood and Italian recruit Andrea Ferretti, described as a "ballerina" by one correspondent. Newspaper reports suggest that Portsmouth's long-time casualty Svetoslav Todorov and, perhaps optimistically, Birmingham's Clinton Morrison are transfer targets.
At the back, Jermaine Darlington has taken over as right-back from Rhys Weston and has impressed by all accounts during his first two outings... although I'm looking forward to seeing Ashley Young have a run at him... whilst Chris Barker appears to be first choice at left back following the summer departure of Tony Vidmar. In the centre, the pairing of Darren Purse and Neil Cox (to whom a fitting tribute has already been paid on BSaD this week) offers experience but little in the way of pace, prompting several entreaties for young Dutch loanee Gerard Loovens to be given a start.
In goal Neil Alexander's shot stopping ability is preferred to Tony Warner's greater confidence in the face of aerial assault - this, too, seems to be regarded as something of a weakness.
Going back to where we started... the reason that so many of us watch lower division football is, self-evidently, that so much of us watch lower division football. Obviously. If nobody watched Cardiff play Watford then nobody would take their mates to watch Cardiff play Watford. And nobody who came along would find anyone there. Nobody would care. But they do. So families and sponsors and media and tradition take note. And so it continues. Quite right too, there are already too many Manchester United fans in this world.
Their charade starts on Saturday. As for Friday, bring on the real entertainment.