By Matt Rowson
There's a girl I know. Works as a nurse, all the hours God sends. Lives in a council flat in Shepherds Bush. Working as a nurse and living in London aren't financially rewarding circumstances all in all but nonetheless she is generous to a fault both with what money she has when friends or family need help, and with her free time which also tends to be scarce. All in all a Good Person.
This week her flat was broken into, and most of her possessions of any value (and a goodly number of no obvious value at all) were stolen. Conclusive proof that fate is mercilessly unselective in dishing out the crap... that some folk just don't get what they deserve. One can only hope that the cheap scum that perpetrated said act contract some hitherto unknown but seriously aggressive allergy to one of the bottles of perfume they pinched.
Football, then. And on Saturday we entertain Cardiff City, who provided the opposition for our first victory of the season at Ninian Park in August but have since done a far better job than seemed likely at the time of dismissing portents of relegation. Instead they've sustained an outside shout of a play-off place that has seen them close to within three points of Preston, albeit having played a couple of games more. Getting something from this weekend's game is seen as fundamental to their chances of breaking into the top six.
In the Cardiff ranks are obviously a number of familiar faces, and this is where the thing about folk getting what they deserve comes into play. Jermaine Darlington's involvement in the Bluebirds' side has been extremely limited; he's unlikely to feature in any event. Neal Ardley always got a bizarre amount of stick whilst he was actually playing in yellow... bizarre, given that an enormous proportion of our goals, particularly Heidar Helguson's goals, were created by Ardley's right foot. It seems a trifle optimistic to hope that Ardley won't get the bird on his return to Vicarage Road given the acrimonious, grubby and rather drawn-out nature of his departure.
The biggest surprise for me at Ninian Park - bigger, even, than seeing us rip confidently through the City side - was that even a small minority saw fit to give Neil Cox any stick. Much as his last year or two at the club saw his form wobble quite a lot, Coxy made almost 250 starts for the Hornets, was one of the last remaining links to the Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) side, played in two Cup Semi-finals and as captain was often reported to have played a major role in persuading his team-mates to agree to a 12% pay deferral in 2002 that was cited as fundamental in the club digging itself out of a hole. My co-editor also mourns the passing of the traditional "Coxy into the wall" free kick (in favour of new-fangled fannydangle resulting in goals and stuff, whatever next...); he may be alone in this. However I hope he's not alone in giving Coxy the reception he deserves.
Neil Alexander will be in goal for the Bluebirds; not always beloved of the Cardiff faithful in the past, he is on a run of form that has earned him a recall to the Scotland squad. Veteran Martyn Margetson will be on the bench.
Ardley has been turning out at right back; it will be interesting to see whether Betty opts to pitch Macca's twists and turns or Boozer's raw pace against him. Chris Barker, another who has not always convinced, should play left back. Rhys Weston is likely to be on the bench but Jermaine Darlington has featured only three times since our game earlier in the season, most recently a two minute cameo at Selhurst Park three weeks ago.
In the centre, Cox has been in fine form in recent weeks in partnering the brutal Darren Purse; he originally came in for Glenn Loovens when the on-loan Feyenoord defender picked up an injury. Loovens is back in training this week, but Cox is likely to retain his place. Overall Cardiff's backline has plenty of experience and brute strength, but doesn't look to have a lot of pace; plenty of chances were conceded in the last away trip, an eventful 3-3 draw at Luton, whilst the clean sheet at home to Hull last Saturday owed more to Alexander's fine form and profligate finishing from the Tigers than sound defending.
In midfield, Saturday's tie saw a fairly defensive looking central partnership of Riccardo Scimeca, signed from West Brom in January, and Jeff Whitley. Whitley had been out of the starting eleven for six weeks prior to Saturday, but has been reported as providing an effective counterbalance to Jason Koumas' lack of defensive discipline. Scimeca, conversely, has been criticised in recent weeks so should Kevin Cooper return from a back injury, we might see him in on the right flank with the mercurial Koumas moving back into the centre. On-loan Koumas has twelve goals this season, but is rarely fully involved for ninety minutes. Joe Ledley, called up to the full Welsh squad for the upcoming friendly with Paraguay, should play on the left. Another Welsh International, Paul Parry, hasn't played since New Year's Eve (presumed injured); destructive option Willie Boland should make the bench, whilst Phil Mulryne has reappeared as a sub recently but not made it onto the pitch since early October.
Up front Cameron Jerome is the main man, the nineteen year old called up to the England U21 squad this week is behind only Marlon in the League's goalscoring chart. Jerome has reportedly been playing with a groin strain which officially makes him a doubt for Saturday, but the existence of the very odd Championship vs Serie B U21 challenge match in midweek casts a certain light on this, and one suspects it might clear up sufficiently by the weekend. Jerome has committed more fouls than anyone else in the division this season. Steven Thompson, signed from Rangers in January, returned to the side after an "apple slicing injury" last weekend. Should Jerome not make it, the hard-working but so far largely impotent Guylian Ndungu-Nsumbu ought to start, although young Italian Andrea Ferretti has also been on the bench in recent weeks.
Cardiff haven't been at their best away from home - they've lost seven of their last ten away, and you have to go back almost three years to find their last win inside the M25. However a spirited fightback at Luton, compounded by the denial of a reportedly cast-iron penalty in the closing minutes will have given them confidence, and they'll be up for this one. For the Hornets, following a valuable free mid-week (Ash and Chris Eagles aside) the chance to take a very big step towards securing a play-off berth as a minimum.
Bring it on.