The big clash in Wales (England not invited)

Like most South Walians, Owain Jones would love England to get beaten this weekend – but there are bigger matters afoot in that part of the world...

In the 1980s and 90s, most young boys in Wales adopted a First Division team. In parks up and down the principality, they ran around in Liverpool, Manchester United or Everton shirts recreating iconic moments from their designated club’s history.

In the main, they weren't inspired by the pedestrian exertions of Cardiff City and Swansea City, who were mainly knocking around the lower leagues or knocking lumps out of each other on the terraces.

In order to watch their Welsh idols up close, fans would have to watch international football to savour the world-class talents of Neville Southall, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs.

A telling statistic about the lack of quality at domestic level during that period came in 1994 against Romania, when Paul Bodin smashed the ball against the crossbar to leave Wales yet again bridesmaids to World Cup qualification. How many Wales-based players were in the starting line-up? Zero, that’s how many.


Bodin gets wood and Wales' hopes deflate

The rules were simple. If you were good enough, you’d have to trade your wares over the Severn Bridge to play at the top of football’s domestic pyramid.

In recent years there's been an apathy towards the Wales side as a result of poor performances – yet on Saturday afternoon, the Millennium Stadium will be full to the rafters. England’s superstars can expect a wall of noise from Welsh fans vociferously backing an unlikely win, yet most of the home fans – though they may not openly admit it – will be covertly admiring the skills of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and wunderkind Jack Wilshere as part of the entertainment.

However, for the first time in decades, the significance of the game has been reduced in the eyes of the Swansea and Cardiff fans. Firstly because Wales’ Euro hopes are already flatlining under new boss Gary Speed, but more importantly because the game is set against the backdrop of a more lucrative race worth far more than national identity and parochial pride: promotion to the Premier League.

As it stands, Swansea are in third place with Cardiff a place below. Whisper it gently, but Wales’ highly unfashionable club scene is the strongest it’s been for decades.

JACKS ARE MASTERS OF THEIR TRADES

Of the two clubs, Swansea’s ascent has arguably been the more impressive. In 2003, they were only a matter of minutes from being turfed out of the Football League; less than a decade later, they're pushing for their second bite of top-flight football – 30 years after Dai Davies, Leighton James and Alan Curtis carved their names into folklore at the Vetch Field.

Brendan Rodgers, the incumbent Swansea City manager, has steadily rebuilt his reputation on the Gower Peninsula after an underwhelming 21-game stint at Reading. The 37-year-old Ulsterman has continued the continental approach embraced by predecessors Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa and turned Swansea into what many pundits consider to be the division’s most stylish team.


Craig Beattie leads the celebrations

Their modus operandi is based upon movement and width in a well-drilled 4-3-3 system. Theirs is certainly a different philosophy to the individually blessed talents being showcased in Cardiff. Granted, the first team has a gifted spine in keeper Dorus de Vries, classy central defender Ashley Williams, midfielder Darren Pratley and tricky wide men Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair. Nevertheless, the squad’s main strength lies in its collective team ethic.

Players coming off the bench intuitively know their jobs, are comfortable on the ball and slot effectively into a system. It’s not surprising that Rodgers, who was acclaimed by Jose Mourinho after their time together at Chelsea, likes his sides to play with the intricate passing skills and keep-ball ideology of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

MEANWHILE, IN THE CAPITAL

Up at the Cardiff City Stadium, Dave Jones, the division’s longest-serving manager, has the unenviable job of nudging the Bluebirds towards the play-off places as a minimum requirement, with the wounds still raw from last May's 3-2 play-off final loss to Blackpool.

That season’s fourth-placed finish was Cardiff’s highest league finish for 39 years, yet despite the undeniable progress which also saw Jones also leading Cardiff City to the 2007 FA Cup Final, the Liverpudlian has had to constantly fend off criticism from a vocal minority. The general consensus is that with one of the highest wage bills in the Championship and an infrastructure primed for Premier League football, Cardiff should be challenging for promotion to the top flight. Jones accepts that, and whether he likes it or not, the fans are close to demanding it.


Craig Bellamy leads the celebrations

Since arriving in May 2005, Jones has taken something of a scattergun approach to transfers with over 50 players bought. While there has undeniably been some dead wood, Jones has made a success of taking unwanted players from bigger clubs. Of the current squad Jay Bothroyd, Peter Whittingham and Michael Chopra all fit that criterion, and Jones’ skill has been blending them with inexpensive, promising players, like Cameron Jerome, Roger Johnson and Glenn Loovens, who were all sold on for a healthy profit.

The Cardiff City youth system has also played its part in their progression with young talents Chris Gunter, Aaron Ramsey and Celtic-bound Adam Matthews all being sold to balance the books.

On the pitch, not since the days of John Charles have the Bluebirds boasted such a potent attacking threat, with Bothroyd and Chopra joined by Craig Bellamy. Simply put, they have the firepower to punish any side – but the flipside is that without a return on a season in which they have rarely left the top four, many fans will not be as forgiving if Cardiff end up with the 'nearly men' tag again.

THE DIFFERING GAFFERS

The contrast between the sides doesn’t stop there. The managers have markedly differing styles. Dave Jones is an old-school manager in the mould of Sir Alex Ferguson, who prefers to leave coaching drills to assistant manager Terry Burton but likes to have the final say on the day-to-day running of the club.
Famously stubborn, Jones prefers a siege mentality, as his year-long media stand-off with the local press illustrates. Critics point to the fact that he can be found tactically wanting and that Cardiff don't always win when it matters, but Jones is defiant in defending his methods and his record – which, for the most part, does stand up to close scrutiny.

Brendan Rodgers couldn't be more different. More likely to be found in a tracksuit, he sparks well with the media – obviously he learnt a few things from Mourinho – and leans towards a more continental approach to coaching, championed by Arsene Wenger.


Jones and Rodgers after the recent derby

While Cardiff, under owner Datuk Chan, are now one of the Championship’s richest clubs, one aspect both clubs share is a firm belief in investing in youth. Swansea’s feted Centre of Excellence is geared to fostering and developing players out of necessity, rather than choice; Cardiff's Centre of Excellence and Academy have had successes in grooming the next generation of Welsh superstars, with Darcy Blake and Jonathan Meades next off the production line.

Some argue that if neither side reaches the Premier League, Swansea’s heavy investment in home-grown players make them better placed to cope, with Cardiff’s Championship superstars expected to seek a promotion with or without the club. That said, Swansea fans will spend the close season shifting uneasily as offers for Joe Allen, Darren Pratley and Nathan Dyer come in from Premier League sides.

Whatever transpires at the end of the season, the South Wales economy, which will receive a welcome boost with the England game, will be desperate that one of the sides joins odds-on favourites QPR in the lucrative Premier League.

With analysts bandying around fiscal figures of up to £90 million, it’s hard to imagine the pressure that both Jones and Rodgers face in delivering passage to the Promised Land.

What price for the Cardiff versus Swansea play-off final? Now that would make Saturday's game look like a minor-league kickabout.

Owain Jones is a freelance journalist for hire. 

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