Contrary to expectation, Cardiff City’s appointment of Neil Harris has so far proved a success. But he’s not done anything too drastic in South Wales. Instead he’s tended to the wounds left in Neil Warnock’s wake, finessed and brought into the 21st Century a formula already in place and now – we’re looking at a brand new Cardiff City.
Sat down, all smiles in-front of the Welsh media as he gave his first press conference as Cardiff manager. One of the first points that Harris made was that he wasn’t intended as a ‘Neil Warnock mark II’, rather that he was there to modernise, to fine-tune the ‘sleeping giant’ that proved to be Cardiff City this season.
Giant may be a grandiose term, but the Championship table referring to Harris’ 30 league games in charge placed Cardiff 4th, above Slaven Bilic’s West Brom even, and seven places ahead of their Welsh counterparts Swansea City who, in the end, only finished three points and a place behind Cardiff.
In the away table since the November break, Cardiff rank 2nd behind champions Leeds United in terms of both points amassed (27) and goals scored (24). The problem then, if there is one to pick at, is home form. Harris’ Cardiff took 25 points from 15 games at the Cardiff City Stadium and even so, that’s a number that placed them just outside the top-six in relation to home fixtures during Harris’ reign.
Their recent play-off disappointment wasn’t that either. Having fought hard in both ties – particularly in the second at Craven Cottage – Cardiff bowed out as worthy claimants of a play-off place and going into this sole pre-season month of August, a more open-looking Championship without Leeds and West Brom will give fans ever right to dream. Expectations will remain unwavering going into the 2020/21 campaign, but nearly a year-to-the-day from the start of this still ongoing season, and the start of Cardiff’s very visible demise under Warnock, we can better appreciate the ‘evolution’ that Harris has brought about.
We know and love Warnock for his old school style. He signed Robert Glatzel with the view to lumping the ball up to him and as much as that mantra’s worked for him over the years, the time came for Cardiff to have something more about them. Harris at Millwall held a similar creed and even now in Wales, but the Cardiff we saw – especially so after the restart – wasn’t a familiar one. They were slick, dynamic in their approach and exciting – something(s) that Cardiff fans had become deprived of under Warnock.
In Layman’s, Cardiff are a much more contemporary footballing side now. Warnock didn’t and never really did have a Plan B. It was a team of attackers and a team of defenders with no in-between. But what we’re seeing with Harris is a team that likes to move as one, that likes to send its full-backs past the wingers, that still likes to utilise their aerial strength but at the same time pass the ball, and of course, there’s Lee Tomlin. An exile under Warnock, a talisman under Harris – Tomlin has become the source of everything good about this Cardiff side.
It’s he who provides the ‘bridge’ between what is still Warnock’s defence and Warnock’s attack – with him in the middle Cardiff can actually play football. Tomlin himself is a player who gets a lot of flack, who outsiders probably disregard because he’s English and maybe doesn’t thrown in as many tricks as some. Yet those who’ve seen him in action, especially since New Year, will tell you that he’s as good as any in the Championship.
His nine Championship goals last season made him the club’s top-scorer, with his 10 assists making him the fourth most creative player in the league – Tomlin averaged an assist every 208 minutes this season, with the league’s leading creator Matheus Pereira creating a goal every 206 minutes. Again, it’s the stats that tell the story of Harris’ Cardiff tenure, and it’s the stats that will give both Harris and his newfound marksman confidence in replicating, even bettering the successes of this season.
With a shortened pre-season ahead and the adjusted start date, it gives added task to Harris as he looks to put a personal touch on a Cardiff side that is still very Warnock-esque. From the off, Harris was told that his transfer policy would largely rely on him offloading players in order to bring them in. There’s obvious weak-spots in this Cardiff side and Harris will know them, but addressing them before September 12 is another challenge.
In all, the changes made by Harris, though not drastic, have brought about drastic change. Cardiff are still very much in a post-Premier League limbo and with the make-shift pre-season, that sense of transition will no doubt follow them into the next season. But praying on those final 30 Championship games and the fortunes they could’ve produced given a full term, Harris as quietly as he’s gone about his business at Cardiff, will have an equally muted sense of optimism.