Malky Mackay was smiling before the reporter had finished asking whether Saturday's top-of-the-table clash against Watford was the first time he had come up against Gianfranco Zola since the Italian scored with a memorable backheeled volley for Chelsea in 2002. "It definitely was that game, it was an FA Cup replay," the Cardiff City manager says. "We played them at Norwich and drew 0-0. I actually swapped strips with Gianfranco that night. But it was a fantastic goal from Zola in the replay – and I can tell you, I was not marking him on that corner!"
Zola's brilliance is a much more comfortable subject for Mackay to discuss than the prospect of winning promotion to the Premier League, even though Cardiff have been enjoying the view from the top of the Championship for more than four months. A win at Vicarage Road would open up an 11-point lead over Zola's third-placed side and all but seal Cardiff's return to the top flight for the first time since 1962, yet Mackay, who managed and played for Watford, refuses to mention the P word.
That blinkered approach has served Cardiff well during a season when Mackay has demanded "monotonous consistency" from his players. Cardiff's success has been built on solid defensive foundations – they have kept 15 clean sheets – and a strong team ethic, rather than freeflowing football or individual talent. One of the more remarkable statistics is that Peter Whittingham and Aron Gunnarsson are their leading scorers in the league with only eight goals. There is not a team in the Championship with a top scorer who has fewer goals to his name.
"When Malky came to the club [in 2011] he gave it an identity and it's one that demands every player gives 100%," Jason Perry, the former Cardiff player who now works as a BBC pundit, says. "They're very well organised. They've not got an outstanding goalscorer but that could be their strength because they spread the goals around the team. They've got pace and they play on the break, and they've got the right characters in the changing room, led by Craig Bellamy."
While it promises to be a ground-breaking season on the pitch, some hugely controversial decisions have been made off the field. In May last year, it emerged that Vincent Tan, the club's Malaysian owner, was giving serious consideration to changing Cardiff's colours from blue to red. Although Dato Chan Tien Ghee, the club's chairman at the time, later said that the plans had been dropped due to "vociferous opposition", Cardiff announced in June that the club would, after all, be playing in red in the 2012-13 season. The club crest was also changed to incorporate a dragon that all but gobbled up the Bluebird.
Tan, a highly successful businessman who is reported to be worth £800m, said the changes were crucial if Cardiff were to be "successful in Asia in the long-term". He explained: "In Asia, red is the colour of joy, red is the colour of festivities and of celebration. In Chinese culture, blue is the colour of mourning." Heavily in debt, reeling from the disappointment of defeat in the play-offs for a third successive season and aware that Tan would turn off the financial tap that has helped to save the club if his radical proposals were rejected, Cardiff's board gave their approval.
The majority of fans have stuck with the team – Cardiff are the fifth-best supported club in the Championship with average gates of 22,475 – but some feel so strongly about Tan's changes that they are trying to set up a new club, following in the footsteps of FC United and AFC Wimbledon. "There's history in Cardiff City, it's like a listed building, there's some things we feel you don't touch, so we decided we'd had enough," says Darren Thomas, who followed Cardiff for more than 30 years but has not been to a game this season.
"We wanted to keep the Bluebird and our traditional colours going, so a group of people decided we'd start again with our own club [initially called FC Bluebirds of Cardiff]. To be honest, we only had 60 members, but there was a little incident that we call 'Scarfgate', which happened at [the Brighton] match in February, where Vincent Tan handed out thousands of red scarves to kind of ram the red down people's throats. A lot of people turned to us and said: 'Whoa, it's too much.' All of a sudden we had 1,000 Twitter followers in 24 hours and the Facebook group went up to 400-500 members in the same time, and we've continued our work from there."
When Tan gave a rare interview to the BBC at the end of February, he suggested he was open to further rebranding and did not rule out the possibility of the club's name being changed. With another storm brewing, Tan quickly clarified his position by releasing a statement that said the name would remain the same, which was music to the ears of Perry and just about every Cardiff fan.
"As much as the colour is something that a lot of people, including myself, still struggle to accept in many ways but you understand the reasons why, if the name were to change then it would become a different club and a franchised club," Perry says. "I don't think it will be a decision accepted by football fans, never mind Cardiff City supporters."
The prospect of Tan spending £25m on new players in the summer and Cardiff competing at the same level as their local rivals Swansea is much more appealing. Not that Mackay has dared to think that far ahead. "We just look at the team six inches in front of our face," he says, "and keep chalking the games off."