Malky Mackay put a brave face on Cardiff City's opening day defeat at West Ham, arguing that Premier League survival is more likely to be achieved by results gained at home. The defender Matt Connolly struck a similar note in claiming the enthusiasm in Cardiff for the first top-flight fixtures in 51 years might take a few opponents by surprise. "The atmosphere will be tremendous," he said. "Our fans are very passionate, and with their help we can make our stadium a bit of a fortress."
So far so commendably positive, though some of those same fans have already noticed that the first top-flight visitors to the Welsh capital are Manchester City, ominously efficient in taking Newcastle apart in their first home game, and have begun to wonder whether Cardiff's optimism will survive two straight defeats on their long‑awaited return to the big time.
"Manchester City have players who have appeared in the big derbies in Spain and Argentina," one website commentator noted. "With all respect it might be a bit hopeful of us to expect them to be unnerved by a full house of 27,000."
It seems more likely to be Cardiff who are daunted. Mackay declined to use that particular word when asked to consider the first home game, though he did admit he was up against one of the best squads in the country. "We just have to make sure we are competitive," the Cardiff manager said. According to Connolly, whose place in the side is already under threat after the runaround he was given by Matt Jarvis last week, the players themselves are not daunted by the challenge ahead. "Do we want to be preparing for Manchester City, or would we rather be playing in the Championship?" he asked. "Every one of us would take the first option every time. We believe we have enough quality to keep our place in the Premier League, but it is a step up. If we are going to play our football and show what we can do, we will have to start quicker than we did at Upton Park."
The last time Cardiff entertained Manchester City they won, a memorable goal from Nathan Blake settling an FA Cup fourth-round tie 19 years ago, though both clubs have been through significant takeovers and changes since then. New ownership in Manchester eventually resulted in untold wealth and a Premier League title, whereas the Welsh experience had more to do with winding up orders, unpaid debts and unsettled players until the present owners steadied the ship and achieved promotion. Now operating as a pundit in the south Wales media, Blake is pleased to see Cardiff on the rise but fears the gulf between the clubs might be bigger than ever.
"There's a big gap between saying you are ready for the Premier League and actually believing it," the former Sheffield United, Bolton and Blackburn striker said. "There seemed to me to be a lack of confidence at West Ham. The home side barely got out of second gear to earn the victory, while Cardiff looked unsure of themselves, a bit like rabbits caught in the headlights. I'm not too worried about just the one game but that needs to change pretty quickly if the club is to move itself forward.
"Down the years Cardiff has only ever come up against the big sides in the cups, and those were obviously big occasions, special days that you could look forward to. The game against Manchester City is not like that. It's another day at the office, the next league game of the season, and the sooner Cardiff get their heads round that the better."
Cardiff have been strengthening for the rigours of the campaign ahead, quietly breaking their transfer record three times over the summer to bring in Andreas Cornelius from Copenhagen, Steve Caulker from Spurs and Gary Medel from Seville. While Caulker and Medel played at West Ham, Cornelius, a 20-year-old 6ft 4in striker with seven appearances for Denmark, has recovered from injury and should make his debut on Sunday afternoon, perhaps alongside the old man of the team, the one Cardiff player with bags of Premier League experience. At some stage of the season Craig Bellamy is likely to become the first player to score for seven different Premier League clubs. He might not manage it on Sunday against his last club, though given Bellamy has played for a quarter of the sides that make up the Premier League, it would not be an enormous surprise were he to achieve the feat against one of his previous employers.
"Our supporters have deserved better than what they have had over the years, the club and the area have had it tough," Bellamy said. "I'm 34 now, the oldest player in the Cardiff squad, and over the last year I've felt the difference. But being involved with winning promotion last season was incredible, something I will cherish for the rest of my life. This season is going to be special whatever happens."