Neil Warnock has been the Premier League’s chilled out entertainer, just happy to be enjoying the rarefied atmosphere of life among the elite, but the mask certainly slipped at Gillingham.
Exiting the FA Cup to the League One club was a mere side issue to a very public rage over the failure to sign Nathaniel Clyne, who had opted for Bournemouth rather than Cardiff.
Liverpool, Clyne’s parent club, “lacked class” while the defender was not spared for what Warnock labelled a “disgrace”. Just a single place above the relegation zone,
Cardiff now have only the Premier League to concentrate on and badly need recruits to refresh a squad that has performed above itself but has begun to fray with injuries.
If Warnock is boiling over, then things could be far worse. Huddersfield, who travel to Cardiff on Saturday, did not collect a single point from the seven matches they played in December and have begun 2019 with two defeats, including a 1-0 defeat at Bristol City in the FA Cup.
David Wagner’s team have collected just 10 points and scored just 13 goals in 21 matches. It is a return to suggest that last season’s escape from relegation by four points was an unrepeatable miracle. If Warnock is celebrating victory on Saturday evening, then Huddersfield will be 11 points behind Cardiff, and would be the same distance from Burnley if Sean Dyche’s team manage a home win over Fulham.
That would leave only Newcastle within eight points if Rafa Benitez’s team do not get a result at Chelsea. Last season, Huddersfield benefited from having three clubs implode in Swansea, Stoke and West Brom, but there has been no such luck this season. Instead, Huddersfield’s current total has them careering towards a points total below 20 points and only two clubs have plunged to such depths during this decade.
Portsmouth collected just 19 points in 2009-10 and Aston Villa limped to 17 by the end of the 2015-16 season. Both were on the brink of financial meltdown, where years of neglect had finally tipped the balance towards oblivion but Huddersfield, well-run, progressive and unified, are rather different.
Without wishing to patronise a club with a proud history in the early 20th Century, Huddersfield actually being in the Premier League is a tribute to the work of Wagner and club chairman and old-style civic benefactor Dean Hoyle.
This season, they simply do not have the resources to compete; a glance at their playing staff suggests why. If the Terriers get relegated, then who might be playing Premier League football next season? Danish midfielder Philip Billing and his Aussie partner Aaron Mooy, plus perhaps German defender Christopher Schindler are three that might be on a few lesser lights’ shopping lists, but that is probably where it stops.
With Wagner admitting he may struggle to sign a striker in January, the die already looks cast. “Everybody knows the circumstances we have and that financially we are not at the top,” he said at Bristol, a statement of the facts of his West Yorkshire life.
Beyond being a newly-promoted club, Fulham, just four points above Huddersfield, have no such excuses, having thrown over £100m at their squad. Claudio Ranieri looks to be running out of time to save them when their only victories have come in beating Huddersfield 1-0 on December 29 and a 3-2 win over Southampton on November 24 that served as a brief, new manager, bounce.
Sunday’s defeat at managerless, League Two Oldham was shameful stuff, even if the FA Cup would only have been a hindrance to the relegation battle. It happened at home, in front of supporters who have become understandably impatient and Ranieri turned his guns on the second string he had selected.
“You have an opportunity to prove me wrong and you miss it,” said a manager whose usual indulgent uncle persona has given way to public disquiet with a Frankenstein squad of misfits and egotists. Like Huddersfield and Cardiff, Saturday’s return to Premier League action at Burnley looks a match that Fulham must win or at least cannot afford to lose.
Burnley’s recent revival of three wins in three matches, two of them in the Premier League, has coincided with the return of goalkeepers Tom Heaton and Nick Pope to action to the detriment of Joe Hart. Just when it appeared Dyche’s team would be accompanying Huddersfield and Fulham into the abyss, they have recovered their step, and can do Fulham serious damage with victory on Saturday.
Six-pointer season is here and it is little wonder that the FA Cup took a back seat.
Resting players ended up causing embarrassment for Cardiff, Huddersfield and Fulham and this weekend will prove whether it was worth it.