Cardiff City’s players were very much in the spotlight on Sunday as they sealed a stunning Premier League return.
This was a day of celebration: from the pre-match media scrutiny, to the pressure of the game against Reading, to the post-match celebrations in front of a boisterous Cardiff City Stadium crowd.
But what was also happening behind the scenes on perhaps the greatest day in the club’s history?
This is the incredible 24-hour story of the Bluebirds’ very own super Sunday…
SUNDAY MORNING, 7am – The day begins
Cardiff fans everywhere are stirring themselves following a night where sleep for some didn’t come easy, pre-match nerves kicking in like never before.
In his blue suit, white shirt and Cardiff City tie, chief executive Ken Choo is the first person to arrive at the ground — he was also to be among the last to leave — and heads to his office to get this special day rolling.
Bluebirds owner Vincent Tan arrives shortly afterwards and the two men hold a meeting to discuss a variety of matters.
They have a superstition not to take anything for granted. As such, Tan barred talk of promotion to the Premier League since the win over Hull and wants everyone at the club to work to a ‘business as usual’ mantra.
But suddenly his Bluebirds are just a handful of hours away from the dream and Tan is upbeat at the thought of what is ahead.
After going through some figures with Choo, Tan is driven back to a nearby hotel to breakfast, rest and change into a suit with blue Cardiff shirt on top. He returns a couple of hours after to meet and greet in the Chairman’s Suite on level two.
When over here from Malaysia, Tan is a very hands-on owner. But he doesn’t head down to the dressing room before the game, leaving everything to Neil Warnock and his players.
9.30am – A sleepless Warnock arrives
The big man has arrived. Warnock and his No.2 Kevin Blackwell turn into the car park in separate cars almost simultaneously. Warnock has kept this quiet, but he has barely slept a wink this week.
The tension has even got to this most seasoned of managers, although Warnock does a superb job of hiding it from his players and the Cardiff public.
Despite the lack of sleep, Warnock is bright and breezy — and has prepared in his mind a tub-thumping pre-match message for his players.
10.30-10.45am – The players check in
The players begin arriving in their cars. They have had breakfast at home in preparation for the lunchtime kick-off and make their own way to the ground. Far more fans than normal are hanging around at this time and the inevitable clamour for selfies and autographs begins.
As always, the players are accommodating, realising it is part of the reconnect between club and fans.
They head through the main entrance, turn right towards the dressing room and the pre-match banter begins. As usual, it is skipper Sean Morrison who helps lighten spirits, although Callum Paterson tells a good joke, too.
11am – Fans are buzzing
A party atmosphere is well and truly underway around the streets of nearby Canton, with fans singing, dancing, eating, drinking and blue everywhere.
Three Cardiff stars from yesterday, Kevin McNaughton, Stephen McPhail and 2003 play-off winner Andy Campbell arrive at the stadium as guests of honour. They are to be paraded around the ground just before kick-off to help whip up the crowd into a frenzy.
Two other former Bluebirds, the great Nathan Blake and Danny Gabbidon, are in the media section doing work for radio.
11.50am – It’s a beautiful day
The ground is nine-tenths empty as Cardiff’s players run out into the sunshine for their pre-match warm-up. The rapturous cheer that greets them from those Bluebirds fans inside reverberates around the stadium.
This is the moment when you just know it is going to be an ultra-special day. The best, in fact.
12.15pm – Ground is packed
There is still quarter of an hour to go to kick-off, but Cardiff City Stadium has pretty much filled up in no time. Normally, thousands filter into their seats in the final 10 minutes or so before a game.
Not today. Fans have taken their places early and the ground looks a million dollars. Full to the brim, bathed in sunshine. How can the Cardiff players not be lifted by this?
12.20pm – Warnock’s team talk
Deep inside the confines and privacy of the dressing room, Warnock uses his final pre-match rousing words of the season.
If these are not the exact words, it’s along the lines of: “Whatever happens today, we’ve had a fabulous season. No-one expected us to even get into the play-offs, but we’ve got there at least. One more win and we’re up — proving everybody wrong.
“Let’s focus on ourselves. I’m just so proud of every one of you — go out and enjoy it, play with a smile.”
Cardiff City Promoted 2018
12.30pm – Kick off
Cardiff versus Reading kicks-off and Sol Bamba immediately indicates the Bluebirds’ intentions with a thundering aerial challenge which demonstrates the ‘there’s no way we will lose this one’ dressing room mentality. It’s game on.
12.45pm – Get in there, Birmingham!
A sudden cheer starts at the Canton End and in no time spreads to four corners of the stadium. Fans with goal alerts on their mobiles realise Lukas Jutkiewicz has just put Birmingham in front against Fulham.
The news is greeted with as much joy as any goal the Bluebirds have scored at home this season. Down on the pitch the players keep their concentration, but they know what has happened.
‘One-nil to the Birmingham’, sing delirious Bluebirds supporters.
1.10pm – And again you Birmingham beauties!
Cardiff have squandered a couple of golden opportunities, but it doesn’t matter. That cheer, again emanating from the Canton End, suddenly sweeps around the stadium once more.
It is almost surreal. Nothing is happening down on the pitch, but the mobile alerts have gone off.
This time Harlee Dean has scored for Birmingham. His strike was probably cheered more loudly at Cardiff City Stadium than it was at St Andrews… the Bluebirds are on the brink.
1.20pm – Half time
Warnock gathers his players in the dressing room again for their half-time pep talk. They take on their liquid refreshers after losing pounds in the sweltering heat.
The manager hasn’t been totally happy by what he saw as a couple of sloppy moments during the first 45 minutes.
But he tells the players: “What I love about you is that when someone makes a mistake, your mate gets you out of it. That’s my kind of team.”
Warnock has also been given an incredible lift by news of the scoreline from Birmingham and just wants his team, feeding off the passion from the fans, to go out there and finish off the the job.
1.30pm – Back underway
The second half kicks off and there is a lovely touch early on in front of the Ninian Stand when Reading skipper Chris Gunter goes over to take a throw-in. Responding to calls from the home fans he does the Ayatollah. Gunter has clearly never forgotten his Cardiff roots and, at the end of the game, will have been as delighted as anyone else about the Bluebirds going up.
2.10pm – Allez, Allez, Allez!
With Fulham still trailing 2-0 and Reading offering little threat to the Cardiff goal, confidence grows around the packed stadium.
The Canton Stand is leading the chorus with a chant inspired by Liverpool supporters on their European travels this season, to the tune of Elton John’s ‘Crocodile Rock’. It would become the soundtrack to the day.
“We’re the famous Cardiff City
“We come from Sloper Road
“Talk about the Welsh Cup, we’ve won it loads
“We beat Real Madrid, we’ve won the FA Cup
“And still they don’t believe us, the Blues are going up
“Allez allez allez…”
2.29pm – Take that, Fulham
Cardiff have pressed and probed, but clearly nerves have kicked in and chances have been snatched at by the strikers. By this stage Tom Cairney had pulled a goal back for Fulham and there is a nervy ending to proceedings for the fans, too.
Fulham, like Cardiff, specialise in goals in the closing moments — what if they suddenly grab another two?
Then, that special cheer goes up again. This time Che Adams had scored a third for Birmingham. Cardiff’s game wasn’t over, but it was at this point everyone knew they had done it. They really had.
2.30pm – Bluebirds have done it!
The fourth official down on the touchline indicates there are a minimum of four extra minutes to play. Several fans run onto the pitch, believing the game is over, and are jeered by others demanding they return to their seats.
Warnock rushes on himself, waving at the invaders to go back. This is a frantic ending, but the match must be completed.
Realising the game is up, Reading just pass the ball around at the back and Cardiff let them have it.
The final whistle blows… the Bluebirds are up. It’s official.
2.35pm – Riotous celebrations
Thousands upon thousands of fans rush onto the pitch and over to the Grandstand. Some players have got off, others are mobbed… and savour every single second of it.
One of them is Bamba. “I just stayed out there and enjoyed the moment,” he later said.
Owner Tan, who has made his way from Director’s Box to pitchside, is chaired shoulder high.
He can make a million an hour in his various businesses. None of them, none of that money, can give the buzz this can.
Eventually the players make their way through the throngs and into the dressing room where champagne corks start popping.
Scenes of joy are recorded on players’ camera phones and eventually make their way onto social media.
Warnock calls for hush and tells his team how pleased and proud he is of them, before looking ahead to the Premier League.
“This is fabulous. I can’t have asked any more of you. Have a good summer, study the fixtures when they come out — but don’t get in awe of them. You take the top six out and anybody can beat anybody on their day up there — including us.”
3pm – We’re not going anywhere
Back outside, the fans continue celebrating and singing their songs. The intention is to clear them off the pitch so the players can come back out for an EFL trophy presentation and lap of honour.
No chance. The supporters are going nowhere. Instead, the players make their way up to the directors’ box where the presentation takes place.
Cue sheer delirium and unbridled joy. Every time a player lifts the trophy, awarded to them as Championship runners-up, a rapturous cheer goes up.
Warnock does his famous fist salute. “I have never seen or heard fans like this,” he says.
Coming from a man who has spent 50 years in football that is one strong statement.
3.15pm – Warnock’s press conference interrupted
Big grin still across his face, Warnock comes back downstairs to hold his customary post-match press conference. He reflects upon an “incredible feat” and delivers an upbeat message about the Bluebirds’ prospects in the Premier League. The question and answer session is momentarily interrupted by a phone call the way from Australia… Warnock’s daughter Natalie sending her own congratulations!
“I’m in the middle of a Press conference darling, I will talk to you afterwards,” he says.
The assembled media laugh. As usual, Warnock has them eating out of his hand.
4pm – Bamba and the trophy
Neil Etheridge and Bamba, promotion medals dangling around their necks, are also brought in to chat to the press, with Bamba bringing the trophy with him — “I can’t get away from it!”
The players head back into the dressing room. Chanting and music is heard. It’s going to be a hard job prising this lot away from Cardiff City Stadium, as fans gradually drift away themselves.
4.30pm – Time to head home
The CCS pitch is strewn with litter as the ground finally empties. The players have still to attend the Player of the Year awards ceremony that night, so can’t have too much to drink at this stage.
Some of them, including Junior Hoilett and Joe Bennett, start to make their way home to get ready for the evening ahead.
Others stay at the ground, shooting the breeze, sharing the magical memories and get dressed into their suit and black tie evening attire inside the dressing room.
Taxis are hired to take them across town to the function.
6.30pm – The evening begins
The players, suited and booted, begin arriving at the Mercure Hotel on Newport Road in preparation for the club’s end of season awards night. They enjoy a private function in the upstairs Caerleon Suite.
Some, like Sean Morrison, give interviews to TV stations outside the hotel, as other guests start to arrive.
Neil Warnock, his wife Sharon and their children James, William and Amy are in situ too.
Warnock and Tan are given standing ovations as they enter the function room, which is packed to the rafters with players, their wives and girlfriends, members of supporters clubs and other members of club staff.
Everyone takes their seats and the awards night gets underway with speeches from Tan, chairman Mehmet Dalman and chief executive Ken Choo. The first few awards are handed out.
After a break for dinner, with drinks flowing, Callum Paterson claims the young player of the year prize, while Junior Hoilett is named players’ player of the season.
Another break for dessert before the evening winds up with Morrison being presented — by an emotional Warnock — with the player of the season prize. Captain and manager give speeches as the formal evening comes to an end.
Warnock’s is a particularly special address as he picks out every single one of his Cardiff players and pays tribute to them.
Next it’s to town, as the party continues.
MONDAY MORNING, 12.01am – The players’ party, Warnock takes the trophy home
It’s been a day of celebrations and they go well into the following morning, too.
The Bluebirds players hired out a private back room in Tiger Tiger, in the city centre, to continue the jubilation and got taxis across from the Mercure Hotel.
However, by this point Warnock has chosen to call it a night. He clutches hold of the trophy and takes it home with him, fearing it might otherwise get lost.
Elsewhere, Morrison and Bamba are at the centre of the festivities as the players dance the night away. Even Bluebirds legend Kev McNaughton is there to celebrate with the players.
Some players start to drift home as a never-to-be-forgotten day, comes to a conclusion. Some stay out a little longer to enjoy the night as long as they can.
7am – Morning after the night before
Ken Choo’s mobile goes off. It is Vincent Tan and he wants to have a meeting… to discuss the Premier League.
The two men get together at Cardiff City Stadium — just over 24 hours after their pre-Reading discussion — and this time they can talk about next season without fear jinxing it.
Cardiff were only promoted a day earlier, but already the hard work has begun for Choo as behind the scenes work begins for the 2018-19 campaign in the top flight.
It’s not just about Warnock signing new players. Premier League officials have arranged to visit Cardiff City Stadium to discuss the set up for TV, lighting in the stadium, a range of other commercial issues.
“I should be on holiday in the Bahamas, but the hard work continues,” smiles Choo.
“We will work our socks off, but it’s fantastic. Our message is that while this is brilliant for the club and the fans, Premier League football will help light up the capital city of Wales and benefit business.
“We want everybody in the community to benefit from this success, for the spill over to reach far and wide. Which it will.”
Perhaps the most magical 24-hour period in Cardiff City’s 119-year history is over.
If Warnock and the Bluebirds’ hierarchy have their way, the best is yet to come!
Will Cardiff City stay in the Premier League next season?
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