by Olly Allen
In the last two EFL Championship seasons, no team relegated from the Premier League has won promotion back to the top-flight at the first time of asking. Cardiff City will be aiming to break that trend in 2019/20 as they prepare for life back in the second tier.
The Bluebirds fought hard in the Premier League but ultimately relegation was confirmed with one game left – although they ended the campaign with a 2-0 victory against Manchester United that exemplified the team’s togetherness and commitment which they’ll look to carry into this season.
Arrivals and Departures
Arguably the club’s most high-profile signing has been 6ft 5in centre-back Aden Flint from Middlesbrough for around £4 million. The 30-year-old had a difficult season at the Riverside last season, but he became known for being one of the best defenders in the league at previous club Bristol City. Not only was he an imposing figure at the back, but his eight goals in 2017/18 represented an excellent return for someone of his position. With Bruno Ecuele Manga having departed for French side Dijon and Sol Bamba missing the start of the season through injury, Flint will slot in perfectly alongside captain Sean Morrison, who is also good value for the odd goal or two. Set-pieces could be Cardiff’s strength this season.
For that reason, the signing of Welsh international Will Vaulks also looks to be a good one. A master at dead-ball situations, the 25-year-old stood out despite Rotherham’s relegation last season and it was only a matter of time before a Championship side snapped him up. The Bluebirds also beat various teams to the signing of centre-back Curtis Nelson, a former England Under-18 international who was Oxford United captain last season. Goalkeeper Joe Day has arrived too, after four years down the road at Newport County.
In terms of outgoings, this summer saw Arron Gunnarsson and Kadeem Harris end lengthy spells at the club. The pair had been in the Welsh capital for eight and seven years respectively before free transfers to Al-Arabi and Sheffield Wednesday. Meanwhile, Kenneth Zohore has joined West Brom for about £8 million. Although receiving that much money for a striker who only scored 24 goals in 101 games is undoubtedly a good deal, it does leave Cardiff lacking quality upfront.
The wily 70-year-old enters the 40th season of his managerial career seeking his ninth promotion. He thinks he’s in an excellent position to achieve it too, claiming that “this is probably the best Championship team I’ve ever managed”.
There were suggestions that Warnock would step down after relegation, but he found it hard to resist another bite at the Championship cherry and has spoken on many occasions about how much he loves the city of Cardiff. A new face will almost certainly replace him when his contract expires next summer, so this season is a chance for him to end on a high.
Other promotion contenders
The Bluebirds are currently around third favourites with most bookmakers to win promotion, with only Leeds United and Fulham seeing better odds. Marcelo Bielsa sticking around has been a huge boost for The Whites, who pushed the top two of Norwich City and Sheffield United all the way last season before losing in the play-offs. The Cottagers meanwhile have possibly the most potent attack in the league, with new signings Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro joining the prolific Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Elsewhere, Stoke City have recruited well after a difficult first season back in the second tier, and 2019/20 will give Nathan Jones more of a chance to make his mark as a manager. Brentford have also been busy in the transfer market – most notably signing Pontus Jansson from Leeds as they seek promotion in their final year at Griffin Park.
Cardiff’s promotion two years ago was very much unexpected, and their spirit and determination got them over the line against the odds. While those qualities have not disappeared from the side, they will no longer be the plucky underdog, instead facing pressure to succeed. How they cope with that will determine how high they finish.
There is undoubted quality in the side, and the likes of Bobby Reid and Josh Murphy, for whom the step up to the Premier League was perhaps too big, should excel. The majority of the promotion-winning squad from 2017/18 is still intact too.
However, it’s a long, difficult season and part of me questions whether Warnock’s hunger to succeed will still be as strong after relegation and as he nears his retirement. I’d say that the play-offs are a safer bet than automatic promotion for the Bluebirds, but I sense they may even just miss out on the top six too.