Graham ‘Kav’ Kavanagh became a cult hero at Ninian Park between 2001 and 2005, leading the club to promotion from the third tier via a memorable playoff final against QPR at the Millennium Stadium.
The club legend still holds City close to his heart, so we simply had to talk to the man himself to find out just what happened behind the scenes under Sam Hammam, what that FA Cup game against Leeds United was like to play in and what he’s up to now – you won’t like that last bit though…
Graham, thanks for talking to VFTN. Let’s go back to the start of your time at Cardiff City. You’d just left Stoke City in a big £1 million move – what was it like signing for Sam Hammam at the beginning of his eventful reign?
Brilliant! Sam made it clear the day after the season ended that he wanted to sign me and we had discussions pretty quickly after that. He basically said he wanted me to lead the team on the pitch, prioritising promotion straight away and the Premier League within four years.
Considering that he had done so well at Wimbledon with a small club, the potential for Cardiff City was very evident, so I wanted to sign.
Also he said to me that he expected me to get back in the Ireland team so I was looking forward to the challenge and to be leading the team while also trying to help the younger players who had so much potential. ie. Gabbidon, Earnshaw, Collins, Weston and so on.
He certainly sold you the vision didn’t he? Was it as crazy as it seemed to us on the outside to be playing for a club run by someone like Hammam?
It’s fair to say that he was different in every way from every other chairman I’d had, but don’t forget, he was extremely knowledgeable about Cardiff, the people, the fans, the passion they showed and the potential behind the whole project.
Sometimes, he’d come to training and try to join in for fun in races for money, but that was just his way of creating a bond and togetherness amongst a group of players who would challenge, making sure they feel proud to represent the jersey and the fans.
I can honestly say I never saw what was to come in terms of finances – though having spoken to Lennie Lawrence since that time, if we hadn’t beaten QPR in the playoff final, the financial problems would have happened a lot earlier than they did.
Let’s talk about that time then when it all started to go wrong, was it a surprise to find out that you were being sold by the club and how did you find out?
Well, for me it was quite simple. We normally got paid on a Monday; this didn’t happen, so as club captain I went to talk to the club secretary to see when the lads would be paid. I was told that there was nothing to worry about, that everything was fine and we would be paid later that day. That didn’t happen.
The following day I came into training and was told an investor had come in to pay the wages and everything was fine. I finished training and went home as normal. Later that day, I received a telephone call to say the investor had pulled out and I was to be sold immediately – and if I didn’t agree to leave, the club would go into administration straight away!
The very next morning I was on a helicopter flying to Wigan Athletic to sign for them.
So the reports of you leaving the club in tears to fly to Wigan Athletic by helicopter were true?
Yes, I was devastated; I genuinely thought I would retire there as Cardiff City was in my blood after four- and-a-half years.
My wife and kids loved living in Cardiff but I guess that’s how quickly things change in football.
There were tears from all of us involved and it was clear that the club didn’t want me to leave, but I had no choice, I had to leave there and then for the sake of the immediate future of the club.
What games and memories stand out from your time at the Bluebirds? The play-off final and the Leeds United FA Cup game are two of the more famous ones but what were they like to play in?
Both of those you mention were unbelievable games for very different reasons.
Beating QPR in the Millennium Stadium was absolutely incredible but there was so much tension throughout the club because of what was at stake – little did we realise that the financial stakes were high too.
To lift the trophy in front of our fans on that day is hard to describe. One word would be amazing. It was a great day because we won; I dread to think of what it would’ve been like had we lost that game.
What were you all thinking going into the Leeds United cup game, had you all watched them beat West Ham on Sky the week before and did you all go out after the game to celebrate?
The Leeds game was different to the playoff final in the sense that we could enjoy playing them with nothing to lose, from memory they were the Premier League leaders at the time. Everyone knew they needed to be on their game to stand a chance of winning but I’ve read Rio Ferdinand say it was the most intimidating atmosphere he’s ever played in.
Considering he’s played all over the world and played in Turkey; that gives you an idea of what the atmosphere was like on the pitch.
I watched Leeds beat West Ham on my own at home as did all the lads, there was loads of adrenaline and excitement in the group to test ourselves as such a strong team.
A lot of the younger lads hadn’t played against that level of opposition but what the younger ones did have in abundance was a belief in themselves, which to be fair to them, they went on to show.
The dressing room was great after the match; it would be fair to say that there were certainly a few beers drunk that night.
Moving on to the current Cardiff City FC team and management, how do you view them and are there any players you’ve been particularly impressed by?
I have been impressed by Kenneth Zohore, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Junior Hoilett and Joe Bennett; I think they would have made our team better.
Regarding the style of play, it’s not the style of football I personally like as it can often miss out the midfield so I’d have probably been frustrated by it. However it is effective, especially in the Championship, and when you have the frontline that Cardiff City have, which is full of pace and power.
Hats off to Neil Warnock and his staff who’ve done a great job with a smaller budget than most sides in the league; what a tremendous achievement for Cardiff City and I genuinely wish them all the very best this coming season.
You mentioned Kenneth Zohore but surely not ahead of Peter Thorne?
Zohore could start on the bench!
So what are you doing now and what are your plans for the future?
I’m scouting for Bristol City Football Club, which I realise, won’t go down too well with the Bluebirds. I’m currently doing it primarily in the North East so I’m glad to still be involved in the game although eventually I would like to get back into coaching a side at a competitive level.
Not Bristol City, Kav?!
Well I scored against them enough when I played against them so I’m just helping them get over that now!
Fair enough. How have you adjusted to life after hanging up your boots in 2011?
It’s been strange at times but I box every day, which keeps me fit, and I love it. I’m able to play golf whenever I want as well but nothing beats playing football.
Coaching and managing is the next best thing but we’ll see what the future holds!