View From the Ninian caught up with Dave Jones recently to discuss the three Wembley games he oversaw; Barnsley, Portsmouth and Blackpool. Part one is below, with part two to come tomorrow.
When you took over Cardiff, I imagine leading Cardiff to Wembley for the first time in 81 years was a long way from your thoughts.
When I took over the club, the priority was survival rather than promotion, so it was staying in the division, having nearly gone down the year before. Nobody was thinking about promotion with the players we had, but the players we started bringing in all had a point to prove. We tried to sell them the dream of what the club could be, with the new stadium and training ground. They all bought in to that.
You always seemed to take the cup competitions seriously, when some see them as an inconvenience. Presumably Cardiff’s priority was promotion, so what was the appeal of the cup and how could you justify treating it as seriously as you did?
I’ve never understood passing up on the opportunity of getting to Wembley and playing in a cup final. I think it’s important that you play every game like it’s the last game you’ll ever play and that’s the mentality we always had. There are few clubs that may be focused on playing in Europe, but why wouldn’t everyone else take it seriously?
Do you think Cardiff had a kind draw the year they made the final?
I wouldn’t regard it as a kind draw. You have to beat what is in front of you, so I would disagree with that. Plenty of teams have thought they were facing a weaker side and come a cropper. Nobody did us any favours. I wish they had because we might have won it! We worked our socks off to get to the final, but unfortunately we lost by the single goal.
Cardiff were favourites for the semi-final against Barnsley. What is it like approaching a game of that magnitude when you are expecting to win? We spoke to Stephen McPhail recently and he described the game as the “most tense, pressure-filled game” of his career.
I think because we were playing Barnsley, it was seen as that we were playing the easiest side in the draw, but I’m sure Barnsley probably thought the same thing. We tried to approach every game with full concentration. I don’t think the pressure was because we were expected to beat Barnsley, it was because we wanted to get to a cup final. I remember their lad (Kayode Odejayi) missed a golden opportunity to equalise, so it was a tense game and I think everyone was relieved to win it.
Having made it through to the final, was it hard to maintain a focus on the league in the interim?
I think it was difficult for the players to concentrate knowing that we had a cup final coming. It was hard trying to keep them going and keep them on an even keel. It did take a little bit away from them because no one wants to get injured and miss such a big day, but you would have to ask them. For me, every game I’ve ever played in my life needed to be won, that’s the way I was brought up and it was always drummed in to me that every game is the same. You have to give your best.
What was the build up like to that game and how did you approach it? Was it a case of hyping the players up, or trying to keep them calm?
We tried to keep everything as normal as possible, which is difficult because you have to do stuff for TV, radio and sponsors. You have to go and get measured for suits. I think the more big games you play, the more that wears off and it becomes the norm.
I wanted to ask about your selection for the final. Was Robbie Fowler ever in the running to feature? He was a big signing for the club and a big game player, but struggled with injuries and fitness. Were you tempted to pick him for the bench?
You have to go with those that are fully fit and if Robbie was fit, he would have been playing or on the bench. He had been out a while and if a player gets injured after five minutes, you’re bringing on someone that had hardly trained. Only a few days. It was a big decision, but the sort you have to make as a manager with your staff. I think if you asked Robbie, he would tell you that he wasn’t ready to play in a cup final.
Do you think Robbie not getting selected contributed to him leaving the club the following summer?
I don’t think it was because of that. Everyone thinks they know what goes on at football clubs, but in all honesty, they don’t. It’s all tittle-tattle. Robbie had to think about not just his playing career, but also the rest of his life. He had injuries that should have been sorted when he was 21, not at the age he was at the time. The problem was his hip and he needed a minor operation and we managed to resolve the problems that should have been fixed 10 years earlier.
One player that did make the bench was Aaron Ramsey. Was he ever a consideration to start, or was it too big an ask for a player of his age? Was the plan always to give him 30 minutes, or did you ever consider giving him an hour instead? It has gone on to become a what if moment for Cardiff fans.
He played in the cup games, but he was such a young player and sometimes you can do them more harm than good. All of a sudden he was playing games and did well, but the decision got made on the day and I put out what I thought was the best team. I think because of the career that he’s had, everyone thinks that he could have affected the game. He was on the first rung of the ladder. I think it was right to put him on the bench and so did my coaching staff. If we had won the game, no one would have questioned it. If I had picked him and we had lost, people would have questioned why I didn’t play a more experienced player.