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Cardiff's unexpected play-off tale

Championship play-off semi-final - Leicester City v Cardiff City
Venue: Walkers Stadium Date: Sunday, 9 May Kick-off: 1315 BST
Full commentary on BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru, live text commentary online and score updates on BBC Sport website & BBC Radio 5 live. Live on Sky Sports 1

Cardiff City players Jay Bothroyd, Joe Ledley and Chris Burke celebrate a goal
Cardiff City are bidding for their first top-flight promotion for 50 years

By Peter Shuttleworth

Often a sporting team enjoys an inner strength only adversity can fuel - just ask Cardiff City.

The Bluebirds have been one of British football's crisis clubs this season with off-the-field turmoil that could have caused the team, as well as the club, to crash and burn.

Cardiff could have offered excuses aplenty should Dave Jones' team fail in successive Championship play-offs bids after last season's capitulation.

Joe Ledley
Everyone was talking about what was going on off-the-field at the club and not what was happening on it but that created a siege mentality

Cardiff City midfielder Joe Ledley

But as Cardiff's board deal with a £1.9m tax bill, facing a High Court winding-up order and potential extinction, the team prepare for a shot at arguably the club greatest achievement in the Championship play-offs.

Cardiff's financial troubles and self-imposed transfer embargo could not hinder their against-the-odds march into the Championship play-offs showing a sporting siege mentality can overcome the greatest of hardships.

While Cardiff's hierarchy and chairman Peter Ridsdale have fought for the club's sheer existence, the team are fighting for the most lucrative prize in world football.

Cardiff's debt tops £15m yet Premier League promotion and its proposed £90m financial injection would pay those bills and be just the welcome gift for Cardiff's new Malaysian investors as their £6m commitment is set to save the club.

"Qualifying for the play-offs is a great achievement anyway," said Cardiff star Joe Ledley.

"But perhaps it is greater because of the off-the-field distractions that have been going on at the club.

"Everyone was talking about what was going on off the field at the club and not what was happening on it but that created a siege mentality.

"It was us against the world. We've made the play-offs now but the hard work is only just beginning."

Cardiff, who were flirting with non-league relegation just 12 years ago, are bidding for promotion back to the top-flight after a 48-year absence and travel to Leicester City for their play-off semi-final first leg on Sunday.

The Welshmen have qualified for the play-offs after a superb end-of-season unbeaten run of 10 games - including seven victories.

Cardiff had been in play-off zone virtually all season but a tricky January, when their financial plight became clear, had the potential to disrupt their promotion push.

An estimated £3m from advance season ticket sales had been promised to Jones to spend on bolstering Cardiff's squad for their play-off push - but Ridsdale had to go back on his word and spent it repaying debts.

"The fans were on a high when the club was granted £3m to bring in players," lifelong fan Ledley recalled.

"They were dreaming of us bringing in this player and that player - but when it came out that we couldn't buy anyone, it made us stronger as a squad.

"The fans weren't happy but we all believed in ourselves and knew this was the team that has to take the responsibility if we wanted to go up."

The financial concerns are not the only worries at Cardiff City Stadium this season as midfielder Stephen McPhail had to undergo cancer treatment after being diagnosed with stage one MALT lymphoma to put sport's and the club's turmoils into perspective.

"That was real serious stuff," recalled Ledley. "That was life-threatening but the whole club got behind him and brought us together like a family.

"And we couldn't have been happier when he came back and Macca has arguably been our best player since he came back."

Ledley, who headed home their play-off clinching winner at Queen's Park Rangers, perfectly embodies Cardiff's rollercoaster ride from near-extinction to dreaming of playing in the promised land.

Protest banner against Cardiff City chairman Peter Ridsdale
Cardiff fans hold a protest after their 2-1 win over Doncaster in February

The Welsh international midfielder, who is out of contract this summer, was relieved of the Cardiff captaincy at the start of the season because of uncertainty surrounding his future as his contract stalemate continued.

Ledley then became a target for the Bluebirds boo-boys as he faced the wrath of the fans for the first time in his career as his form suffered before undergoing major surgery for the first time as he needed a double hip operation.

The 23-year-old returned early from supposedly season-ending surgery in the Welsh derby to an "emotional" standing ovation before inspiring his beloved club to a stoppage-time win to end their Swansea City hoodoo.

"We were ashamed of what happened the previous season and this season has been tough and a challenge," admitted Ledley.

"I was disappointed to lose the captaincy because as a Cardiff boy it meant a lot to me.

"But the gaffer made the right decision. And this season has showed why you should not sulk and moan, you should work harder and move on because success is worth all of the hard work.

"Getting criticism from the fans affects me more because I'm a local lad and it is not nice because I am one of them. And it's a huge amount of pressure to keep trying to prove people wrong.

"The fans were on my case but I hadn't told them I was carrying the hip injury and playing through the pain - until I told the physios I couldn't take any more."

Ledley returned from double hip surgery in double-quick time two months later and on Easter Saturday, the Cardiff faithful proved absence made his heart grows fonder.

"My parents are lifelong Cardiff fans and they said they had seen nothing like the standing ovation when I came on against Swansea," he said.


"The fans went wild and as a proud Cardiff boy, I had a lump in my throat. It meant a lot, then to help us win was great as we were under huge pressure because Swansea could have completed the first ever Welsh derby double.

"The manner of the win meant more than three points as the emotion and belief was so great, it sparked a momentum which carried us over the line.

"I'd been a zero, then I scored the play-off clinching goal at QPR to be a hero and complete mine and the club's rollercoaster ride this season.

"I have scored in a South Wales derby at Swansea, I scored in at Wembley to earn Cardiff an FA Cup final place against Portsmouth in 2008 and now the QPR one was the icing on the cake."

Cardiff's journey to the Championship play-offs has been a tale of the unexpected. But 2009/10 season may just be a watershed season for Cardiff both on and off the field.

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see also
Cardiff facing final tax deadline
05 May 10 |  South east
Ridsdale to step down at Cardiff
30 Apr 10 |  Cardiff
Ledley's Cardiff Premier ambition
30 Apr 10 |  Cardiff
Premier League in payments threat
30 Apr 10 |  Football
Bothroyd relief at play-off place
19 Apr 10 |  Cardiff
QPR 0-1 Cardiff
17 Apr 10 |  Championship
Cardiff 2-1 Swansea
03 Apr 10 |  Championship
Cardiff given tax bill deadline
10 Mar 10 |  Cardiff
Cardiff fans hold finance protest
30 Jan 10 |  Wales
Cardiff fear Ledley foreign move
08 Jan 10 |  Cardiff
Cardiff crisis ends transfer hope
27 Jan 10 |  Cardiff
Cardiff to face winding up order
08 Jan 10 |  Cardiff
Cardiff see off winding up order
16 Dec 09 |  Cardiff
Cardiff 'settle' with creditors
11 Dec 09 |  Cardiff
Player's drink-drive fine and ban
23 Nov 09 |  South east
McPhail to have cancer treatment
21 Nov 09 |  Cardiff
Ledley hailed Cardiff's 'Gerrard'
28 Aug 09 |  Cardiff
Cardiff's grounds for optimism
06 Aug 09 |  Cardiff
Sheff Wed 1-0 Cardiff
03 May 09 |  Championship
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales

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