As Neil Warnock and his players walked around the Cardiff City Stadium pitch to take in the crowds adulation, there was not the usual sense of an ending that comes with relegation.
Lit by early-evening sunshine, the vast majority of fans had stayed behind after the defeat by Crystal Palace not to lament their sides demotion but to celebrate the restoration of a clubs soul.
But whereas their previous stint was marred by division and rancour – including a change from their traditional blue shirts to red that enraged much of the fanbase – this was a campaign defined by unity.
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“When I came to the club, I thought it was broken. Its almost reborn now, look at the fans. Im so proud.”
When Warnock was appointed in 2016, Cardiff were fighting relegation in the Championship and still trying to repair the residual damage of the red rebrand.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek: This is a lad I thought was better off staying at Crystal Palace on loan, playing every week and continuing his international development as a consequence of playing regularly. However the player decided to return to Chelsea – or more to the point, the club insisted he returned.
Owner Vincent Tan took that controversial decision in 2012 and, in their first season wearing red, Cardiff won promotion to the Premier League.
The midfielder was always prepared to run in behind the home defence, causing Granit Xhaka acute embarrassment when he forced the Switzerland international to give away a clumsy penalty. There was a time when Champions League was nailed on the Gunners. Not any more.
Absent from the top flight for 53 years, this should have been a season to savour for the Welsh capitals side but instead it turned into a nightmare.
Some supporters boycotted games in protest against the change, there was infighting among others, and then Tan antagonised the clubs fanbase further by sacking popular manager Malky Mackay.
“The kit change created a civil war among the fans,” says Keith Morgan, chairman of Cardiff City Supporters Trust.
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“It was a very fragmented club the last time we went up, which was a shame and it spoilt the atmosphere.”
Relegation was inevitable and, back in the Championship without a proportion of floating fans lured by Premier League football, crowds dwindled and apathy reigned.
“It was heart-breaking [in red]. I had a club I couldnt follow,” says Sian Branson, who was a part of the Bluebirds Unite group which helped convince Tan to reverse the rebrand.
“This time weve actually been able to enjoy being in the Premier League, watching us wearing blue, promoting the bluebird.
The only issue for Arsenal boss Emery could be that he is expected to be handed a limited budget by the Emirates board, and buying Premier League traditionally carries a higher premium.
That sentiment was prevalent after the final whistle on Saturday, as the Cardiff City Stadium crowd defiantly cried that they would “be there” next season.
Having also chanted “theres only one Neil Warnock”, the fans made clear who they believed deserved credit for pulling this once divided club back together.
When he arrived in 2016, the man who opposition fans love to cast as the pantomime villain described Cardiff as his ideal club and that their fans were “my kind of people”. It seems the feeling is mutual.
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“I want to say thank you to Neil Warnocks wife Sharon, after all shes been through, to convince him to take this job. And I want to say thank you to Neil Warnock. Hes the epitome of what our club is all about.”
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Warnock, who is under contract until 2020, admitted after the Palace defeat he had “no idea” if he would still be in charge of Cardiff next season.
The points would be wrapped up in the second half, with Andros Townsend scoring the winner for Palace and condemning Cardiff to relegation.
He was more ambivalent about his future than he had been previously and, even if this proves to be his final season, the 70-year-old will leave a meaningful legacy.
“Thats what I would take from my time here, whenever I leave, would be how proud I was to give them their club back,” says Warnock.
“You dont get any bickering now, any infighting. Its lovely when you see everyone pulling in the same direction.
“And its not easy managing Cardiff City, let me tell you that. Its as difficult a job as Ive ever had. But Ive really enjoyed the challenge.”
The 70-year-old manager says he has another season in him but it may have to be elsewhere despite almost keeping up a side that had plenty of grit but significant limitations
It was so difficult, there is no point saying it wasnt. At my age and in my 40th year in management, you have come up against most things, but this was something completely out of the blue.
The answer is not as straightforward as some imagined it would be. Warnock has another season of management in him but, as his comments after the 3-2 home defeat by Crystal Palace on Saturday illustrated, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that he will be spending it with Cardiff. I have no idea, replied the manager when asked whether he would stay.
Read more That has nothing to do with how Warnock feels about the club where he has formed such a strong bond with the supporters over the past three seasons, but is more a sign of tensions behind the scenes and a clear sense that the relationship with Vincent Tan, Cardiffs owner, is not without difficulties. What Tan wants from Cardiffs players at times, and what Warnock feels they are able to deliver, have been two different things.
His season-long loan from parent club Arsenal will end this summer, but it seems unlikely that he will be afforded a first team spot in Unai Emerys soon-to-be revamped defence. However, Chambers experience and versatility could be a useful option for another side further down the table.
It is not to say that Tan, or pretty much anyone else at Cardiff for that matter, believes Warnock should have kept them up this season. Given that Cardiff were punching well above their weight when they won promotion 12 months ago, the fact that they landed enough blows in the Premier League still to be within a chance of surviving come the penultimate weekend of the season was an achievement in itself.
Yet their limitations – and Warnock acknowledged this – were evident in the defeat by Palace that condemned them to an immediate return to the Championship. Grit, determination and spirit go a long way in this game – but only so far at the highest level. Wasteful in front of goal and defensively naive, Cardiff lacked that little bit of quality, according to the manager himself.
The truth is that Cardiff have spent this season playing Premier League football with a Championship squad. Indeed, it seems remarkable to think seven of the players who started in Warnocks first game as Cardiff manager, way back in October 2016 and at a time when the club were second from bottom in the Championship and worried about slipping into League One, have been regulars this season and made close to 200 Premier League appearances between them.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Aron Gunnarsson cuts a dejected figure following Cardiff Citys relegation after losing at home to Crystal Palace. Photograph: Kieran McManus/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock Without significant investment last summer, relegation was inevitable. Cardiff spent conservatively and maybe that is no bad thing bearing in mind that Fulham were relegated after splurging £100m. There will also be no need for a major overhaul this summer. Cardiffs biggest outlays – about £21m in total – went on Bobby Reid and Josh Murphy, two players signed from Championship clubs.
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Murphy has shown flashes of real promise on the flank but lacked consistency, while Reid has arguably been under-used, with Warnock admitting that the former Bristol City striker can count himself unfortunate to have spent so much time on the bench because of the form of Victor Camarasa, who arrived on loan from Real Betis and brought a touch of class to a workmanlike team. There is an argument that Warnock could have tried harder to accommodate the two of them in the same side.
What can be said with absolute certainty is that Cardiffs biggest weakness this season has been the absence of a proven goalscorer. Warnock thought he had found a solution to that problem when he travelled to France on 6 December to watch a rugged and experienced striker score a bullet-header for Nantes against Marseille. The players name was Emiliano Sala.
1:10 A loss to everyone in football: Neil Warnock leads tributes to Emiliano Sala – video The rest of the story is well-documented and heartbreakingly sad. Sala, a 28-year-old Argentinian, was on board a plane that went missing over the Channel on the night of 21 January, only 48 hours after Cardiff had announced that he had become their club-record signing. His body was recovered 16 days later though the pilot, David Ibbotson, is still missing.
The impact that horrendous episode had on Cardiffs relegation is hard to quantify and, of course, hardly of great significance in the context of families losing their sons. What we do know from a football point of view is that Warnock gave serious consideration to walking away from management in the days and weeks afterwards, and that Cardiff never came close to finding an alternative to Sala. Oumar Niasse, who joined on loan from Everton, has made 13 appearances for Cardiff and is still waiting for his first goal.
In the aftermath of relegation, Warnock reiterated his belief that Sala would have scored the 10 goals to keep us up. Looking at the table, and some of Cardiffs results, four or five goals from him could well have made all the difference. Either way, there is a far more important point to all of this and Warnock made it succinctly when he spoke about the need for a sense of perspective on Saturday evening. Weve got relegated, he said. The lad lost his life.
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By Warnocks own admission, this has been his toughest season in a managerial career spanning four decades, yet he also said that the drive and hunger is still there to have a year somewhere come August. It was an interesting choice of words and leaves his future as Cardiff manager hanging in the balance.