Carling Cup semi-final: Malky Mackay has Bluebirds flying high

Cardiff City on Malky's Way! Manager Mackay's magic has Bluebirds flying high

Makly Way: Cardiff boss Malky Mackay has overcome a tricky start

Makly Way: Cardiff boss Malky Mackay has overcome a tricky start

Malky Mackay knew he was facing a challenging first season at Cardiff City when he turned up for work on day one and realised he only had 10 players.

Successive play-off failures under his predecessor Dave Jones had prompted a rethink in Cardiff’s approach to life in the Championship. No more highly-paid loan players, no more egos and no more silly salaries.

‘Initially when I sat there on day one and looked at only 10 players, I thought I needed to do something pretty quickly as I had a game at Upton Park in six weeks,’ said Mackay.

‘Six members of staff and 12 players went out in the summer, and we were left with 10, five of whom hadn’t been playing. Expectation back then was just about assembling a group of players who were willing to work. But we have done okay.’

The Cardiff manager’s summary of his team’s season so far is coated in under-statement.

His hurriedly rebuilt team sit third in the Championship and face Crystal Palace on Tuesday night in the first leg of a Carling Cup semi-final at Selhurst Park. In short, Mackay — taken from Watford in the summer — has done a remarkable job.

Of the 11 players who started last season’s play-off defeat to Reading, eight are no longer at the club and only two started the opening game of the season.

At a club that carries debts thought to be in the region of 40million, Mackay has built his team on a net outlay of less than 100,000.

Loan ranger: Craig Bellamy was one of a number of players on loan at Cardiff

Loan ranger: Craig Bellamy was one of a number of players on loan at Cardiff

Former Wales central defender Kevin Ratcliffe, now an analyst for BBC Radio Wales, said: ‘Last season you looked at Cardiff and saw a collection of individuals. Now you see a team.

‘Dave Jones clearly felt under pressure to get Cardiff promoted and tried to do it a certain way. It almost worked but ultimately he couldn’t quite manage it. Malky has done it completely the other way. The egos have gone for a start and that’s something.’

Seasoned Cardiff-watchers credit Mackay with reconnecting the city with its club. Despite their run to the play-offs last season, Cardiff supporters had, by all accounts, lost some of their affection for a team stacked with loan players.

In losing 4-2 at West Brom in the FA Cup on Saturday, Cardiff made 10 changes to the team that had beaten Reading five days earlier.

Mackay’s selection was a nod to the importance of Tuesday's game and a recent fixture schedule that has left some of his players barely able to train.

Headbreak: Cardiff were dumped out at the playoff stages again last season

Headbreak: Cardiff were dumped out at the playoff stages again last season

Afterwards, Mackay stood in a corridor at the Hawthorns and reflected on the first half of his team’s season, looking ahead to the challenges that remain.

It is hard to believe he is only 39.

‘I am delighted that the group I have thrown together quickly have bought in to my philosophy,’ he said. ‘I have asked the players to park their egos at the door and they’ve come in and worked hard.

‘If you look at the statistics of the best teams in the world — teams like Barcelona — and see how far in distance the front three players cover, that is what hard work is.

Knows the feeling: Mackay enjoyed playoff success as a player with Watford in 2006

Knows the feeling: Mackay enjoyed playoff success as a player with Watford in 2006

‘Without hard work we will always be bit-part players. You have to be prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder and perhaps be open sometimes to new training sessions and new techniques.

‘The ones that are succeeding now are the ones who have embraced it.’

Cardiff’s focus on Tuesday will be on Crystal Palace. Until the day they reach the Premier League, though, the shadow of Swansea will be hard to escape. Their rivals down the M4 have arrived in the top division seemingly on fast-track. Cardiff are taking longer.

‘I am friends with (Swansea boss) Brendan Rodgers,’ said Mackay. ‘We worked together at Watford and still see each other regularly. I am delighted for him.

‘But there is a big rivalry between the two clubs and, of course, I’d love to see a Swansea-Cardiff game in the Premier League. I spent 15 years as a player trying to get out of this division.

‘There is not a 90m pot at the end of it for nothing. Some clubs go mental and throw everything they have at it. But we will do it our way. My way.’