By Paul Jones
Mick McCarthy has declared his first month in charge of Cardiff City as the best fresh start he has ever enjoyed in his career.
The Bluebirds boss remains unbeaten after seeing his side thrash Preston 4-0 at home to move within three points of the Championship play-off places.
It was McCarthy’s fifth successive win and another away victory at Bournemouth next Wednesday could see them replace the managerless Cherries in the top six.
That would complete an incredible transformation under McCarthy whose team were in danger of getting involved in a relegation scrap when he replaced the sacked Neil Harris.
The former Republic of Ireland manager said: “Seven games unbeaten, five wins – it’s the best start I’ve ever had, let me tell you!
“When I came in I looked at the squad and thought we could get a good team together, that we could get a tune out of these guys.
“I think it would have been beyond my wildest dreams or expectations to draw the first two and win the next five.
“But there’s been no silver bullet here. The players have done all the hard work, the grafting, and credit to the players.”
“Are the play-offs, possible now? Yes, a top six finish is possible if we keep winning games. I keep saying, it’s much better that people are asking about the play-offs than when we were down the other end and people were asking about other clubs pecking away at our backsides.
“But at soon as start thinking about it, then you let your guard down and we don’t want that to happen.”
Kieffer Moore’s early penalty and second-half strikes from Josh Murphy, Marlon Pack and substitute Mark Harris earned the Bluebirds a convincing win to leave them three points behind Bournemouth.
Cardiff goalkeeper Dillon Phillips crucially saved two penalties in two minutes to deny the visitors a route back into the game and condemn them to a fourth defeat in five matches.
McCarthy believes his caring approach has been the key to Murphy rediscovering his form.
The Bluebirds forward played a key role in the Bluebirds’ fifth straight victory, with his second goal in three matches helping to see off Preston.
His goal came 39 seconds into the second half after Moore’s early penalty., but it was the winger’s all-round contribution that was just as significant.
Murphy has been a central figure for McCarthy, after playing a bit-part role under previous boss Neil Harris, as Cardiff have surged to within three points of the playoff places.
“I put my arm around him to start with, I felt he needed a bit of loving to be quite honest,” he said.
“He was a £12million player, you don’t become that and then something that’s a bit-part player and can’t play.
“And, do you know what? He has bought into every single thing I have asked of him and tried to help him with. And I’m glad he’s reaping the rewards, he’s a lovely kid.
Cardiff City have been in scintillating form since Mick McCarthy became manager 🔥
➖ 1-1 v Millwall
✅ 0-2 v Bristol City
✅ 1-2 v Rotherham
✅ 3-1 v Coventry
✅ 0-2 v Luton
✅ 4-0 v Preston
— The Pulse of Football (@PulseofFootball) February 20, 2021
Preston’s fourth defeat in five matches leaves them 10 points adrift of the playoff places, and manager Alex Neil lamented their error-strewn performance.
Jordan Storey conceded the early spot-kick, Ben Whiteman was caught in possession by Harry Wilson for Murphy’s goal and Paul Gallagher and Ched Evans had penalties saved by Phillips within two minutes of each other before a pair of Liam Lindsay errors saw Cardiff make it four.
“It was bizarre,” Neil said. “We conceded a penalty in the first minute after trying to play short in our own bottom channel and gave away a throw-in, so we gave ourselves a mountain to climb.
“And then to give a goal away within the first 30 seconds of the second half was just incredible, it was naivety on a ridiculous scale.
“Then at 2-0 we gave ourselves an opportunity that we missed and then another one that we missed, which really summed it up.
“The game finished 4-0 but it didn’t feel like a 4-0, not in a million years. I’ve been involved in them where one team is very dominant, but we caused our own problems.
“If you make those mistakes at this level then you won’t give yourself an opportunity to get anything from the game.
“It’s a harsh lesson and a sore one to take, but we’ve only got ourselves to blame.”
Only 56 seconds had elapsed when Jordan Storey made contact with Sean Morrison instead of the ball with an attempted clearance, and referee Jeremy Simpson pointed to the spot.
Moore stepped up to take the penalty and found the top corner to give Cardiff a second-minute lead with his 14th league goal of the season.
McCarthy’s men began the second half in the same vein as the first as they struck quickly again to put the game beyond the Lilywhites.
Harry Wilson sprung to life after the restart to win the ball from Ben Whiteman before driving toward goal and finding the run of Murphy.
The forward, who had found game-time hard to come by under Neil Harris, rewarded his new manager’s faith by taking the ball away from Storey and finding the bottom corner after just 39 seconds of the second half.
Neil’s side had two golden opportunities to get themselves back in the game, but Phillips made himself the hero by saving two penalties in two minutes.
The first came when substitute Anthony Gordon went down in the box after colliding with Wilson, but Phillips dived to his right to keep Paul Gallagher’s kick out.
The penalty-taker raced to recover the rebound only to be hacked down by Aden Flint, who fumed as Simpson awarded his third penalty of the afternoon.
Ched Evans this time took responsibility, but the end result was the same as Phillips made another reaction save.
‘Naivety on a ridiculous scale’ – Preston North End boss Alex Neil reacts to the heavy defeat to Cardiff City https://t.co/CcbsQR5sV0
— Lancashire Post (@leponline) February 20, 2021
And Cardiff made them pay as they went down the other end in the 71st minute to wrap up their fourth straight win.
Sheyi Ojo pounced on a mix-up between keeper Daniel Iversen and Liam Lindsay and crossed for Moore, who had his header saved by Iversen but the Preston keeper was powerless to stop Marlon Pack from finding the net with a follow-up.
Lindsay was at fault again seven minutes later when his back-pass was cut out by Harris, who calmly finished to complete the 4-0 rout.