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Sport The Cardiff City star with a big point to prove against Middlesbrough and why it never worked for him under Neil Warnock

16:27  16 july  2020
16:27  16 july  2020 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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Junior Hoilett gave Cardiff City the lead with his sixth goal of the season. Cardiff 's play-off destiny is firmly in their own hands with a trip to Middlesbrough - and former manager Neil Derby recalled goalkeeper Kelle Roos as Ben Hamer paid the price for his weekend error against Brentford, with the

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a man holding a ball: Lee Tomlin had a tough time under Neil Warnock but has since become City's talisman © Getty Images Lee Tomlin had a tough time under Neil Warnock but has since become City's talisman

Lee Tomlin's time at Cardiff City has been one of constant battles.

The playmaker has had to fight for his place, fight for recognition from his manager and fight for fitness. But it's fair to say, in the last eight months, he has probably played the best football of his life.

There are a few factors behind that, of course, one being his impressive weight loss and fitness regime before the start of this season to get him back into top shape. But perhaps the biggest catalyst was the change of manager.

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Since Neil Harris took the reins from Neil Warnock back in November, Tomlin has been a player reborn.

He has been entrusted with that No.10 role, grabbed the shirt with two hands and tried his darnedest not to cede it to anyone else.

As we enter the final two fixtures of the season, the Bluebirds find themselves in sixth place. Tomlin is the club's joint-top scorer with eight goals and he also has nine assists to his name this campaign.

Where would Cardiff be if Tomlin hadn't been afforded the chance to impact the season the way he has? For City fans, that probably doesn't bare thinking about.

But it wasn't all plain sailing up until this point, far from it, in fact.

The SOS transfer and the initial struggle

Our columnist Nathan Blake often says the Lee Tomlin transfer in the summer of 2017 was an SOS signing by Neil Warnock.

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In the summer the six children were moved from the house in New York to a big estate in northern Connecticut. At eighteen, Anson was tall and thick-set, with a clear complexion and a healthy color from the ordered life had led in school.

Cardiff were in desperate need of an injection of creativity in the squad and Warnock identified Tomlin as someone who could bring that in abundance, with sights on promotion to the Premier League brewing.

But that first season, he played more Championship matches on loan for Nottingham Forest in the second half of the season than he did for Cardiff City.

He was at the City Ground when Cardiff won promotion to the Premier League and it would have been a bitter disappointment to him that he couldn't have played a bigger part in that push.

In that top-flight campaign, too, he was deemed surplus to requirements and was sent out on a season-long loan to League One Peterborough.

There were now two whole divisions between where the player was playing and the tier in which his parent club were playing, seemingly a metaphor for how Warnock viewed him in relation to his Premier League stars.

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But everyone knew there was a player in there and Tomlin, upon learning of Cardiff's relegation back down to the Championship, sought to wrestle his way back into contention ahead of this season.

Pre-season, transfer limbo and a change of mindset

Up until this season, Tomlin's chances had been limited under Warnock and he could have been forgiven for seeking a move elsewhere.

City announced they would head on their pre-season tour to the United States, which meant both Tomlin and Gary Madine were left in the UK owing to visa issues.

It all pointed towards the possibility of Tomlin, and fellow outcast Madine, leaving the club, but behind the scenes the player was working harder than ever. He wasn't going to let go of it that easily.

He shred two stone in weight but, more than that, his attitude had changed. City captain Sean Morrison said as much.

"From the start of the season, even before the new manager came in, Tommo’s whole mindset had changed," Morrison said.

"He had worked very hard in the off-season, on himself and his fitness, and as soon as he came in pre-season he hit the ground running and looked like a new man."

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What is the biggest disadvantage of David's current job? As with other organisms that migrate, dragonflies relocate to follow or find needed resources, or in response to environmental changes like cold weather.

While his team-mates might have thought that, Warnock seemed to remain unconvinced.

The start of the campaign and the 'trick up the sleeve'

The first three games of the season, Tomlin was nowhere to be seen. But his commitment never seemed to waiver.

When asked about Tomlin's situation back in August, a source close to the player said to WalesOnline: "Lee is staying to fight to get into the team."

Just a few days later, however, Tomlin would get his chance.

City were hit by something of an injury crisis after that disastrous defeat by Reading early on in the season.

Marlon Pack was forced off in that game and ruled out for up to two months, Callum Paterson's knee ballooned up after the match and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing was struggling massively after a hamstring issue he sustained on the opening day flared up at the Madejski Stadium.

Next up was Huddersfield Town at home in midweek, with the injuries to both Paterson and Mendez-Laing unknown at the time.

When Neil Warnock spoke to WalesOnline the evening before the game, the then Bluebirds boss said he had "a little trick up his sleeve".

That trick, of course, was Tomlin. By hook or by crook, he was handed his opportunity.

He was excellent that night - WalesOnline even named him star man in the player ratings - it meant he was then virtually undroppable.

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The early Bluebirds performances were criticised for a lack of creativity and Tomlin was delighting fans with a white-hot spark.

But there was a problem appearing. Over the next few months, Tomlin played just seven league games, either side of a nasty car crash which kept him sidelined for a couple of matches, and never played a full 90 minutes.

It all felt stop-start. The talent and creativity were there but there was not enough opportunity for him to find his very best form or any consistency.

When Warnock left in November, you couldn't help but wonder what was going through Tomlin's head.

Neil Harris takes over and the beginning of a Tomlin masterclass

Neil Harris then took the reins, pulled Tomlin to one side and told him he was going to be the main man. Notwithstanding the manager's first game in charge, the playmaker started every game when he was available and dazzled.

His chest was puffed and he was brimming with confidence. There was a genuine sense within the stadia that when the ball was at Tomlin's feet, anything was possible.

During Harris' first six games in charge, Tomlin scored three goals and contributed four assists, including that outrageous pass for Robert Glatzel's dramatic equaliser against Leeds United back in December.

Suddenly, he was the main man. He was the player all Cardiff fans had hoped he would become when he walked through the door back in the summer of 2017.

Harris must take some credit, too, for finally allowing the player to work his magic late on in games, when the game was opening up and defences were tiring, and it is then when he was at his most dangerous.

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Tomlin's Warnock dig

It was no coincidence that Tomlin's scorching form coincided with a very positive start to life under Harris. One is left wondering just how Warnock's final few months would have panned out if he had utilised his ace in the pack a little more often.

Tomlin, however, offered a little insight into life under Warnock during a searingly honest press conference back before Christmas.

"For me, deep down, you knew you weren’t getting picked," Tomlin said.

"There was always an excuse against me. That’s fine, everyone has got their own opinions.

"It’s not for me to argue with people, I feel like people listen to the reasons why. Not fit, not this, not that.

"If that’s what people want to believe because that’s what the gaffer said then that’s fine. I know myself, you can’t get unfitter by losing two stone. That’s a fact.

"I’ve worked so hard and now it’s unbelievable."

It was certainly unbelievable. Every time he shot it looked to be going in. Every reverse pass was carving open defences. It was a joy to watch.

The contract extension and his homage to the fans

It is then when murmurs of his soon-to-be-expiring contract began to worry Bluebirds fans. But Cardiff swiftly moved to put that right, with Tomlin penning a two-year extension in the New Year.

"I'm absolutely buzzing to get it done and dusted," said Tomlin.

"The fans stuck by me no matter what and I'm starting to repay them.

"I think that's why I had no intention of going anywhere else, because, for me, they've been unbelievable.

"Every time I start a game and you go out at home it brings a smile and a shiver down my spine. I just want to do well for them as well."

The words struck a chord with City fans, who felt like they had been taken on this rollercoaster of a journey with him and they were over the moon he had committed to be a Bluebird for at least two more years.

Goals against Birmingham City, West Brom and Luton Town followed, with Tomlin showing no signs of slowing down. Was he going to single-handedly drag Cardiff into the play-off spots?

The post-lockdown Championship table that puts Cardiff City and Swansea City above Fulham, West Brom, Nottingham Forest and others

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Lee Tomlin, Neil Harris are posing for a picture: Lee Tomlin signed a new contract extension with the Bluebirds back in January © Cardiff City FC Lee Tomlin signed a new contract extension with the Bluebirds back in January

A seismic injury blow and an unexpected second chance

Harris admitted he tried and failed in a pursuit of at least one player who could provide back-up for Tomlin and it left City bare in that position.

When WalesOnline learned of the extent of Tomlin's injury ahead of their away trip to Stoke City in February, it felt like a hammer blow to City's chances.

He had done his knee while sprinting back 40 yards to defend during a training drill and the subsequent diagnosis was bleak. Out for eight weeks at best, the season at worst.

A feckless performance without him resulted in a 2-0 defeat at the bet365 Stadium, before Nottingham Forest claimed a 1-0 win at Cardiff City Stadium just a few days later.

The Bluebirds were desperately missing that spark and absence was certainly making the hearts grow fonder as fans pined for Tomlin, who had risen to become their talisman.

And now, of course, he is back in action. He started his first match since February in the 2-1 win over Derby County, picking Wayne Rooney's pocket before scoring the winner.

A chance to prove a point

While Tomlin has nothing to prove to Cardiff fans, of course, there will doubtless be a piece of him which wants to show his old boss just what he was missing.

Our columnist Nathan Blake said having Tomlin available and not picking him was like having a million-dollar chip and not cashing it in, which is what Warnock did for the most part.

"I really like that Cardiff midfield, hard-working," Warnock told WalesOnline in an exclusive interview. "And Lee Tomlin in front of them is always likely to get you a goal, isn't he?"

So Warnock knows his threats, of course he does, that was the reason he signed him from Bristol City in the first place.

But Tomlin is now realising his potential at Cardiff City and that is something Warnock, for whatever reason, never truly tapped into.

Harris has poured doubt over whether Tomlin will be fit enough to face Boro this weekend, his fitness issues are described as "complex" and he has had to be managed closely and monitored carefully in recent months.

If there is any way he can be near full fitness, though, there is a sense this fixture, more than most, will be the one Tomlin wants to be out there for.

So often he has been the hero for the thousands of Bluebirds fans up and down the country, this weekend, it might just be something a bit more personal.

The post-lockdown Championship table that puts Cardiff City and Swansea City above Fulham, West Brom, Nottingham Forest and others .
The Bluebirds and the Swans have been in remarkable form since the Championship restartAnd following the 46th and final round of fixtures of the regular season, both Welsh clubs in England's second tier are celebrating reaching the play-offs.

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