In a match dubbed ‘Thank You Milan Day’, Sheffield Wednesday were indebted to a striker borrowed from Manchester United for saving them from another Hillsborough disappointment.
For three-quarters of Saturday’s Championship encounter, it seemed Cardiff would ruin Milan Mandaric’s big day.
But Will Keane, on loan from the Red Devils until the end of the season, ensured the Owls avoided a sixth home defeat of the season after coolly smashing in a controversial 75th-minute penalty.
It was not quite the send-off Mandaric deserved or wanted. Wednesday dedicated the front cover of their official matchday programme to Mandaric, and the North Stand joined in the tributes, holding up cards which spelt out ‘Xbana Milan’.
The Serbian-born businessman, who rescued Wednesday from administration just over four years ago, bid farewell to the supporters with an emotional speech before kick-off, having recently agreed to sell the club to Dejphon Chansiri, whose family owns the Thai Union Frozen Group.
In the three minutes and 15 seconds he addressed the crowd, during which his name was chanted around the ground, although there were some boos from the Cardiff faithful, Mandaric admitted he will miss the club but urged fans to trust and back Chansiri in the way as they have him.
As Mandaric, one of the most important figures in the club’s recent history, trudged off the pitch for the final time, the warm reception he received brought a tear to his eye.
Owls head coach Stuart Gray, who once snubbed the chance to work with Mandaric at Portsmouth, said: “Milan’s run the club very well. He got the club promoted.
“He’s a football chairman and there are not many of them left in the game. He has very supportive of the players I’ve wanted to bring in. It was a great reception for him and it was a great opportunity for him to say thank you to them.”
The 76-year-old, who will shortly step down as chairman and director, was visibly moved by reaction as he said his goodbyes.
He later said: “From the bottom of the heart, I would like to thank everyone who has sent me such wonderful messages, letters and cards.
“I would also like to thank my supporters for the last four years. It has been incredible.
“I have had many experiences in my life but the Sheffield Wednesday experience is one I will remember and cherish forever.”
There was a real positive atmosphere around Hillsborough following Mandaric’s emotional speech.
So credit Cardiff for quietening the crowd. They were anything but overawed by the occasion and had every intention of spoiling the party.
Credit also to Kenwyne Jones for keeping his goal celebrations to a minimum after putting Cardiff ahead in the seventh minute. He outjumped Joe Mattock at the back post to steer Scott Malone’s deep delivery beyond Wednesday goalkeeper Keiren Westwood and inside the far post. Jones scored seven goals in as many matches during a loan spell with the Owls over a decade ago. A section of the home supporters even clapped him after he broke the deadlock.
Aside from two Chris Maguire efforts, one of which flashed narrowly off target, Wednesday rarely threatened Cardiff’s backline in the first period. Indeed, Eoin Doyle missed a series of chances on his first start since arriving from Chesterfield as the Owls rode their luck.
Keane said: “It was a tough game. I thought they probably edged it in the first half and it was disappointing and frustrating to concede an early goal, having conceded two sloppy goals against Reading.”
Gray made a tactical change at half-time, bringing on Jose Semedo for Maguire, who will miss the next two matches after collecting his 10th booking of the season. Semedo moved into the middle of the park, with Kieran Lee switching to the right-hand side. Gray took off Maguire partly because feared the Scot would pick up a second yellow card.
He said: “There were a few home truths at half-time. We just couldn’t get going in.
“It was a case of telling the players to stand up and be counted for. Cardiff have got some big lads but I told them not to get bullied.”
Eighteen seconds after the re-start, Stevie May should have levelled things up after racing on to a long ball but the Scotland international fluffed the chance, striking Simon Moore’s right-hand upright. Confidence is a precious commodity in sport and May could do with finding the back of the net again to restore his self-belief.
“As soon as the ball left his foot, I’m thinking it’s in,” said Gray. “It was a clever run to get in behind the centre-back.
“Stevie is just not getting the breaks. He’s not getting that bit of luck but I can’t fault his effort and commitment. He’s not going to sulk. He’s got to his head up and carry on because that’s what his job is.”
Semedo, Romanian striker Sergiu Bus and Lewis McGugan all made a difference after coming on as second-half subs as Wednesday gradually got to grips with their poor, bobbly playing surface.
Gray said: “When you put subs on, you want them to have an impact. They all played a part in us getting back in the game. They all had a fantastic impact.
“Semi has been outstanding for us and put his body on the line.
“Lewis McGugan has only trained with us a couple of days. He showed his quality when he came on and his experience. He’s got excellent balance and can manipulate the ball.
“I was pleased with Sergiu too. He showed something a bit different. He’s a strong boy and hisball retention was good.”
Sam Hutchinson scooped over a shot when well placed and Keane was denied by Bruno Ecuele Manga following a smart turn before Wednesday were awarded a penalty after referee Kevin Wright felt Matthew Connolly bundled over Bus.
Under-pressure Cardiff boss Russell Slade said: “On two counts really ... it’s a really poor decision from our point of view.
“My centre-half’s taken one in the face and he [referee Wright] may not have seen that, but really he [Connolly] has got his hands up but he didn’t touch him. We are disappointed with that, but football can be cruel at times.”
Gray disagreed with Slade’s assessment.
“I thought it was a penalty because Bus has no reason to go down when he’s about to pull the trigger,” he said. “He was very cute in winning the penalty; he got his body between the ball and the man and the guy wiped him out.”
In Maguire’s absence, Keane was happy to take over penalty duties.
“Chris Maguire is our designated penalty-taker but he wasn’t on the pitch and I was close to the ball so I got a hold of it,” he said. “As a striker, I think it’s up to you take the penalty and you have to step up. I was happy to do that.
“I spoke to Sergiu after and he said he felt some contact. He felt he was entitled to go down. From where I was looking, he was ahead of the ball and went down. The referee felt it was a penalty and I wasn’t complaining.”
As the Owls pressed hard in the latter stages for a winner, Moore turned away a fierce drive by McGugan and the goalkeeper also kept out skipper Tom Lees’ header.
Keane said: “I thought we dominated the second half and on another day we might have got a winner.
“We got straight in their faces and had a few chances early on and at that point the crowd got right behind us.
“The support from the fans was great. They got right behind us and that only spurred us on. We put them under good pressure and we knew the chances were going to come.”
There was, ultimately, to be no fairytale ending for Mandaric, but Wednesdayites will never forget his contribution.
Wednesday: Westwood 6; Vermijl 6, Lees 7, Dielna 6, Mattock 5 (Bus 63**, 7); Maguire 6 (Semedo HT*, 7) Hutchinson 6, Lee 6 (McGugan 76***), Helan 6; May 6, Keane 7. Substitutes: Kirkland, Palmer, Nuhiu, Maghoma.
Cardiff: Moore 7; Peltier 6 (Connolly 67**, 6), Morrison 7, Manga 6, Malone 5; Whittingham 5, O’Keefe 5, Gunnarsson 6, McAleny 6 (Noone *** 83); Jones 6, Doyle 7 (Revell* 65, 6). Substitutes: Wilson, Fabio, Harris, Adeyemi.