Motivation is a sacred thing for football supporters. We give it all sorts of names, and generously heap love and affection upon those who fulfill our ever-changing definition of it. We talk about drive, grit, determination, playing for the shirt, having the will to win, wanting it more, and dozens of other cliches and platitudes. Conversely, we heap scorn and ridicule upon those who don't display these elusive markers. They are lazy, greedy, arrogant, uncaring mercenaries, unworthy of our cheers. But the truth is, 95% of this is rubbish. Players don't reach the elite levels of professional sports without years of obscenely hard work and an almost maniacal motivation to play the game. All that said, motivation is not a myth. And there are occasions, however rare, when two clubs happen to be on polar ends of the motivational spectrum. One of these occasions is upon us.
When Bolton Wanderers visit Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday, they will have all of their goals in front of them. Team goals and individual goals. Cardiff's players, on the other hand, have already met all of their goals. They have been promoted. They have won the league. They have reached their financial incentives. They have earned the adulation of their fans. This means they will put on an indifferent and ineffective display. Or it means they will play an unstoppable free and easy style of football. Or both. Wait, what?
Yes, this is the conundrum that often derails our myths. Our old-fashioned this and honest that, the unquantifiable (and possibly non-existant) stereotypes that let us blame who we want to blame, redeem who we want to redeem, and cheer the guy whose hair looks sweatiest, or whose bruises are bloodiest. These myths, these truths that we as sports fans the world over hold so dear, do occasionally have to bump up against reality. That reality is this: If Bolton are depending on still hungover Cardiff Players wandering aimlessly around the pitch waiting for another party to indifferently concede victory, then Bolton will lose. The players will be fit, the players will be rested, and the players will be motivated. Most troublesome for the Wanderers, they will also be extremely talented.
Despite what may be shouted from the terraces, this will be a hard-fought match, with either side having opportunities to get the result. This is not the Premier league, where a rich club's 25th best player would waltz into the first team of a small club. This is the Championship, where the difference between talent at a top club and a relegation candidate is razor thin. Bolton will have every chance to win, and every chance to lose. It's how they do so that is so interesting.
Cardiff have scored 69 goals this season, three more than Bolton, but they have only allowed 42 goals, 16 less than the Trotters. Cardiff have been very good at home, Bolton have been very poor away from home. This certainly tips the scales in the Champions' favor.
Bolton are in good form. Especially important to this has been the improved defense. An ill-conceived starting spot for Danny Butterfield has been rescinded. Right back is still the weakest link in the back four, but Sam Ricketts is certainly capable of giving a decent performance. Maybe being back home in Wales will inspire him. A far larger concern is that this will be the final match for Craig Dawson. The youngster has been a rock in the middle of the park since his arrival. David Wheater may be ready to step in, but I would still prefer Dawson over the next month. "Dance with the girl that brung you," as it were.
I already dealt with the abundance of options we currently have in midfield. Suffice it to say, whomever Dougie Freedman does pick will need to have an outstanding ninety minutes if we are to take all three points. There is far less suspense about the wings. Both Chris Eagles and Chung-Yong Lee seem to be rediscovering form at the right time. If they could each verify that with a goal or three, we would all be delighted.
As for attack, it will likely be Marvin Sordell and Craig Davies up top. This pairing may be a half step below what Sordell and David Ngog had begun to develop, but realistically, it should be more than enough firepower to meet our goals for this season.
It will not be obvious Saturday who is more motivated at kickoff, but when we reach ninety minutes it may be obvious how many teams are going up from this match. We know it is at least one, and we hope for more.