There’s always an edge of unpredictability about Cardiff City.
And, with their pre-season preparations done and dusted, predicting where they’ll end up come next May isn’t proving any easier.
Mick McCarthy has stressed several times that the club’s transfer business, in terms of incomings, is likely to be done for the summer – a state of affairs that has perhaps kept any possible optimism over the coming campaign firmly in check.
The sight of newly-relegated Fulham splashing out such a substantial sum on former Bluebird Harry Wilson has only served to emphasise the separation between the Championship’s haves and have-nots in the current climate.
It’s no wonder that there’s precious little in terms of expectation among many Cardiff fans heading into the new campaign.
But for Joe Ralls, a man who has been around the block in the second tier many times, such background noise means very little.
The goal for the season, in his opinion, remains pretty simple.
After just missing out on securing a second play-offs berth in as many seasons last time out, the midfielder is seemingly determined to set the record straight this time around.
“We were disappointed not to make the play-offs last year,” he told the club’s official website after the recent win over Newport County.
“We’re fully committed and focused on making them this year.
“Just really hoping we have a good year.”
The 27-year-old, a central part of the last Cardiff side to win promotion under Neil Warnock, will surely be at the heart of any success for the Bluebirds this time around.
Over the last few years he’s been the very embodiment of consistency at the heart of Cardiff’s midfield engine room. Nothing flashy, but a steady and safe pair of hands who goes about his business quietly, pulling the strings in midfield with minimal fuss.
His stunning effort against the Exiles in City’s final game of the pre-season campaign showed that he certainly has a moment of box- office magic in his locker, but his talents in the middle of the park are often far more understated. Far more, dare we say it, underrated.
Despite being such a pivotal cog for City over the last few years, Ralls interestingly still often divides the opinion of fans.
His critics often paint him out as being too predictable. Too one-dimensional. Too ‘samey’ when compared to the likes of Marlon Pack or Leandro Bacuna.
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But the fact remains that when Joe Ralls plays well, Cardiff usually do too.
To focus on his limitations is to overlook what Ralls brings to the table.
Warnock’s nickname of ‘Ralls Royce’ was arguably less about luxury and more a comment about the player’s reliability. A powerful midfield engine that seldom breaks down on you.
McCarthy’s delight at seeing Ralls in full flight ahead of Saturday’s Championship opener with Barnsley suggests he may well have a similar opinion.
“Getting Rallsy back on the pitch was great, and what a goal he scored,” the Bluebirds boss said.
“What was pleasing is that we didn’t just cross it, we kept the ball and it ended up in the back of the net.
“Joe’s been very good in pre-season.”
Ralls himself seems ready for the challenge ahead, having been gently eased back into the summer programme of pre-season fixtures by his boss.
“I feel really good,” he added. “I missed the first game at Bath and it was only a little precautionary thing.
“Obviously the manager has been really fair with a lot of the young boys as well in giving them minutes, so he’s sort of shared it away. So not everyone’s played a lot of minutes so far, but I think we’re ready.
“He’s got the whole squad ready. So hopefully we’re in good shape. You never really know with pre-season, but hopefully we’ll be ready on Saturday.
“If you look at the side, there are a lot of young boys getting valuable experience and it’s a good learning experience for them.”
Those young players are surely likely to look up to the likes of Ralls. Not just because of his first-team experience, but because he knows exactly what it takes to come through the academy and make the grade at this club.
Despite further incomings seeming unlikely, McCarthy has persistently insisted that he’s happy with the depth of his squad.
And it seems Ralls is in agreement, adding that he’s been impressed by the standard of young players coming through over the last couple of weeks, with Tom Davies, Sam Bowen and Chanka Zimba all among those handed a chance to impress recently, supplementing the four summer arrivals in putting their hands up for first-team contention.
“It sort of feels like we’ve got a few new signings with the young boys coming in and doing well. It seems like they have a bigger part to play this year,” he added.
“New season, new faces, albeit only four of them, but they’ve settled in really well and obviously the core’s still here at the club. Lads who have been here a long time. So it’s a good blend I think.”
Ralls and captain Sean Morrison were the only surviving members from the class of 2018 to take to the field against the Exiles on Saturday, and this is undoubtedly a new era for the club.
But if Cardiff do happen to be bothering the top of the tree again, don’t be surprised if Ralls ends up being at the heart of it all.