It was only a matter of minutes after the whistle had blown on Cardiff City’s season when Neil Harris switched attention to the next campaign.
There was feeling of what might have been following the second leg of Cardiff’s Championship play-off semi-final against Fulham, but Harris was not about to let disappointment linger.
First he spoke to his players in their dressing room at Craven Cottage.
Then he delivered a similar speech to the media.
The message? Harris “couldn’t be prouder” of his players’ efforts since he arrived in Wales nine months ago – but he wants further progress in 2020-21.
With every pat on the back there was a demand for better.
“Their mums, dads, brothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends and children should all be so proud of them,” Harris said.
“But I told them I want more.”
A fine start to a new era
Promoted from the Championship in 2018 and then relegated after a difficult season in the Premier League 12 months later, Cardiff were fancied to impress again having returned to the second tier.
Nobody knows more about how to get a team promoted than Neil Warnock, who brought in the likes of Aden Flint, Curtis Nelson, Marlon Pack, Will Vaulks and Robert Glatzel to freshen up his squad last summer.
Bruno Manga, Aron Gunnarsson and Bobby Decordova-Reid were among those to depart, as well as influential loanee Victor Camarasa.
Yet there was hope at the start of the campaign that Warnock’s squad – which featured a raft of players who had helped the club climb out of the second tier a couple of seasons earlier – could mount another promotion push.
By November, however, Cardiff had only five wins – all of which came against clubs who would end the season in the bottom half – from 16 league games and were 14th in the table.
Bristol City’s 1-0 triumph at the Cardiff City Stadium on 10 November proved to be the last game of Warnock’s three-year reign, and the club were soon unveiling Harris.
If the former Millwall manager was not the sort of big name some Cardiff fans might have wanted, the results which followed were enough to start winning them over.
The Bluebirds had not won on the road all season under Warnock, but Harris wiped out that statistic in his second away game, at Nottingham Forest.
There were other notable away wins later in the campaign, at Preston and Bristol City, while Cardiff claimed a memorable 3-3 draw at Leeds having trailed 3-0.
At home, meanwhile, they were beaten only three times in the league in the regular season – the joint lowest number of losses in the division.
In all, Harris won 52 points from 30 Championship games. During that period, only Leeds, Brentford and Fulham took more.
Had they continued all season at the pace they were going under Warnock, Cardiff would have finished 13th.
Harris led them to fifth, and could argue with some justification that his team would have been automatic promotion contenders had he been in charge throughout the campaign.
And as well as delivering results, Harris tweaked Cardiff’s style so that they played – at times – more football than they had under Warnock.
What will the close season bring?
Unlike some Championship clubs, Cardiff do not have a raft of out-of-contract players whose futures must be decided.
The likes of Jazz Richards and Omar Bogle have already gone, leaving Danny Ward as the only question mark at this stage.
The loan spells of full-backs Dion Sanderson and Brad Smith are at an end, and it remains to be seen whether Harris will look to bring either player back next season.
If not, Cardiff must look elsewhere for full-back reinforcements.
A wide player may also be on Harris’ wish list after Albert Adomah returned to Nottingham Forest, while an attacking midfielder who can provide an alternative to the influential but injury-hit Lee Tomlin could be useful.
But the priority in this transfer window may well be a striker, with Kieffer Moore a name which continues to be mentioned.
Cardiff saw a bid for Wigan’s Wales international rejected in January and are one of a number clubs said to be interested now.
Certainly, Cardiff could do with another attackin threat given that their leading marksman in 2019-20 was Tomlin – who Harris brought back into the fogld after he had been marginalised under Warnock – with just nine goals.
What will the target be next season?
Harris played down talk of a push for the top two following the aggregate play-off loss to Fulham because he did not want to put too much pressure on his players.
Cardiff are unlikely to spend big money in the next few weeks – chairman Mehmet Dalman has warned of the financial “distress” coronavirus will cause clubs – but Harris expects to “start next season in better shape”.
As well as the lift provided by some new faces, Harris says his current crop will be “a lot clearer on what I want and how I want to play”.
In the Championship, of course, making predictions is notoriously hazardous.
But if Cardiff can hit the manager’s target by improving on the last campaign, they will be Premier League contenders.