Sol Bamba: From figure of fun to Cardiff City talisman

Sol Bamba of Cardiff City Stu Forster/Getty Images

Sol Bamba's transformation in recent seasons has been remarkable.

Ahead of Cardiff City's Championship showdown with Birmingham City - a match televised live on Kwesé Sports 1 at 20:45 CAT on Friday October 13 - the Bluebirds are flying high, and head into the weekend in top spot in the second tier.

Their strong start to the season can be attributed largely to the contribution of veteran coach Neil Warnock.

A master of securing promotion in the lower leagues - the former Queens Park Rangers boss has been promoted on seven occasions - Warnock came into the club last season and dragged the struggling heavyweights away from the relegation zone, repeating a feat he'd achieved with lowly Rotherham United the season before.

Warnock, abrasive and charming in equal measure, didn't hesitate to plunder his extensive contacts list in order to recruit experienced performers upon his arrival at Cardiff, but while the likes of Kieran Richardson and Marouane Chamakh have subsequently left the club, Bamba has been one of his major success stories.

After the 32-year-old was released by Leeds United giants in the summer of 2016, he received a phone call from Warnock, with the manager following up on some overtures made during his time with Rotherham.

"I spoke to him on the pitch at Leeds when I was Rotherham manager and said 'I wish I could get hold of you'," Warnock said in 2016, as per Wales Online. "And it turned out that we were both without a club this summer, so I rang him and said 'wherever I'm going, you're coming with me' - and here we are."

The coach's faith was vindicated as Bamba steadily began to assert his authority in the team, setting the tone with a goal and a Man of the Match display in his debut - a 2-1 victory over Bristol City.

Subsequently, the plaudits from Warnock have come thick and fast.

"He thinks he's Beckenbauer at times, but he just got rid of the ball tonight," the coach said after a victory over Bristol City last season. "He made some really crucial tackles too.

"He's a leader and great in the dressing room."

Warnock also described Bamba as the best player in the Championship last season, and after the Ivorian signed a new three-year deal this summer, the manager insisted that the veteran was still comfortably good enough to play in the Premier League.

At this rate, such a prospect may not be too far off!

It hasn't all been plain sailing for Bamba and Warnock since the defender's arrival in South Wales, with the centre-back squaring up to his coach in December after being sent off in a 1-1 draw against Ipswich Town.

"I didn't really want to talk to Sol after the game so I will see him tomorrow," Warnock said after the match, as per The Guardian. "He just lost his rag but it was an aggressive attitude and I don't condone Sol's behaviour. He is distraught in the dressing room and quite rightly.

"For me, he is one of the best in the Championship and that was a blemish I haven't seen in his make-up."

The two men swiftly appeared to overcome their altercation, and both have been pivotal this season as Cardiff have defied preseason expectations to lead the pack after 11 matches.

They went unbeaten in their first six matches before falling 3-0 to Preston North End, and while they remain just one point ahead of Wolverhampton Wanderers, they'll be expected to secure their eighth win of the season when they travel to struggling Birmingham on Friday.

With the joint second best defensive record in the division, Cardiff have become particularly tricky to beat - in the mould of some of Warnock's great sides of the past.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Bamba has been the division's outstanding player so far this season, and has delivered a series of commanding performances in defence, whether paired alongside Sean Morrison or Bruno Ecuele Manga.

As well as his sterling defensive contributions - he's the sixth most effective interceptor in the league and has impressed with his aerial command in the heart of the backline - he's also weighed in with some key goals, notably to secure the win at home to QPR in August.

Memorably, he also found the net in the 94th minute at home against Sheffield Wednesday last month to level the scores and ensure that Cardiff didn't make it two defeats on the bounce; the importance of that goal cannot be understated.

It's a significant turnaround for a player who, despite being made captain at his previous club Leeds, eventually found himself fourth-choice centre-back after his performances slipped and inconsistency crept into his game.

The Bamba that Sol became at Elland Road - rather than the colossus of the Cardiff City Stadium - is the too-often clownish figure that observers of the African game had grown accustomed to in the years preceding his move.

Despite his physical prowess, Bamba endured a chequered international career with the Ivory Coast before being axed by Herve Renard in the build up to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, with the coach's patience wearing thin following a 4-1 demolition by Cameroon in qualifying.

This showing had been preceded by a nervy, error-strewn performance at the World Cup, where the Elephants' Golden Generation were arguably let down by a backline who - you suspected - would always give opponents an opportunity.

Greece memorably exploited this at the death in their final World Cup group game, as the Elephants were left to rue a hat-trick of first-round exits.

While Bamba was a key figure in the defence that didn't concede a single goal during the 2012 AFCON, but his limitations had been exposed two years previously when the Elephants were dumped out of the tournament after being beaten 3-2 aet by Algeria in their quarter final.

Too often during his time with the Elephants, Bamba's lack of pace were exploited by quick forwards, and his struggles with the ball at his feet led to stray passes and a sense of unease across the backline.

Playing in the Championship, under a coach like Warnock, he finds himself in an environment which plays to his strengths, while the manager's confidence and faith in him has allowed the veteran to deliver some of the most commanding displays of his career.

Now, Bamba, so often the subject of ridicule at international level, is finally primed for the kind of success that has largely eluded him throughout his career.

"He's a good lad, but should be playing at the top level really," Warnock told journalists [as per Wales Online] in November.

"I wouldn't say he's wasted his career, but he's been allowed to get away with things that he shouldn't be allowed to."

Perhaps Bamba - and the old warrior Warnock - have one last hurrah in them yet.