Neil Warnock felt missing striker Emiliano Sala “was with us” after Cardiff boosted their bid to beat Premier League relegation with an emotional 2-0 victory over Bournemouth.
Warnock was tearful at the final whistle of Cardiff’s first home game since record signing Sala and pilot David Ibbotson went missing after the plane carrying them over the English Channel disappeared on January 21.
“I was all right until the final whistle and when I went on the pitch,” Warnock said. “I can’t begin to explain how difficult it’s been.
“Knowing the lad Emiliano as I did he would have been us with us today.
“I said to the lads we’ve got to perform and I just thought the whole club was amazing. I was the proudest man to be manager of the whole club. The fans were just amazing.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
Owner Vincent Tan and other boardroom members paid tribute to Sala – signed for a record £15million from French club Nantes two days before his disappearance – and Ibbotson in the matchday programme, which carried the Argentinian striker’s photograph on the front.
“The news we received 12 days ago shook Cardiff City Football Club to its very core,” said the programme notes.
“Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotson remain missing and, during this most testing and emotional time, we continue to pray for them and their families.
“We have been profoundly moved by the goodwill and love that the football world has shared in support of our club, FC Nantes and the families of the missing men.
“The game is founded on competition and rivalry but, at times like this, the spirit of humanity and unity comes to the fore.
Knowing Emiliano as I did he would have been us with us today.Neil Warnock
“We feel it and thank everybody for their well-wishes.
“Emiliano’s desire to succeed at Cardiff City Football Club was palpable. He was eager to become a Bluebird, play in front of our supporters and contribute to the efforts of our team with goals, work-rate and enthusiasm.
“Emiliano is not with us this afternoon. But we are playing for him and David.”
Cardiff captain Sol Bamba and his Bournemouth counterpart Andrew Surman laid floral tributes on the halfway line before kick-off.
The players gathered on the centre circle to observe what Cardiff had described as a “minute’s reflection”, and fans held cards aloft behind one of the goals to spell out Sala’s name in the colours of Argentina.
Fans wore daffodils handed out to them by the club and many also sported scarves combining the colours of Cardiff and Sala’s former team Nantes.
Sala’s name was sung throughout a game which Cardiff won with a Bobby Reid double.
Reid’s fifth-minute opener from the penalty spot was celebrated by Cardiff players holding up a blue shirt with Sala’s photograph on, the win taking Warnock’s side to within two points of 17th-placed Burnley.