Three keepers excel in goalless draw between Cardiff City and Swansea City Under 15s.

In front of a crowd that was noticeably bigger than you would expect to see at a Development team game played at the ground, Cardiff City and Swansea City Under 15s played out a 0-0 draw which had a great deal more to commend it than the last game with that scoreline to be played at Cardiff City Stadium (between City and Derby’s senior sides) last night.

For the whole eighty minutes, plus six minutes of added time at the end of the halves, it was a match which always suggested that it had at least one goal in it and the over riding reason why it didn’t was that the three goalkeepers involved all came up with a number of high quality saves to deny the forwards of both sides.

The reason three keepers were needed was that Swansea’s original selection Benjamin Alexander, who had already distinguished himself with a flying save inside the first few minutes, received a head injury (he was able to walk off the field when he was subbed, so, hopefully, his withdrawal was a precautionary measure) as he bravely dived at the feet of Slyabonga Ligendza as the City striker attempted a shot with about a quarter of the match played.

Any hopes that City fans may have entertained that Alexander’s replacement, Luc Rees, might be a bit of weak link in the Swansea side didn’t last long because he was soon producing the first in a series of notable saves – it’s no exaggeration to say Rees did not put a foot wrong in the hour or so he was involved.

Two evenly matched sides would enjoy periods of superiority which would last for a few minutes, but the opposition would always come back and, by the end, I don’t think there would have been many in the stadium who’d have argued too strongly against the notion that it was a match which neither side deserved to lose.

That said, with about five minutes left, I remarked to the person I was watching the game with that City’s keeper, Leo Satherley, had not been anywhere as busy as Alexander and Rees had been and, of course, this proved to be the catalyst for him having to show his mettle as he brilliantly turned away a header and then showed good anticipation and bravery by getting off his line quickly to deny an onrushing Swansea forward. Satherley deserved the luck he got when substitute Aaron Hillier put an awkward, but reasonable, chance high and wide from the rebound when faced with an unguarded goal from twenty five to thirty yards out.

Most of Satherley’s saves before that had come from a series of long range shots which were cleanly struck, but too close to him to cause an alert and on form goalkeeper too many problems. However, what made his clean handling of them all more impressive was the rain I was surprised to feel as I came out of the game – it had been dry at kick off and, given he had a greasy ball, to deal with, Satherley should be given credit for the fact that everyone of them stuck with him – there were no fumbles or desperate grabs at the ball as it squirmed loose from his grasp.

One other thing soon became clear – this was a game played with all of the intensity of a Cardiff v Swansea derby at senior level. I was taken aback a bit at first as it became clear that there was such a feisty edge to proceedings and things came to a head when City’s Ethan David was yellow carded for his his reaction to being fouled by Swansea’s McCauley Power.

I thought Power was lucky to escape a caution for his part in the altercation which followed his foul and there were quite a few other free kicks conceded by him after that. However, there was more to Power than just fouling and he shone as one of Swansea’s better players, as was their combative centre forward Joshua Thomas, who put himself about from the first whistle to the moment he was substituted with little time left.

Despite the ability shown by Power and Thomas, I thought Swansea’s best outfield player was Harvey Miles. Down the years, I’ve heard stories of City releasing defenders who were considered too small to make central defenders at senior level (Bristol Rovers’ captain and Wales senior squad member Tom Lockyer being a fairly recent example) – Miles was the shortest player in the Swansea side and yet he was still a very effective centreback as he used things like anticipation, technique and natural talent to get himself through the game impressively.

Although I’ve already mentioned that the teams were evenly matched, Miles highlights what was a very significant difference between the two squads – he may have been Swansea’s smallest player, but he was still bigger than three or four of City’s starting eleven.

While City’s captain Eli King, an elegant midfielder who played for our Under 18s on Saturday, compared well with Swansea in the height stakes and there were a few others who, physically, looked like they were at the very top end of the ages in which you would be allowed to play in last night’s match. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that about half of our outfield starters last night were eligible for, say, our Under 13 side when they play on Saturday – Miles apart perhaps, there was no one in the Swansea side I could say that about.

City right back Cris Dignadice typified the difference in physique between the two sides, but this didn’t stop him being an effective member of his team as well as someone who never took a backward step in the physical side of the match.

These differences only became more marked when City started making substitutions. The second one we introduced, Fraser Thomas, would have been the smallest player on show if he had come on first, but Rhys Schwank was an inch or two shorter than him and was, surely, the shortest player ever to have played at the ground in a “proper” game – I’d guess he must also be the youngest.

However, just like their colleagues who had to concede a few inches to their opponents, Thomas and Schwank both proved their right to be out there representing their club – indeed Schwank would have won the game in added time if Rees had not produced, perhaps, his best save of the night to keep out his angled right foot shot.

In truth, it would have been cruel on either side to have lost the game and I left the ground having thoroughly enjoyed an encounter which I’m sure that all who played in it will remember for the rest of their lives – all of them can feel proud of their efforts this morning.

 

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It had to happen I suppose.

Unless you’re lucky enough to born in certain areas of England, anyone who decides when they’re young to support their local club (or takes an illogical decision to stick with an “unfashionable” team they have no obvious connection with) soon realises that they are in for a footballing lifetime where you spend so much of your time disappointed, resigned and sometimes jealous.

That’s the lot of someone who supports a team outside of the select few – the bad/indifferent times comfortably outweigh the good ones, but I would argue that the good ones are so much more enjoyable when they come along because you take them for what they are and you never get blase about them.

So, any Cardiff City and Wales supporter should have been thoroughly pleased with how the 2017/18 season had gone as September approached it’s end – their club was top of the league having just demolished previous incumbents Leeds and their country was coming with a late run which looked like it would deliver the hoped for automatic qualification/Play Off spot.

Since last night’s so tepid 1-0 defeat by Birmingham at St. Andrews, I’ve read quite a bit about what an awful week it’s been for the City supporting Wales fan, but I beg to differ – it’s been an awful fortnight.

Certainly in an attacking sense, City’s performance in the home 0-0 draw with Derby was very poor by the standards they had set for themselves up till then as, a Junior Hoilett shot tipped over the bar apart, they barely put the visitor’s defence under any pressure. Wales’ win in Georgia was enjoyable at the time of course, but those who decide these things had  deemed that it would only be a fleeting (if three days can be called fleeting!) moment of pleasure before inflicting on us the devastation that was Monday’s defeat by Ireland.

Now, four days later, the thought that moods could be improved as City showed those neutrals watching on Sky that they were the real deal and would be up there contesting the top spots for the duration of the season was well and truly extinguished. Instead, we offered those who argue that we will soon fade back into the mid table mediocrity from whence we came, all of the ammunition they needed to back up that argument – on second thoughts, mid table mediocrity is being a bit generous based on our last two games!

That last comment only serves to prove how easy it is for the modern football fan to slip back into negativity after a couple of setbacks, because, by any standards you wish to use, it still has been a very good first dozen games for City. However, the world is full of platforms like this one these days where everyone has the opportunity to get their views across for public consumption if they are so minded.

Of course, taken as a whole, this has to be a good thing, but even as someone who churns out overlong analysis’ of every game City play at first team level and many more at the levels below that, I do sometimes have a hankering for the world of thirty or forty years ago whereby City played on a Saturday, you read about it a couple of hours later in the Football Echo, chatted about it for a while on your night out, read the match reports in the Sunday and Monday papers and then life returned to “normal” for a few days as your football team took a back seat again.

These days with access to platforms where you can talk until your hearts content about your team twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, football seems to be more of the life or death business that Bill Shankly famously spoke about than it was for most normal people at the time the ex Liverpool manager made his semi serious point.

One of the consequences of the increased part football plays in so many people’s lives these days is that it is so much easier for an air of crisis to develop over your club even at a time when they still sit at the top of their league – for a few hours more at least.

Returning to the theme I began with, I know that I should have a sense of perspective over what has happened over the past fortnight because it exemplifies what being a Cardiff City and Wales fan is all about. From a City viewpoint, I should be able to take our loss of form and momentum (I don’t see how you can be said to have momentum when you have only won two out of your last seven games) in my stride, but I find it increasingly hard to do so – it’s so daft a sixty one year old talking like this, but I honestly don’t think I’m alone in feeling like I do.

I’m happy to say that this blog has a dedicated and high quality group of correspondents who provide their thoughts and insights on here on a regular basis – if there are people out there who judge this site a success, then they play a full part in making it so.

However, and I hope I’m not offending anyone here, I think it’s fair to say that there aren’t many of them who’ll see fifty again – nothing wrong with that at all (I’m hardly in a position to say anything different am I!), but it does suggest that it’s not just the young, with their dependence on and knowledge of all of forms of social media, who are contributing to this different football landscape that exists today.

Reflecting on last night’s match, I find myself wondering what I would have said if we had managed to score from one of that series of late corners we forced and so escaped with a thoroughly undeserved point. I mention this because, in this 24/7 football environment, my feeling is that the result has become more all important than it once was, or to put it better, I’m talking about a time when it seemed that it was easier to take consolation in your team’s performance when they had lost.

Because the result is all important these days. I would probably have praised the team’s  ability to eke out a draw when they didn’t look like getting one and that they had shown the sort of resilience that sides need if they are to finish in the Championship’s top six. While those comments would have an element of truth to them, I’d like to think that I would also have been honest enough to say that, draw or no draw, we stand no chance of finishing in an automatic promotion or Play Off spot if we keep on playing like that.

However, wouldn’t I then just be doing my bit to talk up a crisis in the manner I mentioned earlier? Yes, I suppose I would be, but there are some things that hold true whether they happened in the more measured 70s and 80s or in the 2010s where patience seems to be in such short supply.

No matter how you try to dress it up, City were pretty awful last night – not worst performance ever awful or worst performance under this manager awful (think some might argue differently there mind!). However, we were awful by the standards this group of players have set for themselves and by the standards we have become used to under this manager.

A year ago, we beat an in form and high riding Bristol City side in front of the Sky cameras in Neil Warnock’s first game in charge – the wurzels were shaken by the intensity of our play and could have few complaints about the outcome. Last night offered a mirror image of that evening except this time we were the side at the top end of the table up against struggling opponents who were playing for the first time under a new manager.

To be frank, Bristol didn’t cope with the challenge put in front of them very well a year ago, but I would say they made a better fist of it than we did last night. In my piece on Wales’ defeat on Monday, I admitted that I found it hard to write in the same way as I normally do because it was such a woeful game played between two evenly matched, but very poor on the night, sides.

Last night was slightly different because one side played pretty well. Birmingham had the urgency, motivation and power that you would normally expect from us (especially under this manager) and were well worth their win, but they won’t face many sides as listless, off the pace and careless as we were over the coming weeks, so maybe their supporters shouldn’t start talking about things like corners turned just yet.

The only saving grace I can find from last night is that our efforts in the early weeks of the campaign have put us in a position where we can turn in displays like the ones we’ve seen in our last two games without it doing us too much harm, but, with a very tough looking trip to Middlesbrough coming up next weekend, we cannot afford this dramatic drop off in performance levels to continue much longer.

It’s odd, at the levels below the first team, City sides cannot stop scoring at the moment – the last two age group matches I watched finished in 4-3 wins, the Under 18s won their last match 6-2 and the Development team have scored eleven times in their last three outings. However, if you add Wales v Ireland to City’s last two first team games, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times when our opponents will have feared conceding a goal.

In recent weeks, there has been something of a debate about “the Warnock way” as the fact that we are bottom of the Championship stats for passing and possession percentages is balanced against us being at the top of the shots per game figures. Up until the Derby game, our manager has been able to, legitimately, use the latter to answer criticisms of the former, but two shots on target in our last two games tells it’s own story doesn’t it.

Our manager is a throwback in many ways and, while he is right of course, his mantra that we should not get too carried away by our wins or too down about our losses is not, as discussed earlier, one that is followed by too many these days. However, there is a fine dividing line between not being too reactive and allowing things to drift – I believe that there are a few signs that the latter may be happening with City.

It’s ironic that the last goal City scored came from a superb example of pass and move football against Leeds. At the time, it could be seen both as a justification of the Warnock Way and one in the eye for those critics who said we can only play one way, but two hundred and ten minutes of playing time later, the stark fact is that we have not come close to anything that even remotely matches it. The front three that had terrorised defences in August are not playing as well as they were, so have to take some responsibility for our toothless displays against Derby and Birmingham, but ever since that great Zohore goal put us 3-0 ahead against Leeds, we’ve looked like the worst passing team in the league.

The danger is that we are getting into a situation whereby our strikers need better service to get back to form and start producing the goal attempt figures we had got used to, but our passing is not of a good enough quality to provide that service in sufficient quantity – while our front three were on fire we could get away with things, but the potential drawbacks of our manager’s liking for “bread and butter” central midfielders have been brought more into focus recently.

There has been enough proof over the past year that the Warnock Way can be effective, but I’ve always maintained that the type of game that entails becomes very easy to defend against if standards drop in terms of intensity, fitness and motivation. Once “long passes” played with a degree of accuracy turn into aimless boots forward (as it was for too much of last night), then opponents know that a Cardiff midfield do not have a great deal to hurt them with.

To the end, with even the player himself admitting after the Leeds game that he no longer has the legs to play there on a medium to long term basis, it’s hard to see why Sol Bamba is still in our midfield when we had two players on the bench last night who were regulars in that area of the pitch when we were playing so well in August.

I refer to the home game with Villa last season quite often on here and one of the reasons for a win that I believe was a pivotal part of turning around our season was that Bamba was very influential in the sort of role he has been filling in recent games – he was against Leeds as well, but, just as was the case against Derby and Birmingham this season, his further appearances in that position last year were not anywhere near as successful.

Other recent oddities for me include the fact that, for all of the talk about the much stronger bench he now has, Neil Warnock has taken an awful long time to make substitutions among his strikers/wingers in our last two games despite our complete lack of an end product.

Presumably, our manager’s reluctance to make attacking substitutions earlier and the introduction of Aron Gunnarsson for Craig Bryson last night means that he thinks that our midfield is more the problem area, but, in that case, you have to ask why, when we were losing, didn’t he introduce our most creative substitute, Lee Tomlin?

I don’t think Tomlin has done that well in his recent substitute appearances and I realise that Liam Feeney did provide the assist on his debut for Danny Ward’s goal at Fulham, but the continued preference for the Blackburn loanee over a player who was, arguably, the best number ten in the Championship when he was at Middlesbrough baffles me.

Reading this back, I’m struck by how downbeat it is and, as mentioned earlier, I feel I could be accused of trying to create a crisis where there isn’t one, but, about a month ago, I ended one of my post match articles by saying that I couldn’t see this squad going the same way as the one in 06/07 which set a cracking pace at the top of the league only to crash and burn to finish below half way. After our last two matches though, I’m not as sure about this squad’s resilience as I once was.

Eleven years ago, it all starting going wrong in November (Dave Jones’ favourite month of the year!) as our goal attempts figures absolutely plummeted (from memory we had less than ten on target efforts in our five games that month) – currently we’re probably the Championship’s worst for attempts on target, as well being it’s worst passers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Out on the pitch, The Championship | Tagged | 9 Comments