My first comment when the conversation drifted on to the game as I was driving to Cardiff City Stadium last night was “I think we are in for a long evening”. As it turned out, I was proved right, but, having had some sympathy with the argument, which surfaced after our First Round win over Oxford United, that matches in the early rounds of the League Cup are never much good, I got the type of game we were going to see completely wrong – I was expecting a grim struggle between two evenly matched sides who would probably have wished to be somewhere else.
My suspicion was that Huddersfield would sneak the match in extra time and this feeling only increased when I learned the composition of the two sides – City were starting with just two of the side who faced Burnley on Saturday, while Huddersfield kept ten of the team that had pipped Colchester on the weekend. When you also consider that our opponents had played thirty seven matches in all competitions this year and lost just three of them (a Play Off Final, an FA Cup tie at the Emirates Stadium and a Johnson’s Paint Trophy game), I found very few grounds for pre match optimism – after all, how could a central midfield pairing of Darcy Blake and 17 year old Joe Ralls be expected to compete against a team with such a winning habit as Huddersfield’s?
Those who had been calling for more of a physical presence up front in recent days got their wish – there wasn’t one target man. but two of them! Jon Parkin was partnered by Rudy Gestede and I heard Ian Walsh mention on Radio Wales just as the game kicked off that City would, no doubt, be looking to knock the ball early and long up to Parkin with Gestede looking to feed off the knock downs. That was the first surprise, City did nothing of the sort – they tried to build attacks fluently and, after a quiet start, the two front men began to show that they were more than big lumps who you looked to hit with high balls forward. Parkin has always had a sureness of touch which defied his physique and, although not everything worked for him, he began to show it to good effect. As for Gestede, he also displayed a good first touch at times as well as a very useful turn of pace. Huddersfield were struggling to cope with City’s attacking and when Gabor Gyepes powered in a header from a free kick and Parkin then scored (the second surprise!) a couple of minutes later for the first time since that great debut goal at Norwich with a cute flicked header from a left wing cross, they set the foundation for a dominant first half display.
City were very good in the first forty five minutes and weren’t much worse in the early stages of the second half either, but there’s a brittleness to the side these days in home matches which is best exemplified by the fact that we have now conceded three goals in four of our last five competitive matches at Cardiff City Stadium. If the opening goal in the first of these games (Middlesbrough) was sloppy, it was as nothing compared to the absolute gifts we have handed Reading, Brighton and now Huddersfield to get them on the score sheet and it’s a habit that has to stop if we are to achieve anything this season. This time around, it was Paul Quinn, who was so dependable last season after he broke into the team in the New Year, who presented Jordan Rhodes with a chance he was never going to miss and, following this, we began to see for the first time why Huddersfield lose so few games.
City were still getting chances of their own and full back Naismith had to clear off the line soon after Rhodes’ goal. The visitor’s could now sense a way back into the game though and were level when Ward, rather luckily, found the ball at his feet after a shot had been blocked. There was nothing lucky about his cool finish though, as he placed the ball beyond a helpless Tom Heaton who had dived for the original shot. Not wanting the thirty additional minutes if the sides finished level, both teams chased a winning goal with the result that the sparse crowd were given even better value for their money as the entertainment value rose further and, with two minutes of the ninety left, Huddersfield got what looked like the decisive goal when Rhodes moved on to a through ball as City appealed for offside (he looked to be okay in the one look I have had of the incident on television) and scored with ease.
With City looking down and out, it was now that the two players in the team who had featured in the starting line up at Burnley took command of proceedings. Craig Conway and Don Cowie had both had good games up until City fell behind, but from this point onwards, they provided the extra bit of quality and fitness which, in the end, separated the teams. As the match entered the last of the three additional minutes signalled by the fourth official, Conway swung in another cross – he had already had a shot cleared off the line and supplied assists for both goals (the second after receiving a delightful cross field ball from Parkin and then showing Burke like skills to turn his full back inside out) and he now made it a hat trick as Cowie arrived to head beyond the helpless Ian Bennett. The third surprise had come as City showed the spirit and togetherness to come back from what had seemed a knock out blow and the boost they got from this carried them through extra time as they regained their first half superiority. Conway’s slightly deflected shot from twenty yards proved too good for Bennett six minutes into the first period and Kenny Miller almost made the game safe when he hit the upright after combining well with Gestede. Miller was also somehow foiled by Bennett and Naysmith just before the end, but had the presence of mind to lay the ball back for Cowie, still going strong while players around him seemed to be dropping like flies, to thump home a low shot from just outside the penalty area to finally kill off the visitors.
The first thing to say after such an epic cup tie is well done to Huddersfield and their supporters for their part in a memorable match which ultimately proved that, although definitely still in need of reinforcing, our squad is, perhaps, not as weak as many say it is. For me Conway and Cowie were the outstanding players last night with the latter just getting my man of the match vote, but the likes of Gestede and Blake (both of whom, hardly surprisingly, tired towards the end) proved they can do their bit if required - Dekel Keinan and, that error notwithstanding, Paul Quinn also provided a reminder that they are still around and ready to step in when required.
However, I’ll finish with the fourth, and possibly biggest, surprise. I’ve watched Joe Ralls play about ten times for our Under 18’s and it’s been obvious that he is a talent, but I must admit that I hadn’t seen anything to suggest that he could step into the first team like a duck to water as he did last night. His performance wasn’t faultless – for example, he let opponents get on the wrong side of him at times when defending (that should come with experience though), but, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of his fine performance was that any mistakes he made while in possession came about because of an over ambition which said that he felt comfortable enough in these rarefied surroundings to try more than the safe option that many youngsters making their first start would resort to. Malky Mackay talked glowingly of Ralls’ calmness when in possession and it’s true that he looked like someone born to be a quality footballer – it was a very encouraging first start which provided the icing on the cake for one of the most enjoyable matches I’ve seen in ages (the best match at Cardiff City Stadium so far?) .