The decision to effectively rip apart the “experienced” Under 23 Development side which featured a nucleus of players who had been performing at this level for years has had repercussions for all but the first team at Cardiff City – in essence, it means that at all levels below that, the season has been divided into two.
At Under 18 level, what had been a successful Under 16 team has had to cope with facing teams who often have a backbone of players who are two, three or, occasionally, four years older than some of our youngsters. Predictably, results have suffered, with Saturday’s 6-0 loss at Huddersfield being the latest in a series of heavy defeats since December – albeit there has been the occasional win to offer encouragement during this time.
The Under 23’s now play with a team made up almost exclusively of teenagers and their relative inexperience has been exposed when they play away from home with their last five matches outside of Cardiff being lost while only managing to find the net twice.
However, it’s been completely different at home since the “Warnock/Bellamy revolution” where five matches have brought four wins and a draw and, following last night’s astonishing 7-1 thumping of Watford, the goal shy team on their travels have managed to score sixteen times in those games.
I’m not able to back this theory up with the stats to prove it, but it seems to me that the City team for these home games has been getting progressively younger. Certainly, last night’s squad was the youngest of the five, with Ben Amos, ten outfield teenagers and a bench which appeared to consist exclusively or fifteen or sixteen year olds. Unfortunately, I cannot be certain of that last bit because, as seems to be the norm this season, there was no one handing out team sheets when I arrived at Cardiff City Stadium, but when I got into the ground virtually everyone seemed to have one in their hands, as did those who turned up after me – it’s a conspiracy I tell you!
Now it should be pointed out that Watford sit at the bottom of the ten team league we compete in (embarrassingly for the Premier League, the only other side from “the greatest league in the world, Crystal Palace, are last but one!).
To name drop a little, I can remember being told by Joe Jacobson’s dad that the best team his son had faced during our first season as an Academy club (2004/05) was a Watford outfit which featured Ashley Young among others. However, the days when Watford had a thriving youth system that regularly provided players for the first team seem a long way off now (I seem to remember they were at, or close to, the bottom of the league last season as well) as they have become yet another club who prefer to pay for their players rather than develop them.
That charge can be laid at City’s door in recent seasons as well, but, having watched most of them in all five of those home games I referred to earlier, I must say it would be an act of criminal negligence if none of the outfield players who featured last night make it into the first team in the coming years.
Thankfully, I don’t see that happening under the current regime. Mark Harris (who has often been missing from the Under 23 team recently due to senior team commitments) has already broken through and, with the first team season increasingly looking as if it’s going to see us finish in mid table, I’m hopeful that more teenagers will be given a small taste of first team action in the coming weeks.
As mentioned above, Watford were not as good as you might have expected them to be and they did look a young team, but they were, as a unit, quite a bit bigger than City which in age group football usually means that they are that bit older – either way, this shouldn’t detract from a very impressive City performance, I believe my earlier use of the word “astonishing” was fully justified.
There was little sign of the fireworks to come in the opening half an hour mind. As is the norm with this team these days when they play at home, City looked the more skillful of the two sides and saw much more of the ball than their opponents, but, if anything, Watford with a couple of dangerous looking breaks looked the more likely scorers.
Being the footballing expert that I am, I watched all of this while surmising that City did not have the fire power up front to back up their often impressive build up play. I would say in my defence that the nearest player in the side to a specialist striker, Jamie Bird, was operating in an advanced left sided position, while the our number nine was the tiny James Waite fresh from signing his first pro deal a couple of weeks ago.
At times, it looked like City were using a Spanish national team style “false” number nine as they mimicked that country’s 4-6-0 formation that had seen them win Euro 2012. With Watford playing what looked like a 3-4-3 system, the opening period was interesting tactically even though it was providing little in the way of goalmouth action.
It was as if City needed that opening thirty minutes to figure out how to open Watford up, but, once the penny dropped, there was no stopping them!
Full backs Cameron Coxe and Rhys Abbruzzese had looked to offer the best chance of providing a chance in the opening stages as they constantly looked to get forward. It is no reflection on their performance, which was good throughout, when I say that their attacking influence tended to wane as time went on, it was more that Watford found themselves being overwhelmed by the movement, intelligence, pace and teamwork of the whole City side.
City were impressive from numbers two to eleven (Amos had very little to do) and the two subs that came on played their part as well, but, for me, one player stood out above the rest – I said Marco Weymans was brilliant on a City messageboard last night and, having slept on it, I see no reason to change that opinion.
Weymans has been more impressive this season than in his first year with us (even if age group football is not as physically intense as the senior team game in the Championship is, it still must be something of a culture shock for a youngster from the European mainland when they first experience the British game), but this was on a different level to what he has done before.
As I watched Weymans pick Watford apart with his passing, I was reminded of a big win for the first team at the same ground eight years ago when Steve McPhail took full advantage of a Derby side playing with a very high back line to pass them to distraction as we won 6-1.
One difference between the two matches was that all McPhail had to keep on doing was find the spaces in behind Derby’s back four, whereas there were times when Watford sat deeper, but it made no difference, Weymans was still able to find the pass to unlock their defence. On that night back in 2009, it was Michael Chopra who benefited to the tune of four goals from McPhail’s fine showing, last night Waite was the one to bag a quartet of goals off the back of a Belgian midfield masterclass.
Strangely though, Waite was not among the scorers as City ended the first half with three goals in the space of around five minutes. The first player to benefit from a Weymans assist was Macauley Southam who was put in on goal via a beautifully drilled low pass and finished in composed and impressive fashion with a chip beyond Watford keeper Charlie Bannister.
A couple of minutes later, Weymans played a part in a lovely passing movement down the right which saw Robbie Patten (making his return after around four months out through injury) presented with a shooting chance on the edge of the penalty area and, again, the finish was crisp and unerring as the ball flew in to Bannister’s right.
When Weymans was given a chance from a free kick from about twenty yards out shortly afterwards, it came as no shock when the ball nestled in the net with the keeper, again, having no chance – Watford might have been having to do a lot of defending against opponents who were monopolising possession during the first third of the match, but they would have felt they were right in the game, but now, in no time at all, it was all over as a contest.
Just as had been the case when captain Jamie Veale was on the comeback trail after his knee injury late last season, Robbie Patten was only given forty five minutes to reacquaint himself in the heart of the City midfield as he was replaced at half time by Sion Spence.
The sixteen year old slotted seamlessly into a City team that was now purring as Watford frustration mounted with the result that a ref who barely gave a free kick in the first half was showing yellow cards, left, right and centre throughout the second period,
It took ten minute or so for City to rediscover their goal touch as Weymans split the Watford defence again to put Southam in, but this time, he, unselfishly squared the ball to Waite who slotted home easily.
This was the last real contribution Southam made as he was injured shortly after and was replaced by Robbie’s younger brother, Keenan Patten who was playing, and scoring, for Wales’ Under 16 team in November.
Just for a while, there was a suggestion that Watford might just find a way back into the game as City came to terms with having such a young midfield – Dennon Lewis scored for the visitors as City lost possession on their right and there were a few more sloppy moments as Watford showed signs of thinking that a comeback was not beyond them.
However, Patten, Spence and co were soon back on song as more fine interplay created a chance for Waite who shot just wide and it wasn’t long before he had his second from the only goal in which Weymans wasn’t involved. This time it was Veale who was the creator as he drove past three opponents to find Waite who finished clinically.
It was now just a question of how many City were going to score – Watford’s tacking got harder and more reckless as the minutes went by, but City responded in the best possible way by letting their football speak for them.
Bird, Waite and Weymans (twice) all could have added a sixth before the last named produced yet another beautiful pass to rip Watford apart again – Spence was freed on the left and, as he nearly always does, the youngster chose the right option as he squared the ball to Waite who showed that finishing ability that marks him out as a number ten type player who should be good for ten goals a season in whatever level he ends up at to complete his hat trick.
Watford’s agony was not over though because, with the very last move of the game, Weymans sent Waite through for his fourth to mark what I’m pretty sure is the first competitive game in which a team has scored seven at the new stadium.
All of those away defeats have somewhat dented City’s hopes of a Play Off place courtesy of a top two finish. They’re now a couple of points behind second placed Millwall with a slightly inferior goal difference and face a quartet of matches against sides from the Northern Section over the coming month with trips to Bolton and league leaders Sheffield Wednesday along with home matches against Sheffield United and Huddersfield.
All four of them are doing pretty well in their league, so it might be that City will not make the Play Offs, but that shouldn’t be a reason to see the change of policy half way through the season as some sort of failure – on the contrary, the notion that the Under 23 side can produce first team players for Cardiff City seems more realistic today than it has done for years.