After losing their first two matches this season, Cardiff City’s Under 23 Development team have hit a rich vein of form that has seen them win five and draw one of their last seven games. A few weeks ago, they were able to beat Charlton 4-3 despite having to play three quarters of the game with ten men and last night, they picked up another red card which left them having to face the last thirty five minutes or so a man down.
Nevertheless, just as they had done previously, they were able to overcome this disadvantage as they eased to a thoroughly deserved 2-0 win over Watford at Cardiff City Stadium.
One of the consequences of our bigger squad this season is that you are finding more senior players involved as the occasional outing for what is, effectively, our reserve team is a way of keeping those not seeing much first team action match fit.
Greg Halford was a case in point last night, while Anthony Pilkington is becoming a regular at this level as he finds himself way down the pecking list in the fight to gain a senior eleven start up front. Recent weeks have also seen Callum Paterson and Lee Camp featuring regularly as they make their way back from long term injuries.
Paterson, fresh from his debut appearance for the first team following his few minutes at the end of the Middlesbrough match, played the full ninety minutes last night, but Camp had to withdraw just before kick off as Oliver Byrne stepped into the line up – maybe Camp dropping out was a precautionary move, but Neil Warnock’s mention last week that he is still was some way away from a return to first team contention was made to look all the more appropriate.
There was another over age player though as forgotten man Frederic Gounongbe returned to play what was surely his first football for City in 2017. The Benin international striker has been the subject of much messageboard speculation during this year as supporters wondered what had happened to him following his last outing for the first team (at Ipswich on 10 December last year). However, his return for the first forty five minutes last night would appear to indicate that some of the more imaginative reasons for his absence stated were well wide of the mark and it was the more mundane long term injury which had kept him out.
As he usually did last season when he got the chance, Gounongbe did some good things as a hold the ball up type target man, but never suggested that he would score. I know I’ve trotted out the stat about the first team still not having scored in a competitive match while he has been on the pitch before, but I’m pretty sure the Development team were able to find the net with him in their team last season – even if I’m wrong there though, the second team do have a goal to their name with Gounongbe in the team now as they made a fast start here which should have seen them more than just the one goal up after ten minutes.
Gounongbe was heavily involved in a flowing move which saw him send Cameron Coxe racing down the right wing and the full back, who was again playing further forward to accommodate Paterson, produced a peach of a low cross into the path of Mark Harris who was moving on to the ball some ten yards out. It should have been a goal, but great credit has to go to Sam Howes in the Watford goal who was able to turn the shot away for a corner from which Paterson should have done better than head wide from an unmarked and central position some six yards out.
City didn’t have to wait too long for their goal though as Harris, looking sharp and eager on his return from suspension following that red card against Charlton, burst on to a loose ball and shot low past Howes to score from the edge of the penalty area via a post.
Although the Watford side did not have the smattering of senior players that City did, it would be wrong to say that, like their team that was beaten 7-1 in the corresponding match last season, they were a side full of youngsters taking their first steps in the pro game, because their starting line up included six players with first team experience at Vicarage Road.
So, in some ways, City’s early domination was misleading as it soon became clear that there was going to be no repeat of last season’s goalfest. Indeed, the visitors probably gave as good as they got for the rest of the first half as they enjoyed a lot of possession, but, as throughout the game really, they struggled to turn it into anything tangible in terms of a goal threat with Byrne only called into urgent action once as he saved well from centre forward Michael Folivi.
At the other end, Paterson forced Howes into a save with a header from a corner, Pilkington would probably have thought he could have done better with a chipped effort that flew over after he won possession off the keeper around the corner of the penalty area and Harris wasn’t far away from doubling the lead with a shot that went just wide.
Half time saw Gounongbe make way for James Waite and George Ratcliffe come on for Byrne. Watford must have been really pleased to see Waite on after his four goals against them last season, but he played in a deeper role here and this time it was his neat control of the ball in confined spaces which troubled them – an early example of this came when he got to the byeline and drove over a cross which Pilkington was so close to connecting with.
The game was drifting a little now with Watford’s lack of an attacking impact contributing to a feeling that City were comfortable despite only being a goal ahead, but that all threatened to change when Connor Young, usually a cool and assured centreback, committed two fouls in about a minute and couldn’t really have any complaints about the fact that referee Tom Reeves deemed them both worthy of a yellow card.
The reshuffle caused by Young’s dismissal saw Paterson move to centreback and Coxe drop back to right back, but, far from being intimidated by their situation, City seemed inspired by it and took the game to their opponents in the ten minutes following the sending off to such an extent that they were two up just past the hour mark as Pilkington’s shot was beaten out by Howes into the path of Harris who was able to divert an awkwardly bouncing ball into the net as Watford appealed unsuccessfully for offside.
Pilkington drew another save from Howes soon after that, but that was more or less it from City as an attacking force as they concentrated on keeping their opponents at bay. A City backline which included a possible man of the match candidate in Tyrone Duffus who was playing as well as I’ve seen him do for us, coped quite easily until Reeves deemed that a challenge by Waite on Ivorian international and ex Marseille man Brice Dja Djédjé was worthy of a penalty.
City contested the penalty award fiercely and to me, albeit from a long way away, it did look a harsh decision, but what happened next was a bit of a mystery because Dja Djédjé’s penalty came back off the post to him and he promptly knocked the ball into the net only to have the goal ruled out. The rules are clear that the penalty taker cannot score after their spot kick had hit the post if the goalkeeper had not touched the ball, but it seemed to me (and everyone around me) that Ratcliffe had turned the shot on to the post.
With the lineswoman stood on the goal line concentrating on things like did the ball cross the line and did the keeper move before the kick was taken, she was in no position to judge whether someone was offside or not, so it seems that referee Reeves ruled that Dja Djédjé was offside, but, from memory, I can remember seeing Peter Whittingham score twice after a goalkeeper had saved his penalties and, surely he would have been as offside as the Watford man was last night – doesn’t the goalkeeper play the penalty taker on as soon as they save a spot kick?
Anyway, having not shown much belief as as an attacking force before that, the penalty miss only made Watford look more shot shy as the game turned scrappy with City happy enough to hold on to what they had – an efficient, rather than sparkling, win then which keeps the Under 23s heading in the right direction.