After a poor weekend for what is portrayed by large sections of the media as Wales’ national game, the nations’ real number one sport enjoyed a better time of it yesterday with the senior team beating Austria 2-1 in a game that was more competitive and entertaining than most such fixtures (especially at this time of year) turn out to be, while a few hours earlier, a flurry of late goals helped the Under 21’s to a 3-0 win over their Icelandic counterparts at Llanelli. By winning their second match in three, the senior side at least ensured they will be going into their World Cup qualifying matches in Scotland and at home to Croatia in a fairly confident frame of mind, but, in truth, they were pretty fortunate to come out on top against lively and enterprising opponents.
There were plus points for Chris Coleman to consider. Boaz Myhill had a good game in goal and, apart from their habit of leaving Austrian players unmarked from free kicks, the defence coped pretty well with Sam Ricketts doing enough at centreback to offer the manager a decent option in the position if he still thinks Darcy Blake isn’t fit enough for reserve team football and he believes James Collins is likely to continue his habit of making very expensive mistakes in important matches. As usual, Gareth Bale was unplayable at times and Craig Bellamy was a surprisingly effective lone striker in the first half when Wales looked very dangerous on the counter attack on occasions (Sam Vokes didn’t do badly up front after the break either).
In midfield though, it turned out to be a pretty good evening for Aaron Ramsey. The man who I still rate as our best player in this area was withdrawn as a precaution by Chris Coleman because of a calf injury and, in his absence, Wales’ ball retention was embarrassingly poor at times when you consider that there were four Premiership players and one who is a regular for a side which is in the last sixteen of the Champions League in there. That’s not to say that they were all poor individually – I’ve already mentioned how good Bale was and the pass Joe Allen played through to him for the first goal was a beauty, but, as a unit, it was worse than you’d expect from such a group of players.
There’s not much else I can say about the match, so I thought I’d broaden things to include Cardiff City. When I was watching the Under 21’s play so well in beating Bristol City on Monday night, I found myself thinking that, leaving the re-brand controversy aside for now, there had not been a better time to be a City supporter in the last half a century. The first team are in their best league position in that time and on Monday night a team featuring none of the eighteen who made up the squad at Leeds looked so good in a match where the victory margin could easily have been doubled – there is a depth of talent at the club now that I don’t think I’ve seen previously in my time as a supporter.
However, here’s a few facts for you to consider. Apart from Craig Bellamy, who could still play at a higher level than the top of the Championship if he were so minded, not one Cardiff City player featured for Wales at senior or Under 21 level yesterday – in fact, when the squads for yesterday’s matches were originally named, they only included one other Cardiff player in Theo Wharton (and he was only on stand by for the Under 21’s). Furthermore, the twenty nine players comprising the eighteen at Leeds and the starting eleven on Monday only included two Welsh born players and one of those wouldn’t be here under “normal” circumstances!
I’ve seen a lot of Declan John this season and he has come on leaps and bounds – at the moment, the idea of him becoming a first team regular at Cardiff City does not seem an outlandish one, but no other Welsh born youngster was considered good enough to merit inclusion amongst those twenty nine players I referred to earlier. So, does this, together with the lack of Cardiff representation in the national set up, mean that the club is failing in terms of recruiting the best local young talent?
Before trying to answer that, I think it’s relevant to ask if it’s that important if we aren’t? After all, with a benefactor that is willing to splash the cash to recruit talent on a worldwide basis, is it that important that there is a nucleus of home grown talent in the first team – for example, are, say, Norwich and Ipswich fans asking why their sides don’t contain more local boys? Don’t ask me to explain this in any detail because I can’t really, but I would argue that our situation as a Welsh club in an English league system means that there should be an onus on us having some Welsh representation in the team – one of the very few disappointing aspects of Malky Mackay’s time in charge for me has been that the number of Welsh players in first team contention has gone down fairly significantly since he took over.
To be fair to the club and our manager, all five subs on Monday night were Welsh and, although I’m not sure about Declan John’s current contract situation, two of those subs, Wharton and Tommy O’Sullivan have signed pro deals with the club. Also, it strikes me that the higher a club goes up the English game’s pyramid structure, the harder it becomes for locally born talent to break through into the team. Are there any clubs in the Premiership currently with a reputation for placing their faith in their Academy products on a consistent basis – I suppose Reading and Southampton might fall into that category, but that situation may well change if their stays in the top flight are extended by a season or two.
On balance, I think it’s probably most likely that the crop of Welsh born talent we had at the club who would currently be in the age range of 19 to 21 was not a rich one and this explains it’s lack of recognition at club and country level. Those players who formed the majority of the side that beat England 4-0 in the Victory Shield two seasons ago are not at that age yet and it’s probably instructive that of the six players who have represented Wales at senior level recently who would call Cardiff City their local club, Chris Gunter, Joe Ledley and Darcy Blake started their careers with us, while City did very well to get Aaron Ramsey to sign his first pro deal with City.
Tellingly, the two locally born players we didn’t get are the ones who would currently be classed as the best of the sextet. Given where we were when Craig Bellamy signed his first contract with a club, it’s no surprise whatsoever that he didn’t start off at Cardiff and Gareth Bale’s association with Southampton probably went back to the days when we were two divisions (at least) below them. I suppose the big question which would truly gauge where we are now in terms of youth recruitment and coaching is what would be our chances of getting a couple of nine years from Cardiff with the potential to be another Craig Bellamy or Gareth Bale to hook up with us? It has to be higher than it was a decade ago and if we were a Premiership club when a decision had to be made about those two boys’ future, then you’d like to think we’d have as good a chance as anybody of getting them.