At this time last year, Cardiff City went to a League Two side in the First Round of the League Cup with a side decimated by international call ups and scraped a 3-1 win after extra time to start the journey which ended with penalty shoot out heartbreak at Wembley just over six months later. This time around, there will be no repeat of the heroics which saw the club reach it’s second Cup Final in four years as Northampton battled to a deserved 2-1 victory on a night when Malky Mackay found himself in an even more parlous position than twelve months ago. As well as eight of his squad missing through being selected by their country, the team’s first choice back four and the player widely reckoned to be the best at the club were all missing through injury (or, with the big Championship kick off just three days away, was it the fear of injury?) – under such circumstances, a Cardiff win would have been the shock last night.
I suppose people will look at the starting line up and say that it contained five players who could be called senior pros (as well as Joe Ralls who is considered a first team squad member these days) and say that City should have had enough to handle a team like Northampton, but I can’t agree especially when you consider that two of the “first teamers (Joe Mason and Steve McPhail) were only returning after missing virtually all of the club’s pre season programme through injury and lasted little more than an hour between them.
Sadly, when the commentator on Radio Wales mentioned after little more than a quarter of an hour of play that Cardiff were having to make a change, I knew straight away that the player to make way would be Steve McPhail. You cannot feel anything but deep sympathy for the player in this case – whether they are a consequence of his Sjogren Syndrome or not, I don’t know, but McPhail seems to be beset by all manner of minor injuries lately as he struggles to gain the match fitness needed to put in a realistic challenge for a place in the starting line up.
A fully fit and functioning McPhail could have played a huge part in knitting together a young team which, besides having the handicap of trying to win the game with four making their senior debuts in the starting line up (another one, Tommy O’Sullivan, came on for McPhail and played the last seventy plus minutes), also had to do so while contending with a style of football which must have been completely alien to what they had faced in their time in youth football. I see quite a few Academy games and City’s youngsters are encouraged to play out from the back even though it can cost them possession and goals at times and, although some might not go to the lengths City do to try and play the game in the “proper” manner, their opponents, invariably, adopt a similar approach. Therefore, Northampton’s set piece orientated, percentage game must have come as something of a culture shock for City’s youngsters.
That applies in particular to a back four which contained three of those making their first start and yet it was two of these who were singled out by Malky Mackay for praise after the match. If you had told me six months ago that there would be five young players making their first team debuts in the League Cup for us last night, I think I would have guessed who three of them were (Deji Oshilaja, Kevin Saint-Luce and O’Sullivan), but I would never have come up with the names Ben Nugent and Declan John and yet these were the two who, apparently, most impressed Malky Mackay.
To be fair to Nugent, he has had a good pre season and has not let anyone down over the past few weeks – his selection last night was not a surprise given his recent displays. However, Declan John is a different matter – despite having made quite a big reputation for himself with his performances for Wales at various youth levels, John was invariably withdrawn after around an hour in the seven or eight youth matches I saw him play last season having not made too big an impact on proceedings. Although allowances needed to be made for the fact that he was a sixteen year old playing against opponents who were mostly two years older and a fair bit bigger than himself, John certainly didn’t look like someone who was going to be playing first team football any time soon.
In saying that though, I only saw John play in the wide right or left position that had previously been considered his strongest. If him being selected last night was a shock, the fact that he has been playing left back so far this season is an even bigger one and yet, here he is being praised by his manager for the way he coped with his debut while playing in a position he is still learning and, allegedly, having been offered a three year professional deal by the club. Actually, when you consider the way Malky Mackay wanted our full backs to play, in home games especially, last season, then the logic of using a player like Declan John in that position becomes clearer, especially if he can show the defensive quality and discipline required for that position – after all, modern day full backs are considered to be attackers almost as much as they are defenders these days with the roles of full back and wide midfield plater becoming almost interchangable at times.
So, John and O’Sullivan’s involvement, last night saw the first team debuts of two members of the Cardiff City dominated Wales Under 16 squad which did so well in the 2010 Victory Shield (a third, striker Gethyn Hill, was an unused sub last night), but, although defeat to Northampton was not bad news on many levels, I believe it could be for youngsters like them who, at just 17, might be considered too young to be regulars in the Under 21 development team over the next few months. Progress in the League Cup could have seen them being given some more first team experience every now and again, but now it’s difficult to see where that is going to come from. Players of this age are probably too young to be loaned out somewhere, but are they now getting to the stage which Joe Ralls was at last year in that they have “outgrown” Academy football? Whatever, the answer is, I’d say it’s a nice problem for Malky Mackay to have, because it would appear that the production line that has given us Ramsey, Matthews and Ralls still looks to be working.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/