At the turnstiles before yesterday’s FA Cup Third Round tie with Mansfield, two young lads (I’m useless at guessing kids ages, but I’d say they were seven or eight) were telling a steward it was their first ever City game. The steward responded that they would remember Cardiff v Mansfield in January 2018 for the rest of their lives as the day they embarked on a lifetime supporting their club and I mentioned it was Northampton Town in October 1963 for me – this appeared to impress the steward far more than it did the two first time supporters!
On the face of it, whoever decided to take those two lads along to yesterday’s game seemed to have had a good idea – it was a lot cheaper to get in than normal, the crowd was always going to be smaller than normal and as we were stood third in a division that was two levels higher than the one our opponents were in, you would have thought that there was every chance that they would see a Cardiff win as well.
That’s precisely what I thought when the draw was made about four weeks ago back in the days when we were unbeaten at home in the league (we had lost to Burton in another “meaningless” cup game mind), but to anyone who had watched us in all or some of our four matches over the holiday period, they would not have been too surprised with how the match panned out.
I suppose the good news is that our four game losing run is over, but when you end up grateful to have drawn 0-0 at home to a League Two side, you really know how far things have slipped.
That said, backed by a raucous support of over a thousand fans, who comfortably outsang the home crowd on a bitterly cold afternoon, Mansfield were well worth their draw as they took their fine current run to just one defeat in their last nineteen matches in all competitions.
The fact that Mansfield only lie seventh in League Two despite them having barely lost a game in the past three months offers the clue that probably too many of those nineteen games have ended all square (their ten draws is the highest figure in the division) for manager Steve Evans’ liking, but they looked a confident team yesterday and they were not in the least intimidated by their meeting with their so called betters.
Of course, given City’s recent results and, more tellingly, performances, there was no real reason for Mansfield to have felt intimidated and they returned to Nottinghamshire with their management proclaiming themselves “gutted” to have only drawn – they had a point as well on an afternoon when, in the second half in particular, it seemed to me that they had the better chances to break the deadlock.
As seems to happen so many times in professional games at all levels in this country these days, the first half proved to be a non event with “not conceding” taking priority over attacking ambition – I can remember a header not too far over from the visitors, but that was about it as far as any attacking threat from them went. As for us, Rhys Healey (wasted out on the left wing as far as I was concerned) made such a mess of a decent early chance that his shot from just inside the penalty area flew out for a thrown in, but in the closing stages of the half, there was at least some work for visiting keeper Conrad Logan to do as we upped the attacking pace to the extent that it could be said that we had been the better team in a pretty miserable first period.
So there were grounds for thinking at half time that City could go on to win the game and this despite what seems to be our permanent air of crisis when it comes to injuries reaching new and, frankly, ridiculous, lengths this week.
Yesterday’s team was missing defenders Lee Peltier and Matt Connolly who have both been ruled out for a month with the former needing an operation and Neil Warnock confirmed in his post match press conference that Joe Ralls had “pulled out” on the morning of the game, Sol Bamba missed out with a sickness bug, Junior Hoilett (who came on as a sub in the seventy seventh minute) had been showing flu like symptoms, but I’d also say that he has been suffering from the consequences of all those high intensity games played for Canada in the summer, while Joe Bennett wasn’t going to be playing, but had to and ended up being on the pitch for the whole ninety minutes.
Our manager claimed Hoilett had been tired in the lead up to the game and said that his team had lacked “a little bit up front”. For me, this goes to the heart of the problems we have had in the last fortnight or so – we now finally have the front three which terrorised opposing defences early in the season available, but none of them are performing to anything like the standard they showed then.
For me, the biggest change Neil Warnock brought about last season was that he introduced pace into our attacking play as Hoilett, Kenneth Zohore and Kadeem Harris (who was playing, and scoring for the Development team before Christmas, but the absence of any sort of game time for him since then has me fearing that he has suffered another setback in an injury plagued campaign). The addition of Nathaniel Mendez-Laing only increased our attacking pace to the extent that, for a month to six weeks anyway, I think we had the most potent attack in the division.
Harris has still to see any first team action and so has not been a factor at all, but the other three speedsters are there and yet yesterday really brought home to me how much we are lacking when it comes to attacking pace currently.
Mendez-Laing has been back for a month now after missing a similar period with the injury he sustained early in the Severnside derby game in November, but he’s not the same player of August and September as he struggles to get past his marker continuously. As for Zohore, well, it was like watching one of his very poor early games for the club yesterday as he completely failed to impose himself physically on his markers.
It is generally accepted now that, even at his best, Zohore isn’t as good in the air as someone of his height should be and there was the usual lack of success when contesting high balls yesterday, but, far more concerning for me was the lack of pace and power shown by him.
I’ve read and heard comments that Zohore looked disinterested yesterday and it’s easy to see why people would reach that conclusion, but I wonder if it may have been that we were seeing a player who was feeling sorry for himself somewhat? Zohore was continuously flexing and stretching his legs which suggested to me that he had some sort of issue in his groin area, but, given that he stayed on until the eightieth minute when he was replaced by Anthony Pilkington, it obviously wasn’t a major inconvenience.
Neil Warnock made no reference to this when asked about Zohore after the game, but did say that his striker was still searching for that burst of acceleration which was instrumental in making him such a key performer for us in the first ten months of 2010 and, not for the first time, I thought that, understandably in a squad which is so injury racked I suppose, players are being rushed back from their bumps and bruises when they’re not quite ready for a return to first team action.
In the case of Mendez-Laing in particular, I think we are seeing him going through a crisis of confidence as he needs something good to happen for him to get him back to thinking like he was back in the autumn. The same applies to Zohore and Hoilett, to some extent, but I’d say there are also physical issues with these two as well in that they are playing more football than their body can cope with at the moment.
Amidst all of the injury gloom, the better news is that Sean Morrison played seventy five minutes in his return after the injury he picked up at Reading and did well, while Jazz Richards played his first game in three and a half months and came through without any sign of a problem. However, once again, we have this situation, caused by having so many first team squad members unavailable, that sees players returning from injury thrown in at the deep end when they should really be getting a more gentle reintroduction through a Development team match or two.
Zohore and Mendez-Laing continued to labour in a second half which, again, saw the best opportunities fall to Healey, notably when he fired over from a sharp chance from about twelve yards out and then when he didn’t put enough power into his shot after being put through by Callum Paterson (part of what Neil Warnock called a “mix and match” central midfield duo with Greg Halford) as a defender got back to clear a shot, which had beaten Logan, off the line.
However, Mansfield could point to chances that probably should have been taken with a bit more sharpness in front of goal as they showed a more ambitious approach after the break. By and large, City defended well and either Brian Murphy or one of the back four would be able to snuff out the danger, but it was Hoilett who made his best contribution during the short time he was on the pitch with a great bit of tracking back and covering which prevented the visitors breaking the deadlock from their best opportunity.
City roused themselves for a “grandstand” finish when they put Mansfield under the closest thing that passed for concerted pressure during the whole afternoon, but it was typical of their lack of attacking punch all game that, when Logan was called on to make the save of the match in added time, it came from a header from one of his own players, Kristian Pearce.
So, City face a replay which, as the media always say, is the last thing the bigger team in any Cup tie want. Speaking as an old fogey who can remember the days when sixty games a season plus was a common occurrence, I don’t generally have much sympathy for the modern day professional who often doesn’t manage a half century of appearances during a campaign, but it’s a bit different this time when we have so many players unavailable, not match fit, ill or generally knackered.
Maybe a win against Sunderland next Saturday will make things look different, but after Neil Warnock took the option of picking what was a strong team yesterday given all of our injuries and we still couldn’t our poor run, Mansfield have to be considered favourites for the replay.
Whatever happens at Field Mill though, I wonder whether, having had to sit through ninety minutes of poor quality fare almost devoid of the sort of action needed to capture the attention of youngsters on a bitterly cold afternoon, those two boys I mentioned at the start will ever come back to watch their second City game – they certainly deserved more from their first one.