I’m sure that if you had told most City fans that for three quarters of Saturday’s top of the table match with Middlesbrough the left side of the defence would consist of teenagers Ben Nugent and Joe Ralls, they would have thought that our chances of continuing the 100% home record this season would have been slim to none. Eighteen year old Nugent came on for his league debut with less than a quarter of an hour played for hamstring victim Ben Turner and Ralls, just a year older, filled in at left back (I’ve not seen him play there in the thirty or so matches I’ve seen him play at Under 18, Development side and first team levels) for Andrew Taylor who had injured his calf, but City didn’t just make it nine out of nine at home this season, they did so by keeping a clean sheet as Matthew Connolly’s header after nineteen minutes proved decisive .
Hardly surprisingly, Middlesbrough targeted the two youngsters straight away and they both could have done better in the lead up to the free kick which saw Ledesma clip the crossbar late in the first half. Nugent also appeared to lose his bearings in a strange incident in the second half when he moved away from a ball which broke to substitute Emnes not too far out from goal (his weak effort was deflected wide), but, apart from those two occasions, he coped with what was a testing first taste of Championship action well. Nugent is a commanding presence when he captains the Development team and there were signs that he has it in him to be the same in the senior side eventually – it was an encouraging and pretty composed effort by the centreback. As for Ralls, he began to look more at home in his unfamiliar position as the match went on and, after, understandably, sticking to basics when he first went on, was able to use his passing skills to good effect as he settled into his role.
Both youngsters has plenty of defending to do as well as Middlesbrough showed themselves to be the best of the nine sides we have beaten at Cardiff City Stadium – or, at least they were in most areas of the pitch. However, when they got within sight of our goal their shooting was erratic to say the least with only impressive captain Leadbetter forcing David Marshall into meaningful action as the keeper tipped over his dipping effort from thirty yards plus in the first half. You would have expected someone like Scott McDonald to have done better than blast his effort over the bar when set up by the clever Ledesma just before half time and the in form Jutkiewicz was equally careless midway through the second half as something akin to a siege on the Cardiff goal developed during the last twenty minutes or so.
I must say I found Saturday’s win to be perhaps our most satisfying three points of the season so far because we defied the odds, and impressive opponents, in a rearguard action that, in truth, began virtually as soon Connolly rose unopposed to nod home yet another superb Peter Whittingham dead ball delivery from point blank range (I wasn’t the only one sat around by me who believed the corner had flown straight in at first). To hold out for so long after that was a real achievement for the side and, to a man, they deserved the reception they got from an ecstatic home crowd at the final whistle. However, it also needs to be said that City were sloppy in their passing at times and, if Marshall had little to do, then visiting goalkeeper Jason Steele was only really troubled by a low Whittingham free kick which Heidar Helguson was inches away from before the keeper was forced into a diving save. Helguson also had a reasonable headed chance which he couldn’t direct on target when Craig Noone surprisingly chose to cross the ball rather than take it to the corner flag deep into added time, but I’m struggling to recall any other occasions when we looked like breaching a solid Boro defence a second time.
Despite the win, City’s failure to find the attacking fluency and potency that has been present in all of their previous home games (with the possible exception of the season opener against Huddersfield) would be a concern if they didn’t have the excuse offered by the injury epidemic they are currently going through. Even before Aron Gunnarsson’s back injury forced him off for the last half an hour, City were finding it tough going in the middle of the park, but the welcome return of Craig Bellamy after a month or so out left them playing a kind of 4-3-3 with Joe Mason dropping back to support Kim Bo-Kyung and Whittingham. Last season I complained that we didn’t have enough players with attacking instincts on the pitch when we played 4-5-1, well on Saturday we finished the match with just three players who think like defenders on the pitch and that was down to just Nugent and Connolly for a short while when the excellent Mark Hudson (my man of the match) was off the pitch having stitches put into a head wound collected when he challenged McDonald for a cross.
Turner and Taylor will have scans to determine how long they will be out for, but the word is that Kevin McNaughton will be available for the Barnsley match. Even so though, from Friday onwards we won’t be able to bring in loan players any more and with Hudson and Connolly only a booking or two away from a suspension, I believe we would be taking a large and unnecessary risk if we tried to get through to the turn of the year with five experienced defenders – it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of possibility that the likes of Nugent, Ralls, Gunnarsson, Declan John, Luke Coulson and Deji Oshilaja may be seeing some league action in our back four before the turn of the year unless we bring at least one new face in this week.
It’s ironic that, with us having such problems in our recent away games, we turned in a classic “away” performance on Saturday in grabbing something of a smash and grab victory. Would City have been able to hang on with Nugent and Ralls in the back four if the match had been taking place at the Riverside Stadium or was the general feelgood factor of playing at Cardiff City Stadium with the crowd getting right behind them as the match entered it’s final stages the decisive factor? I’m not sure that question can be answered really, but what I would say is that City were disciplined and organised enough in a situation where they were surely under as much pressure (both physical and mental) in those closing stages as they are would be in any away match and they came through the test with the three points. There was no sign of the individual errors that have blighted recent away performances and it’s hard to see why travelling a couple of hundred miles north to play at a half empty stadium should make their return more likely next Saturday.
It felt like an away match on Saturday even to the extent that we got virtually nothing from the officials. Going back to the theme of how little we did as an attacking force, it does need to be said that we should have had a penalty when Mason was brought down by Bikey in the second half. Referee Oliver Langford got that decision wrong, just like he did many others (involving both sides). I’d never heard of Mr Langford before Saturday and I’m in no hurry to see more of him refereeing. He was the worst official I’ve seen at a City match this season and I can’t remember many as bad as him in recent years. Based on what I saw, a match between Wycombe and Aldershot (the sides currently occupying the relegation places in League Two) would be above Mr Langford’s level, let alone third v second in the Championship (which is virtually as high profile a game as you can get in the Football League) – it certainly merited someone better than Mr Langford.
* picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/