Cardiff City’s Under 21 Development team ended their season last night with a very poor 4-0 home defeat in their Play Off Semi Final with Crewe Alexandra and now the Cheshire side face Queens Park Rangers in the Final following the London team’s 3-2 win over Northern Section Champions, Huddersfield Town.
There were some mitigating circumstances for the youngsters. Joe Lewis’ bizarre selection as substitute goalkeeper meant that City only had one over age player involved in Matt Connolly – everyone else was an Under 21 player who had not experienced any first team football at Cardiff this season. On the other hand, Crewe’s side was full of players with Football League experience, with veteran goalkeeper Steve Phillips having played over 600 games in his career. Besides Phillips, the visitors had a core of five players with between twenty and eighty first team games to their name and there were a couple more in there who had played League One football for them during this season as well.
Crewe’s reputation for producing good quality youngsters who are taught to play a progressive, passing game probably explains why their Under 21 side was able to feature so many players with what was a considerable amount of first team football for their age. However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about a club which has been mounting a season long fight against relegation to the Football League’s basement division and with a couple of tough looking matches (Bristol City away and Preston at home) to come, there has to be a strong chance that they will lose that battle.
Despite all of that first team experience, only two of those involved last night got on to the pitch in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Colchester, so that puts the team Crewe fielded last night into some perspective – certainly, you would have expected the best a Premier League club had to offer in the Under 21 age group to have been a lot more competitive against them than our team turned out to be.
The sad truth from a Cardiff viewpoint was that City faded badly after a bright start and spent most of the game comfortably second best against a team who played the last half an hour with ten men following what I thought was a harsh red card shown to their captain.
Yet it also started well for City – they used a three centreback system which had Luke Coulson and Kane Owen providing the width as they looked more like wingers than wing backs in the first quarter of an hour. Coulson in particular was worked into some promising looking positions as City frequently hit long, sweeping passes to him out on the right (this went on throughout the game) and he probably put in more crosses than he had done in any other match he has played for the club.
The trouble was that, with Tommy O’Sullivan the only City player getting into the box to support lone striker Rhys Healey, there were only ever a couple of targets to aim for and both of those were giving away two or three inches (at least) to their markers. After a while, I got the impression that Crewe were perfectly happy for Coulson and Owen to keep on firing in their crosses because their defenders preferred that to being moved around by the more mobile Healey and O’Sullivan.
Unfortunately, most of the attempts to attack Crewe on other fronts proved wholly unsuccessful as City’s passing was too ponderous and error prone to open them up and so it was that the only time Phillips might have had cause for concern in the first half was when Owen fired a low cross shot in which flew not too far wide with Healey close to getting a decisive touch.
Up the other end, Crewe were gradually causing more and more problems as they fed on errors by Cardiff players – Owen and Josh Yorwerth both gave away possession in dangerous areas which led to free kicks which saw keeper Wilson touch one over and then lose the flight of a cross which was headed not too far wide.
A goal was coming and, although there was a touch of good fortune about it when it did, there could be no denying that it was deserved – Leitch-Smith’s deflected effort from fifteen yards easily beating Wilson in the twenty sixth minute. After that, the visitors wasted some decent counter attacking opportunities, but with five minutes of the half left they were able to take a lead that was more in line with the extent of their superiority when Waters scored from close range – there were appeals for offside from City’s back line, but they would have been better served examining their poor defending, rather than looking for a flag that was never going to come.
Fair play to City, they had a go in the second half and they should have had a penalty for a clear handball by a Crewe defender. If City got no help from the officials there, then I think that was balanced up on the hour mark when Crewe’s Wales Under 21 defender George Ray was shown a red card for bringing down Healey – Ray was judged to be the last man, but it seemed to me that his centreback partner Mellor could have got across to challenge the City striker as well.
Nothing came of O’Sullivan’s free kick, but Phillips had to make good saves from him and Healey in the minutes which followed and Yorweth was able to win a series of headers from dead ball situations which could have led to goals on another day.
Any hopes of City mounting a dramatic late come back though ended when Wilson dived over a shot from right back Baillie with ten minutes left and with time almost up, the other full back Melling completed the scoring.
When the scoreline is as clear cut as 4-0, there cannot really be any doubting it’s validity and I’m afraid City got what they deserved last night. I thought Brad Williams did well in the holding midfield role, but no one else shone in the team – for example, Tom James, Yowerth, Theo Wharton, O’Sullivan and Healey are all a lot better than they showed last night.
One poor defeat should not overshadow a season which has seen the City Under 21’s win their league and, certainly in the second half of the campaign, they largely did so with a team which, unlike last season, was often made up solely of youngsters. However, having seen all but one of our home matches, it must be said that Under 21 games in 13/14 were not as easy on the eye as they were in 12/13 when the team tended to win matches with a degree of style. This time around there has been less goals and less creativity with matches often being decided by single goal margins.
Invariably, tight games ended up going in City’s favour because Rhys Healey again proved that he is a very good finisher at this level – he’s not the complete player yet by any means, but, for me, Healey is the clear winner of my award for Under 21 team Player of the Year 2013/14 and I’ll just mention in passing that at Under 18 level Curtis Watkins edges out Tom James (who didn’t play much for the Academy team in the second half of the season), Robbie Patten and Tom Burridge for the award.