I could be flippant by writing a couple of sentences about yesterday’s 2-1 defeat by non league Macclesfield Town in the Third Round of the FA Cup and then saying I’m paying the tournament as much respect as Cardiff City did by fielding their Development team in the oldest and most famous club Cup competition in the world, but yesterday’s match does throw up some interesting questions which I believe merit debate, so that won’t be happening.
The first thing to say is that there is general agreement that our run to the League Cup Final last season did the team few favours when it came to their promotion push. Having to go to extra time five times in the eight matches we played in the competition only underlined how much important players like Whittingham, Gunnarsson, Cowie and Miller were taking out of themselves and the closing months of the campaign saw those players, and others, looking like shadows of their former selves as fatigue set in. Therefore, I can fully understand Malky Mackay’s desire to rest important players for our two matches in Cup competitions this season, but I’m not convinced he went about it in the right way.
Our manager has got much more right than he has wrong in his eighteen months in charge at Cardiff and, when the draw was made pairing us with a non league side away in the Third Round, I fully expected us to field a team which could hardly be called our strongest eleven, but would probably be good enough to get the job done. I was shocked therefore when the local press revealed the side that would be facing Macclesfield a few days before the game – it was correct except for McNaughton starting instead of Luke Coulson. In my opinion, a chance to give squad members who had not seen much first team football recently (e.g. Don Cowie) or who were in need of a game to try and regain some form (e.g. Jordon Mutch) was missed and, worse than that, I’m not sure that throwing a bunch of youngsters in together for a game like this is particularly good for their development.
Time was that first year pros who were too old for the Academy side got to play very little football throughout the season except for training games, but the advent of the Under 21 Development team has definitely improved things in that regard while also giving more experienced players who were out of the first team picture some competitive football to enjoy. However, although the Academy side played a couple of friendly matches before Christmas, only Kevin McNaughton and Nat Jarvis (during his loan spell at Forest Green) out of the eighteen involved at Macclesfield had played competitive football in the past month or so.
Macclesfield may be a non League side, but, like most clubs in the Conference these days, I’m pretty certain that they are a full time outfit, so, with them also having the match fitness, which so many of our side lacked, after playing three times over the holiday period, was it really a shock that they appeared to be the fitter and stronger team in the closing stages? Regulars in our first team have talked at times about how we seem to have an edge in fitness and stamina over our opponents and the stats tend to back them up – if you break the game down into nine ten minute spells, then we have scored more goals between the eightieth and ninetieth minutes than in any other period. We have scored eleven times in the last ten minutes (plus another one in added time) and, before yesterday, we had conceded twice during the same period – we have now let in double that number.
The starting eleven yesterday did contain a smattering of experienced players, but two of them (McNaughton and Kiss) were off the pitch for the last twenty minutes or so as Macclesfield came on strong. By the end of the game, we had a mixture of teenagers and inexperienced players with very little first team football behind them on the pitch apart from goalkeeper Joe Lewis, Steve McPhail (who has well publicised health issues which restrict his training) and the ineffective Etien Velikonja . Youngsters like Luke Coulson, Tommy O’Sullivan and Theo Wharton had a thankless task coming on and trying to turn around a tiring team that were up against opponents who were beginning to sense that Nat Jarvis’ goal was not the signal for the Championship side to finally display their alleged superiority – it was little wonder that the three subs made a minimal impact on the game.
I’m not sure what the two midfield boys in particular will have gained from being thrown into the fray as part of a team that was struggling against fitter (in terms of match fitness anyway) and stronger opponents. In fact, I’d say the same applies to many of the youngsters involved yesterday – how did yesterday’s experience benefit any of them? To try and show what I mean, let’s have a look at two members of the starting line.
Many people were getting their first look at Kadeem Harris yesterday since he signed for us nearly a year ago. Harris wasn’t great by any means, but many of the messageboard critics are now willing to write him, and many of his team mates yesterday, off on just the one viewing. On the other hand, Ben Nugent was lauded by many for his performance yesterday when I thought that, despite defending well at times, he was beaten in the air too often and gave away a lot of free kicks – to be honest, I thought Deji Oshilaja was the better of our two centrebacks. The thing is though we all know that six weeks ago, circumstances meant that Nugent was given his first team chance and he grabbed it with both hands – the three and a half year contract he signed last week (congratulations to him on that by the way) is proof of how well he did against Middlesbrough, Barnsley and Derby.
Nugent benefited though from being pitched in with fit and experienced team mates who were confident in their ability at the level they were performing at. Nugent, and Joe Ralls, have taken the opportunity to perform in the “real deal” which is the Championship when given the opportunity, but, while Harris, and others, didn’t look up to the task yesterday, we are making a decision on them based on circumstances that are completely different to those they’d encounter if and when they do get a chance in Championship football.
Far better for me to introduce youngsters gradually when they are in form and match fit than throw them all in together at a time when they are short of games (first team players are very rarely chucked straight in at the deep end when they’ve not played for a month or more, so why expect youngsters to cope better than, say, Tommy Smith will be expected to when he is ready to play again?).
There may not have been the opportunity for so many youngsters to play, but I think it would have been better if we would have gone in with a side reading something like Lewis; McNaughton, Connolly, Nugent, John; Cowie, McPhail, Mutch, Ralls; Velikonja and Gestede yesterday – I’d like to think a side like that would have beaten Macclesfield seven or eight times out of ten (not least because it would have had a smattering of players in it who were used to playing some competitive football recently) and there could have been the opportunity to give some youngsters a few minutes in the closing stages. Instead, we now have a group of five or six young players whose sole first team experience consists of being members of City teams deservedly beaten by lower league opposition in a couple of cup ties – will that be of any help to them if and when they do get a chance at first team level? I’m not sure it will.
That said, although he began to find defending a bit harder in the closing stages, Declan John consolidated the good impression he has made at left back this season. When he was combining effectively with Ralls down the left and showing pace, skill and awareness in his sorties forward it did look for a very short while as if there really was a gap of eighty one places between the two sides – if we find ourselves in a similar situation to the one we were in for the game at Derby, maybe Malky Mackay will go with John because of what he saw against Macclesfield rather than opt for using Ralls out of position again?
All in all though, I look at the games at Northampton and Macclesfield and find myself wondering if we might have been better off doing a Manchester United and deciding not to take part in cup competitions this time around – after all they obviously meant nothing to us in this promotion or bust season.