The Professional Development League – League 2 (South) is a bit of a mouthful, but one of the consequences of the reorganisation of the Academy system which saw City categorised as a grade 2 club is that their young professionals who are too old to feature for the under 18 team will be playing regular, competitive matches against similar sides from teams in the Premiership and all three Football League divisions over the course of this season. Last night saw the opening fixture for City’s development team and they picked up three good points with a 2-1 win over Brighton in front of a decent sized crowd, which looked to number 500 plus to me, at Cardiff City Stadium.
Actually, the venue for the match might have been significant, because it was interesting to read in a reaction piece to the game on Brighton’s official site that their coach felt that there was a bit of a reaction from some of his players to being asked to perform in surroundings that were far more plush than the ones they were used to playing in. Whilst that may sound like a bit of a lame excuse from a side that were beaten a lot more convincingly than the scoreline suggests, it has to be admitted that the record of City’s youngsters previously on the rare chances they have had to play at the new ground has been pretty awful, but, possibly because of the first team experience many of them have had recently (especially last week at Northampton), they responded well this time with most of them suggesting that they were not daunted by their surroundings at all – in fact they seemed to relish them.
It was obvious watching Brighton play that the intention was to get them to perform in a similar manner to the way their first team does (i.e patient, passing football with many short clearances by their keeper to their back four who would then try and connect with their midfield), but, newly appointed head coach Kevin Cooper, sent the City team out to play in a way which was, in terms of formation and tactical emphasis at least, a lot different from the way our first team plays. For example, although Nat Jarvis sometimes looked to be playing a little deeper than his striking partner Jesse Darko, a 4-4-2 formation was definitely being used with both wide players in the midfield four being encouraged to hug the touchline as opposed to cut inside and make the pitch narrower.
For the first half in particular, this made for an entertaining spectacle with City, apart from a ten minute spell when they got pretty sloppy, in control against an opposing team which included Dennis Bergkamp’s nephew Roland in a lone striking role and Brendan Rodgers’ son Anton in midfield where he was accompanied, for the first half at least, by thirty eight year old Charlie Oatway (you are allowed to field three players over the age of 21 in these games) who is now a first team coach at Brighton.
In the early stages it was right winger Kevin Sainte-Luce who impressed most, especially when he got to the bye line after beating a couple of defenders and knocked over a glorious cross just waiting to be headed in by one of his colleagues. No doubt it would have been if Darko and Jarvis had been on the end of it, but the smaller Kadeem Harris had to stretch that bit to reach the ball and this resulted in him not having the control in his header to direct it in – instead it flew agonisingly wide for the player making a return after missing most of the pre season with an injury picked up at Forest Green. However, that was to be the low point of what was an encouraging hour’s work out for the winger who has played so little football since being signed from Wycombe in January.
From then on, most of City’s more dangerous moves came down their left where Harris combined very effectively with left back Declan John who got plenty of opportunities to display the dribbling and crossing skills which, before this year, had marked him out as a very promising winger himself. It was from the left that the low cross which was just missed by an onrushing Tommy O’Sullivan and then turned goalwards by Jarvis only for the effort to be blocked on the line came and a few minutes later another cross from that side was met by Jarvis at the near post as keeper East was forced into a smart save. Finally, when, with about thirty five minutes played, Harris went down under a challenge in the penalty area after another fine run, the referee pointed to the spot – a decision which looked quite a harsh one from my position about seventy or eight yards away, but the lack of Brighton protests suggested the official had got it right.
Darko, who had also fired not far wide during City’s dominant spell, confidently despatched the penalty to give City’s youngsters a half time lead they definitely deserved – if there was a criticism of them at this stage it was that they should really have been further in front. For much of a more even second half though, it looked as if that penalty would be the match winner. Apart from a fleeting chance presented to them by a poor pass by keeper Parrish and a header not too far over the bar from a corner, Brighton had not threatened at all in the first half, but, the only real concern for them after the break (until the closing stages anyway) came from from an amazing escape when they carelessly gave the ball away to Sainte-Luce whose pace took him clear of the last defender and around the keeper only for centreback Akubuine to get back and clear off the line what had appeared to be a simple tap in for the Frenchman.
The final ten minutes saw City rediscovering their attacking edge though – captain Ben Nugent nodded narrowly wide, Jarvis wasn’t far away either with a near post header and visiting sub Rae powered another fine Sainte-Luce cross on to his own crossbar, but it was just as Brighton were begining to look dangerous for about the first time in the game (Parrish saving well from a near post shot and then holding on to a close range header from the resultant corner) that City made the points safe with a superb thirty yard shot from substitute Gethyn Hill who knew exactly what he was doing as he fired over East (who was about six yards off his line) to make it 2-0. Hill then touched in a Keinan header from a corner only to be denied by a marginal offside decision (the original effort might well have been going in anyway mind) and then was only inches away from connecting with a superb Jarvis cross from the left to complete an all action end to the game for the tall striker who had scored against Brighton’s Academy team in the 2-1 defeat for the Under 18’s on the weekend. However, it was the visitors who had the last word, when their captain Barker cut in from the left and netted with a low shot which seemed to leave Parrish flat footed as he was beaten on his near post.
There was barely time to restart the game after that and the Under 21’s could reflect on a job well done in which everyone had played a part, but there were four players who stood out for me – I’ve already mentioned Harris and John (who, as well as looking good going forward coped very well in defence), but the central midfield pair of Theo Wharton and Tommy O’Sullivan both excelled – especially when you consider that they were up against a three man visiting central midfield for much of the time. Wharton gave his usual high energy display, but it was O’Sullivan who really took the eye for me with his ability to drift away from opponents when in possession marking him down as one to watch over the next few years.
* picture courtesy of http://www.cardiffcityfc.co.uk/page/Home/0,,10335,00.html