Well, after last night’s hard fought 2-0 win for the Under 21 Development team over Charlton in a game played for the most part in torrential rain, maybe Malky Mackay has a bit more choice than the pick any four from five selection we assumed he had – I say this because four young defenders turned in performances that hinted, to varying degrees, that they could maybe offer more to the first team this season than just selection for low priority cup matches like Northampton away in the League Cup.
At centre back, captain Ben Nugent did not suffer in comparison to the returning Ben Turner who played the first hour of this match – Nugent, who was used mostly as a left back in pre season games, did the basics well and his passing often showed the confidence of someone who has taken a big step forward in recent weeks as a result of spending time in and around the senior squad. Adedeji Oshilaja had a good game both at right back and then in the middle of defence when he switched inside to take Turner’s place for the last third of the game. If Oshilaja put in more of a steady and solid showing on the right, then sub Kevin Sainte-Luce showed a verve and attacking desire in that position which added something to the team during a very effective half an hour in which he only showed the sort of defensive indiscipline you might expect from a winger trying to make the conversion to full back on one occasion (and that was when he got a bit over confident because he had been playing so well).
However, it was left back Declan John who impressed me the most – like Saint-Luce, he did get his team into a spot of bother once with a sloppy inside pass which Nugent had to clear up, but that was the only blemish from him in a good first half performance in which he gave impressive evidence of how quickly he is coming to terms with his new position. In fact, in a first period in which Charlton generally held sway, it was as a defender that John showed up best – the way he moved over to the right to cover a break from a City corner by the visitors and then find the space to play out from the back on his weaker side was impressive, but even better was the way he supported the left sided centreback to make a perfect tackle in the penalty area to save what looked a certain goal and win his side a goal kick.
However, just like Sainte-Luce, I’m sure that the main reason why City are looking at utilising someone who was a winger until this season as a full back is because of what he can bring to the attacking side of the game and this was shown to great effect in the second half as he combined superbly with Craig Conway down the left for the two decisive moments of the match. The first came when John received a pass from Joe Ralls and burst past a couple of opponents before playing Conway in with a pass that completely split the Charlton defence. As Conway bore down on goal, I groaned as he took what looked to be a poor touch which made scoring look much more difficult to me, but he proved me wrong with a clever dinked effort over Charlton keeper Sullivan which finished just inside the far post to open the scoring around the hour mark. Five minutes later, Conway returned the favour when he received a good cross field pass from Nat Jarvis to put John in on goal with a perfectly timed pass and, although the angle looked an awkward one for the youngster, he finished a fine move off emphatically by drilling in a low shot which nutmegged Sullivan on it’s way into the corner of the net.
Conway was the most impressive of the six players who I would believe think of themselves as genuine first team candidates that started the game. Besides scoring, Conway went close with thee other shots from distance and, generally looked bright and inventive – it was a good way of showing the watching Malky Mackay that he shouldn’t be forgotten. Of the other “senior” players, Joe Lewis made a brilliant first half save to foil Danny Haynes (the former Ipswich, Bristol City and Barnsley striker being one of only three names in the Charlton side I recognised along with keeper Sullivan and captain Scott Wagstaffe), Turner eased his way back into things with an efficient showing, Ralls became more of an influence as the game went on, Joe Mason had a quiet time of it with only a couple of examples of his clever movement and anticipation and Rudy Gestede did pretty well during his forty five minutes, having an effort cleared off the line in the last minute of the first half.
However, apart from that Gestede effort and the first of Conway’s long range shots, City didn’t create much in a first half in which Charlton gradually took control with their better passing – besides those moments when John and Lewis excelled which I described earlier, the visitors also hit the post with a snap shot from twenty yards by Jordan and they must have been disappointed to not have been ahead at the break. The same pattern continued in the opening stages of a second half which saw Jesse Darko replace Gestede – Jordan hit the post again and City had Jaye Bowen and Saint-Luce on the touchline ready to replace Mason and Turner when they took the lead very much against the run of play.
Much of what I watched in the first hour of the game served as a reminder that when you go to what is essentially a reserve game to watch a side which contains a lot of senior, first team standard players, they invariably end up failing to show their first team form. Yesterday afternoon I read a piece on Charlton’s official site in which their Under 21 side manager (ex City apprentice Nathan Jones) talked about what a great experience it would be for his youngsters to play at a place like Cardiff City Stadium and yet when you are used to playing there in front of fifty to a hundred times more people than were present last night, I’m sure it’s hard to get fired up about the same occasion (especially when it’s absolutely hammering down with rain as well).
Therefore, it probably shouldn’t have been too much of a shock to see City doing so much better in the last half an hour with a side that, on paper at least, looked a good deal weaker than the one which started the game. After being outpassed for long periods, the youngsters, who probably were much more familiar with each other’s game and saw it as their opportunity to impress as opposed to a way of easing themselves back towards full fitness or a chance to stay match sharp, put together a very impressive sequence of twenty or more passes before a Charlton player touched the ball – the visitors did hit the post once more and I’m sure they went home cursing their bad luck, but by the end, City had established themselves as the better side over the last third of the game and were playing with confidence.
One last thing, I was critical of Aron Gunnarsson for conceding the first penalty at Palace on Saturday with a needless handball. I’d only watched the incident once and, probably stupidly, taken the word of the Radio Wales commentary team that it was indeed him who handled it. Well, it seems I, along with plenty of others, might owe the Icelandic captain an apology because the local press have been reporting that it was Andrew Taylor who was responsible and, having looked at the video on the official site this morning, I think they might be right. The pictures aren’t that clear, but it does seem as if it is Taylor who handles it – if it is him, then I wouldn’t expect him to lose his place over the incident, but there’s less room for any complacency on his part than there might have been earlier this month after the transfer window closed, because, all of a sudden, the notion of Declan John playing league football for us this season at left back doesn’t look anywhere near as barking mad as it did a few months ago.