Cardiff 2 - 1 Forest. Comment

Last updated : 31 January 2022 By Paul Evans

When a side is at a stage when it has played thirty games in all competitions, it should be hard to select one as the best of the bunch. Of course, a lot depends on how successful the team has been, but, typically, I’d say there’d be around five matches you’d be choosing from.


It’s a testimony to how poor Cardiff City have been in 21/22, that I’d say today’s 2-1 home win over Nottingham Forest has only got one possible rival in the best of season stakes – our first league win of the campaign, the game we kept our only clean sheet in, the 2-0 win at Blackpool back in August.

It felt like a different Cardiff City out there today, but that’s probably because, to a large extent, it was! Four players have been brought in on loan this month, while two more returned to the club from loan spells at other teams – all six of them started against Forest and there were one or two positional switches that ensured this was a lot different from the outfit we’ve previously seen huffing and puffing to little effect in home matches in particular.

Despite understandable calls for a move away from the three man central defence given our dreadful defensive record, Steve Morison stuck with it after what I’ll diplomatically call a curt response to a question about switching to a flat back at his media briefing on Friday.

However, two of the three central defenders from the Ashton Gate horror show were left out – Aden Flint was relegated to a substitute, while Curtis Nelson was out of the eighteen entirely. Into their places came Sean Morrison and, very interestingly, Perry Ng with the latter operating on the right and Mark McGuinness moving to the left.

Although I wasn’t altogether overjoyed at the thought of McGuinness on that side of the pitch and still aren’t after seeing him play ninety minutes there, Ng moving infield has been something that has seemed worth a try for a while as the goals against tally clocked up and, on today’s evidence, he’s going to be playing there more in the weeks ahead.

I suppose Ng was the replacement for Nelson in terms of him being smallish for such a role and I’d say Nelson was the better of the two in the air, but Ng has a poise about him that Nelson lacks, is a better passer, doesn’t give away as many free kicks as the man he replaced  and has a similar level of defensive awareness and anticipation.

If the intention is to have a team that plays more football than recent Cardiff sides, then Ng at centreback makes sense and, apart from his role in Forest’s goal which I’ll come to later, he did little wrong today – based on this one game, it’s an experiment well worth persevering with.

City fans got their third look at Cody Drameh today and he confirmed the impression I’ve formed so far that he adds a lot in terms of athleticism, but his use of the ball could be a bit better.

On the left, it was another loan signing, Alfie Doughty, who I first noticed in some games he played for a relegated Charlton two seasons ago. At that time, he was used as a winger and made a positive impression on me. He seemed one of the players Charlton could build a challenge to regain their Championship status upon, but he’d disappeared off my radar after that to the extent that I didn’t know he’d moved on to Stoke around this time last season and, since then, it seems he’s been used almost entirely as a substitute.

Opinions on Doughty were mixed I’d say on the Stoke messageboard I looked at today, but, overall I’d say they were more positive than negative, with the view being expressed by a few that they were surprised to see being loaned out.

I must admit I feared for Doughty in his role of left wing back at times today as he faced up to the highly rated Djed Spence and Brennan Johnson down Forest’s right. However, after Johnson had skipped past him with ease in one of the first times they’d been in direct opposition, Doughty stuck to his task and generally held the dangerous pair in check.

Clamour is too strong a word for it, but there have been repeated calls for a combination of Joe Ralls, Ryan Wintle and Tommy Doyle to form a three man midfield unit and today those responsible for them got their wish as that trio were charged with patrolling the middle of the park.

It has to be emphasised that it was just one game which we’re talking about here, but the signs were encouraging with a balance to that part of the team clearly at odds with what we’ve been seeing from our midfield over the past few months (and years!).

There has to be real doubts as to whether Ralls will be here next season, but, although he had luck on his side when he avoided even a yellow card for a bad foul on Ryan Yates in the first half, today he showed why we should be doing all we can to try and get him to stay. There is a tendency for Ralls to be lumped in with the failing group of late twenty/early thirty year olds who I see as the main cause of our struggles, but, especially for most of the time Steve Morison has been in charge, Ralls has been looking more like his old self and showed today why there will surely be plenty of clubs at this level interested in him if he does decide it’s time to move on.

I’m not going to say much about Doyle and Wintle except that the former is a very un Cardiff City like midfielder in that he rarely gives the ball away, while with the latter, it’s hard to define what he brings to a team, so I’ll just say he has a way of making them look more solid.

Up front was Max Watters and Jordan Hugill with the first named being more involved than he had been in his previous matches for us and it looks like his loan move to MK Dons definitely moved his career forward, but it was all about his strike colleague really today.

Hugill was a right handful when he was at Preston, but his 2018 move to the Premier League with West Ham didn’t work and, since then, apart from a season at QPR where he had a one in three strike rate, he’s not had much success culminating in the loan spell at West Brom during the first half of this season which was a real struggle for him – so much so, that he sought to cut it short when he became aware of our interest in taking him on loan.

Today, however, Hugill made a huge difference for us in what I would say was the most complete performance seen from a City striker this season. Clearly, a goal in five minutes helped him along the way, but there’d already been some promising contributions from him before that and he looked to be very much a man on a mission – he was a deserving winner of Sky’s Man of the Match, but it was pleasing that Ralls and Ng we’re definitely very strong contenders for it as well.

One other thing on Hugill, I’d say his arrival makes it more likely that we’ll see Keiffer Moore leaving the club on transfer deadline day. Losing the 20/21 version of Moore would be a huge /blow, but the 21/22 one, not so much and, as I mentioned earlier, I thought Hugill on his debut was better than this season’s Moore..

For the first time this season, City had the benefit of an early goal in a home match to build a performance on. In truth, it was almost all of Forest’s making as their desire to push their full backs on while using a back four left Steve Cook completely exposed when his centreback partner Scott McKenna carelessly conceded possession just inside our half. Ng sent Hugill into a huge space in the inside right channel leaving Cook with a difficult “stick or twist” decision and he ended up doing neither really as he concentrated more on Watters running inside of Hugill. Nevertheless, Hugill showed more pace than I was expecting of him as he ran from halfway to plant what he admitted was a slightly scuffed shot beyond Brice Samba inside the far post.

The goal summed up the match in many ways in that City we’re prepared to let Forest have the ball as they looked to hit them on the break. It was a throwback to the days of around thirty per cent possession, but, unlike too much of the time during recent seasons, we used that one third possession effectively with, that one time when Johnson got away from Doughy apart, all of the relevant goalmouth action was at the Forest end in the first half, notably when Hugill met a Doyle cross with a close range effort that was well struck, but too close to Samba and Ralls’ superbly struck twenty five yarder had the keeper beaten, but passed about a yard over the bar.

For too much of this season, City have been so easy to play through, here though it was only in the closing stages as a few tired that Forest finally began to get some success on that score. Before that, we’d seen the obligatory clear penalty for a foul on Morrison, this time by McKenna as a corner came in, that went ignored and our captain felt he was fouled (I’m not so sure about that mind) when James Garner got the better of him out by the corner flag to fire over a cross that just missed the lunging Johnson.

That moment apart though, City kept the edge they enjoyed for about eighty per cent of the game but they were unable to capitalise on several promising situations to get that second goal you felt they needed given our woeful clean sheets record.

Isaak Davies was introduced for Watters early in the second half and had already got over a couple of searching crosses from the right when he made what turned out to be the decisive impact on the game midway through the second half.

The danger to Forest seemed over after Hugill, played in down the left, put over a cross intended for Davies that Samba managed to divert  away from the young striker, but the ball was just about retrieved by Drameh I think it was before it went out for a throw in, who fed Ralls and the midfielder produced his second fine shot of the game. This one was from the corner of the penalty area and curled beyond Samba only to come back off the inside of the far post. If luck was against City then, it was on their side when the ball got a touch off Samba’s foot and fell into the path of Davies some ten yards out who was left with the simple task of walking the ball in for the first league goal of his career.

Despite, City’s defensive disasters throughout their season, they were playing well enough here for me to feel that was game over and a third goal for us was more likely than a first for Forest. This should have been truer when Lewis Grabban had to leave the field after a heavy, but fair, challenge by sub Will Vaulks with all of Forest’s substitutions already made, but, actually, the visitors proved more dangerous with ten men than they were with eleven.

Sub Silva fired carelessly over after a one two similar to the one which opened us up for Bristol’s second goal last weekend had left him clean through and another replacement Keinan Davis nodded in a corner deep into added time to ensure our long wait for a clean sheet goes on.

At first glance, it looked like another shocking goal to be added to 21/22’s long list ss Ng blotted his copybook by losing Davis, but replays showed that the striker had definitely pushed the defender in the back as the ball was coming in. This was made all the more galling when I recalled Watters doing something similar in the first half and being rightly penalised with the commentator saying something like forwards are never going to get away with things like that.

So, City were robbed of the clean sheet that they very much deserved and the match stopped short of justifying the description perfect, but it was still a very good one which took me for one very much by surprise as I had it down very much as an away banker.

The fact that it wasn’t reflects very well on manager Morison who I had been becoming increasingly critical of – particularly for his media unfriendly briefings which I thought, and still think, make life more difficult for him than it need be. However, full credit to our manager for bringing in players that were able to help come up with a performance that was, by some distance, our best at home this season, for some bold selections, for, finally, being able to make some tweaks which improved our defending and for sending out a side that were, clearly, prepared to fight on his behalf – his satisfaction was clear to see after the game.

Our manager was right though to emphasise that this was just one game and, with the Sky cameras present and a completely new look team out there with some players out to prove a point, it was comparatively easy to come up with the performance and result that they did – Oakwell on Wednesday will be a completely different type of challenge.

Barnsley is the first of two huge games we have coming up. “Huge” is an overworked word when applied to forthcoming fixtures, but it is justified in this case   forget Liverpool in six day’s time, I’m talking about Barnsley away and Peterborough at home.