Why isn’t Wales’ capital city club making more of a contribution towards the national team?

Craig Bellamy, the last Welsh player to start for Cardiff City, scores his last ever goal for the club in 2014. (Technically an own goal as it came off a Chelsea player). Picture by Jon Candy. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Luke James

In the time since a Welsh player last started a Premier League match for Cardiff City, two World Cup finals have taken place, Wales qualified for the finals of a major tournament for the first time in almost 60 years and Lionel Messi has scored 249 goals for club and country.

In non-football terms, there’s been a vote to leave the EU, Donald Trump was elected US president and we’ve discovered what a black hole looks like.

Whichever way you look at it, a lot has happened since a Welshman last featured in Cardiff’s starting XI for an English top flight match five years ago this weekend.

On that occasion, Craig Bellamy, Declan John and Thomas James clocked-up a combined 167 minutes as Cardiff ended their first brief stay in the Premier League with a 2-1 loss to Chelsea.

It means that Cardiff’s then manager, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, who coincidentally will be in the opposition dugout for Cardiff’s latest swansong at Old Trafford on Sunday, gave more Premier League minutes to Welsh players during a single match than current Bluebirds boss Neil Warnock has done during the entirety of this season.

Jazz Richards is the only Welsh player to have featured in Cardiff’s ultimately unsuccessful but spirited fight for survival, and his chances have been limited to three substitute appearances, the last of which came in October 2018.

In total, Richards has played for 96 minutes this season. By contrast, Bellamy and John played 2,738 minutes between them over 42 league appearances during Cardiff’s last Premier League stay.

The lack of Welsh players hasn’t bothered Bluebirds fans, most of whom have warmed to the combative Warnock as one of their own and want him to stay next season.  

But the lack of game time given to Welsh players at the capital club is already causing problems for national team manager Ryan Giggs, who needs Cardiff to make a contribution to the already small pool of players he has to pick from. 

He was able to select two current Swansea City players in his last starting XI for Wales’ opening Euro 2020 qualifier against Slovakia, full-back Conor Roberts and winger Dan James, who scored the winning goal.

In addition, Swansea-reared stars Ben Davies and Joe Allen also started the match, while Ashley Williams came off the bench to firm-up the defence in the closing stages.

Cardiff academy products Aaron Ramsey and Chris Gunter, now the country’s most capped player, are still mainstays of the squad, while John remains on its fringes, but there’s no current Cardiff player involved in the national team. 

It’s a far cry from Giggs’ playing days, when he regularly lined-up alongside Cardiff’s Danny Gabbidon, James Collins, Robert Earnshaw and Joe Ledley.

Style

The trend is also manifesting itself at youth level. Swansea had four representatives in the last Wales under-21 squad compared to Cardiff’s one – the same number as Barry Town.

The last time a serving Bluebird pulled on the red shirt of Wales was Jazz Richards’s 45-minute shift at home to Austria in 2017.

Richards, a product of Swansea City’s academy, has been a lone and little-used flag bearer at Cardiff in recent seasons.  

He was the only Welsh player in the squad Warnock steered to Championship promotion last season, playing just six times.  

He was also the last Welsh player to be among the first XI for any Bluebirds league fixture, starting against Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship on January 20, 2018.

“He’s not bothered about the Welsh team,” former Wales international Iwan Roberts said of Warnock on the latest edition of Elis James’ Feast of Football show for BBC Wales.

Commenting on the difference in management styles at Wales’ two biggest clubs, Roberts added: “Swansea have got a young, bright prospect who enjoys working with youth and developing talent. Completely the opposite to Neil Warnock, he likes to go out and buy and get ready-made players in.”

The result has been that, rather than flying the Welsh flag in the world’s most-watched league, Cardiff are starting to resemble the antithesis of Athletic Bilbao, who famously only use players with a connection to the Basque Country.

Five Premier League clubs have given more game time to Welsh players than Cardiff this season – Tottenham, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Newcastle.

Under pressure from fans demanding instant success, the club has shed young Welsh players in favour of experienced journeymen.

Tom Lawrence, the versatile attacker who came through the ranks under the watch of Giggs at Manchester United, endured a frustrating loan spell in south Wales under Russell Slade’s management.

“I didn’t get the opportunities that I should have had there under the manager and there were issues off the field,” Lawrence explained afterwards.

Exciting midfielder Emyr Huws was brought in during the short-lived reign of former Wales international, Paul Trollope, but was shipped out to Ipswich in the first transfer window after Warnock took over.

Declan John was loaned out to Scottish club Rangers before a permanent transfer also in January 2018. He will line up against Cardiff next season for their arch-rivals, Swansea, after being signed by Graham Potter last summer.

The result is that this season has seen Welsh players at Cardiff given the fewest league minutes any time over the past decade.

The average playing time given to Welsh players, with Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Adam Mathews among them, over that period was over 3,000 minutes a season.

In the 2008/2009 season it was as high as 6,738 minutes, although it did fall to 276 minutes in 2014/15. 

Unwanted

There are still positives to take in terms of player development for Cardiff.

Joe Ralls and Kadeem Harris, who joined the club as teenagers from Farnborough Town and Wycombe Wanderers respectively and have spent the past eight seasons at the club, earned 41 Premier League appearances between them.

For Cardiff’s current emerging stars, the brightest of which is Welsh wing-back Cameron Coxe, it suggests the club is still willing to develop young talent. 

The involvement of Rhys Healey, who was signed from the Welsh Premier League’s Connah’s Quay Nomads, also demonstrates the growing quality of players in the domestic competition. 

Unfortunately for Giggs, none of the players brought through at Cardiff are eligible for Wales.  

So it falls to Bellamy, in his new capacity as a coach with Cardiff’s academy, to ensure that the unwanted record he still holds as the last Welshman to start a Premier League match for the Bluebirds is broken sooner rather than later. 


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