Why more Welsh players have appeared for Cardiff in the last two seasons than the previous nine combined
The last time a Wales manager had so many Cardiff City players to keep an eye on, the current postholder was playing for the Bluebirds.
Cardiff have used nine Welsh players this season – the highest number since the 2004/5 season when Rob Page was one of 11 Welsh players to make a league appearance.
And no one will be happier than the Wales manager. Among that number are Rubin Colwill and Mark Harris who have already broken into Page’s squad, while the likes of Isaak Davies, Eli King and Oliver Denham are pushing for a call-up in the under-21s.
Six of the nine started their careers at Cardiff City’s academy. An academy that was all but written off by former manager Neil Warnock.
“They just weren’t good enough to get in the first team and I don’t think they will be in the next few years,” Warnock said of what is now being described as a golden generation. He warned again this week that the Championship “is not a schoolboy kickabout” and urged Morrison to sign more experienced players.
Warnock though didn’t start the move away from homegrown players. When he arrived in 2016, it had already been five years since Welsh players made more than 100 appearances for the club.
But Warnock’s physical and direct brand of football, which unexpectedly took Cardiff back to the Premier League, was incompatible with the players being produced by the club’s academy.
“All this pretty pass, pass, pass… but I don’t see any coaching in defending,” Warnock said. Though he gave a league debut to Mark Harris shortly after taking over, he used only one Welsh player, Jazz Richards, for just 10 games during his two full seasons at the Cardiff City Stadium.
It meant there were no Cardiff City players involved in the senior men’s national team for the first game of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, as Nation.Cymru reported at the time. A problem for any country with just a clutch of professional clubs.
By contrast, the starting XI for the match against Slovakia included two Swansea players and two more Swansea academy products. It was the logical conclusion of a decade in which Swansea had given almost twice as many minutes to Welsh players.
The change at Cardiff has come through both design and necessity.
The club bought or loaned Welsh players who already had senior experience like Vaulks, Kieffer Moore and Harry Wilson, while increasing investment in the academy.
Having arrived as under-23s coach as part of that agenda, former Wales international Steve Morrison found himself hurriedly promoted to first team manager following a run of poor results for Mick McCarthy.
Those circumstances have proved crucial to creating the conditions for the emergence of Colwill and co.
“When Morrison came in, we had nothing left to lose at that stage,” Cardiff City follower Ben James told the latest episode of Podcast Pel-Droed. “We can’t sign any new players because he came in around October, November time but we need to freshen up the squad because it was very stale at that point.”
The result is that Welsh players have made more appearances for Cardiff in the last two seasons than they did in the previous nine seasons combined.
While a few of the youngsters have made just a handful of appearances, others have already made a real impact and provided moments which crystalised the progress.
First, a Welsh hat-trick within the space of five minutes from Colwill, Harris and Moore to rescue a point after having been 3-0 down at Stoke.
Later, Bluebirds fans feared the worst for a makeshift team featuring Denham, King and Harris facing Liverpool at Anfield only to peek through their fingers and see the latter causing chaos for Champions League-winning defenders before a thoroughly deserved consolation goal for Colwill.
But perhaps most symbolically was four minutes in London on the weekend after St David’s Day, in which Davies, who has been a Bluebird since the age of 7, first equalised against QPR before winning a free-kick which was spectacularly converted by Colwill, who joined aged 8. “What a day though for the academy,” said Colwill afterwards.
Experience at club level is clearly starting to benefit country too, with Colwill scoring his first goal for Wales later that month in a side featuring two more current Cardiff players and academy graduate Chris Gunter.
Swansea continues to set the standard: half of Wales’ outfield players in the World Cup play-off against Austria five days earlier had been products of their academy.
But progress on homegrown talent has given a “lift” for supporters during a challenging season which saw the Bluebirds finish 18th in the Championship.
“It’s great that we’ve got Welsh based players playing for the City,” Tim Hartley of the Cardiff City Supporters’ Trust told Nation.Cymru. “It gives you a real sense of togetherness that we’ve got Welsh players and especially ones which actually play for the senior team, which have got caps.”
“Cardiff City call themselves the pride of Wales and it is a matter of pride that we’ve got Welsh players playing for the Bluebirds week in, week out. It certainly gives the supporters a bit of lift and long may it continue.”
With 12 senior players out of contract this summer, more opportunities for Welsh younsters in the season to come could ensure Cardiff once again make a real contribution to the national team.
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