Cardiff City fans have rarely ever had the opportunity to chant the name of ‘one of their own,’ becoming used to the trend of seeing a first-team devoid of any homegrown talent. Since Steve Morison’s introduction into the Cardiff Academy’s coaching setup however, things have quietly started to change.
Morison was appointed as head coach of Cardiff’s U23 team in February 2020, linking up with ex-Millwall teammate Neil Harris. Having cut his teeth in the academy setups of Northampton Town and Millwall, it seemed an astute appointment from the board. Although initially going largely unnoticed by most Bluebirds, the work of Morison and his coaching team was turning out result after result, all the while nurturing young talent through his progressive, attacking play.
None are more obvious benefactors of this than Rubin Colwill, who’s meteoric rise through the Cardiff ranks has earned him plaudits from both Mick McCarthy and Robert Page, while earning a spot in the final Wales European Championship squad.
With a brace to secure a win at Nottingham Forest earlier in the season, City fans could finally sing the praises of ‘one of their own’ and the conveyor belt of talent to the first team had finally begun, with the likes of Joel Bagan, Sam Bowen and Kieron Evans all given their debuts.
Yet there is cause for more excitement, with the U23’s continuing from their positive showings last season, where they eventually finished 3rd. With a dynamic, attacking style, the young Bluebirds have been throttling all opposition, recording six wins out of six, sitting proudly atop the PDL South table, scoring 15 goals and conceding just two along the way.
Setting up in a fluid 5-2-3/3-4-3 formation, the tactics couldn’t be further away from those utilised by Mick McCarthy. Encouraging full backs to bomb forward in attack, Morison sets his team up to be an aggressively pressing side, constantly looking to gain possession as quickly as possible. With neat interplay between midfield and attack, you’ll often see the striker (predominantly Chanka Zimba, City’s top goalscorer this season) dropping into space to weave things together. He pulls defenders out of position to leave gaping holes in behind, as exemplified by his recent goal against Sheffield United.
The attacking trio of Zimba, Isaak Evans and Davies has been a particularly potent one, combining magnificently to score 10 of City’s 15 goals this season. Zimba’s 6”1 frame allows him to dominate defences physically, however he is deceptively quick, beating opposition players to the ball time and time again. Although striking a big presence, Zimba has also proven to be fleet footed, showing excellent footwork and ability over the ball.
Davies and Evans benefit massively from this, poking through holes and making darting runs towards goal, leaving defenders in their wake. The latter, in particular, is frighteningly fast, cutting past defenders with ease. Evans has proven to be somewhat of a dead-ball specialist, scoring a wonderful freekick from 20 yards out against Sheffield Wednesday, however he may initially struggle with the physicality of the Championship when called upon.
Of course, the attack wouldn’t be as proficient as they are without the class and composure of a midfield, frequently rotating between Sam Bowen, Keenan Patten, Eli King and Tavio D’Almeida. Doggedly hardworking and composed, the midfield shows a guile on and off the ball, able to make barnstorming runs towards the opposition box, providing another outlet for the attack, as well as breaking up play and dominating the opposition on the ball.
This has been built on the base of a solid defence, with the acquisition of youngsters Oliver Denham and Jai Semenyo, brother of Bristol City striker Antoine, proving to be shrewd business. The former has been a rock at the back, integrating well with fellow centre halves Taylor Jones and James Connolly, each as capable with the ball as they are without it. Semenyo is already proving a steal, with the club managing to scoop him from under Severnside rivals Bristol City’s noses. The fullback is rapid, able to play in defence or attack, comfortable on either flank and, as is key to this City team, able to find a pass.
The key to Morison’s system is adaptability, as seen in their latest 4-1 victory against Charlton Athletic. With the obvious woes of the first team and the unwavering calls from fans for there to be a change in the lineup, it came as no surprise when the U23 team was announced, that it was littered with six changes. Of those, three had featured heavily in the U18’s 5-0 victory over Bristol, highlighting the academy-wide identity that is being created.
Under McCarthy, it’s difficult to see any real change coming, but could this style of play finally bleed through into the first-team? Who knows. but if the academy keep finding success under the tutelage of Morison, a stylistic renaissance feels inevitable.