I’ve been wrestling recently with whether the current crop of players are breaking through because they’re so much better than what has gone before, or is it just a culmination of circumstances and they’re finally giving them a chance?
When I was at the academy, we had very limited resources. From day to day, we didn’t even know where we were going to train or what time because we didn’t have a pitch. We had about five different home grounds, scattered around Cardiff. We even had to go to Newport or Treforest sometimes, but it was never an excuse because we used to tell them that when they do make it, they’ll appreciate everything. Now go and show them how hard you work. We turned it in to a positive. We’ve always had good players, but if you don’t give them the opportunity, you’ll never know. If Sion Spence had played at 16 or 17, which he should have and I tried so hard for him, you’ll lose him.
Under-23 football is one of the biggest sins in the game. It’s a waste of time and every coach at that level would tell you the same. If you haven’t made it at 19, 20, 21, something is wrong. Some managers will keep them because they want to win games, but he doesn’t care about the players. Category Two academies are not good enough. I was lucky because in pre-season, we would play Liverpool, West Ham and all my ex-clubs, but you don’t normally get that standard of games. Covid has changed things for young players because clubs haven’t got any money. Now you have no choice but to play young players. Would Cardiff have still done it had they not been affected? I don’t know, but they’ve been forced to.
I got my start because Norwich were debt ridden after relegation. They had to play me and I wasn’t good enough to be playing regularly. My first year in the Championship at 18, I scored 13 goals and learned so much about the game. There were a lot of games where I didn’t play well, but when they sold me two years later for £6.5m, it was all due to those circumstances. Was I still not playing at 19 or 20, you might not have ever heard of me. Sion is a prime example. He was playing youth football at 14. He was incredible, one of the best players I’ve ever coached and that’s including Anderlecht, which is another level. He would have thrived in that environment. If you don’t put them in, they get stale and go backwards.
Take Mark Harris, as an example. He has bounced around for a while and has finally broken through, but is that because he’s significantly improved, or just that a pathway has now been established and there’s less competition? Cardiff have lacked pace for so long and he’s helping resolve that, but could he have helped a year or two earlier? I also often ponder Rhys Healey, who is now doing so well at Toulouse. He came on for you to make his debut and was at Cardiff so long. I feel like they failed him and had they shown any faith in him, maybe they would now have the Healey that scored four the other week.
Of course they failed him. What does mismanagement, spending loads of money and giving older players longer contracts get you? What is your goal? You’re living year to year, but you need to recruit smartly. Young players start with a value of zero, so their value only goes up. You’ve created value and profit. Managers will get what they want in the short term and do it for now because they’re only interested in themselves. They do not care for the welfare of the football club. A lot of managers won’t play young players because they’re inconsistent. They might come good in a year’s time, but they could be sacked before that.
A manager will say that there are no young players coming through, but what they’re often really saying is that I want money to sign players they want instead. Alarm bells should ring because what happens then is that the age of the squad goes up and you’re wasting money really. If you’ve got a direction, a manager can have a say, but not the final say. Agents like to make you think that there are not enough players on the market to try and drive prices up, but it’s a load of rubbish. There are so many undervalued players out there, if you scout and recruit properly.
If you take the current situation at the club as a case study, Cardiff are heading towards the summer with nine senior players heading out of contract. Most of which are currently key players and all potentially leaving in one hit. You can look at it in one of two ways. It’s either a golden opportunity for a reboot, on and off the field, while promoting the youngsters. Alternatively, are you burdening these kids with too much expectation and responsibility as a result of poor planning? Is the ideal scenario to keep some and promote some, keeping some continuity and a bit of a mix? If we were talking about Anderlecht, who scout really well and have a plan, then I would say let’s start again, but I don’t have faith in Cardiff finding a way to make it work.
I see this as the best opportunity that Cardiff have ever had. People panic or worry and I understand that, but from a football perspective, this is the ideal chance to get your house in order. I see it as exciting. This could be one of the best things that has ever happened to Cardiff City, if you do it right. Until now, Cardiff have done it wrong and you can tell that by the fact that they have nine players heading out of contract in the first place. So, there’s a problem, but we cannot get ourselves in this position again. What are we going to do about it?
You could spend the savings you make on the recruitment department and get the best people in. People who can recruit well and have the best databases. I know someone that owns a database; Vincent Kompany! The number of players I’ve scouted over the last couple of years, in every league going, they’re out there. Cardiff could get players ahead of Anderlecht. The Championship is more appealing than the Pro League because it’s one step away from the Premier League and that’s where everyone wants to play. When Cardiff got promoted a few years ago, they were one of the oldest teams in the league, but you need to have a low average age. You need to recruit well and have an identity for the way you play.