Gair Rhydd Sport’s Olly Allen investigates the state of Cardiff City’s academy and it’s success in producing first-team talent for the senior side.
by Olly Allen
The 2007-08 season was a pretty good one to be a Cardiff City fan. The club reached the FA Cup final, a new stadium was on the horizon and a trio of exciting young academy players were making their mark on the first team. Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Chris Gunter have gone on to have impressive careers in the game, including being part of Wales’s historic Euro 2016 side, and they have the Bluebirds to thank for their development.
However, instead of being the beginning of a promising trend, their emergence in South Wales has not been matched since, and Cardiff fans haven’t seen a homegrown player assert themselves on the first team for over a decade. You might be able to argue the case for Adam Matthews and Declan John, but neither were regulars for a sustained period of time.
There have also been young players let go by Cardiff who have gone on to forge careers for themselves in the professional game, including current Welsh internationals Tom Lockyer and Rabbi Matondo and Championship regulars Josh Magennis and Deji Oshilaja. It’s a worrying phenomenon.
“The academy is something that should be at the forefront more,” says supporter Jordan Jones, who founded Welsh domestic league blog Y Clwb Pêl-Droed.
“Cardiff as a capital city of Wales should be producing more talent given their resources and stature as a club.”
It’s a feeling shared by Ben James, from fansite View From The Ninian: “I think we know the power of the academy and the level of talent that can come through. So there’s a real worry not only over that players aren’t coming through but what may happen to these players who go elsewhere.”
Life under Neil Warnock
It was a problem that Neil Warnock identified when he first joined the club in October 2016. He set about restructuring the academy, with Under-23s manager Kevin Nicholson leaving his post and first team coaches Kevin Blackwell, Ronnie Jepson and James Rowberry being given a more prominent role at youth level. Craig Bellamy became player development manager, whilst Jarred Harvey was placed in charge of the Under-23s, joined a few months later by club legend Andy Legg.
But in Warnock’s three years as manager, little changed. Before this season, just three academy players – Mark Harris, Ibrahim Meite and Cameron Coxe – had made their first team debuts under the veteran boss. That figure doubled when Ciaron Brown, Shamar Moore and James Waite were selected against Luton Town in the League Cup first round in August. Cardiff lost 3-0, and the trio have not featured again. In total, this group of six players have just 10 senior appearances between them, with only four being starts.
“If they are good enough for the squad, you have to assume they are good enough to get on the pitch,” says James.
“I’d just like to see them getting those minutes because that can build their confidence and feel for the first team.”
“He [Warnock] didn’t have much interest in the academy in my opinion,” former Cardiff academy goalkeeper Luke O’Reilly told Gair Rhydd Sport.
This is an opinion shared by another former academy player who spoke to us, but preferred to stay anonymous.
“The only thing I thank Neil for is that he was honest,” he said.
“I didn’t agree with his methods… he didn’t really take time out to look at the Under-23s, but at the same time he had a job to do with the first team.
“You had to appreciate that he wasn’t there to bring through Under-23s, he was there to win games as first team manager. I don’t think he was a bad person, I think he was a good manager, but for me and a lot of my teammates it obviously wasn’t meant to be.
“As soon as Warnock came in, if you weren’t his cup of tea then you may as well find another job. I think he just felt at the time he didn’t want players over 20 [in the Under-23s],” said the anonymous former Cardiff City player.
A lack of Welsh presence
There is a distinct lack of Welshmen in the Cardiff first team in general at present, let alone academy graduates. Jazz Richards, who was in Cardiff’s academy until the age of 15 before coming through at Swansea, was the only Welshman to feature in the Premier League last season for the Bluebirds, and he only made four substitute appearances. The signing of four-cap Will Vaulks in the summer was a welcome addition.
26-year-old Joe Ralls is theoretically an academy graduate, but the England-born midfielder was signed from Farnborough aged 16, so doesn’t quite have the local appeal. Kadeem Harris, who joined Sheffield Wednesday in the summer, is a similar case having moved to Cardiff from Wycombe Wanderers at the same age.
Along the M4 in Swansea, Joe Rodon and Connor Roberts have come through the academy to be virtual ever-presents in the first team in the last couple of years, along with Dan James, who moved to Manchester United in the summer. It’s something that Wales manager Ryan Giggs has picked up on too, commenting last November.
“Swansea are getting their heart and soul back because I think it’s important to have local players. We just need Cardiff to start doing that now.”
It is perhaps worth noting at this point that Swansea have an advantage over Cardiff in being a Category One graded academy, meaning they compete against the UK’s best youth teams every week and also receive more funding. Cardiff’s academy meanwhile is Category Two, meaning they compete in a league system with no promotion or relegation. Category status is decided based on productivity rates, training facilities, coaching, education and welfare provisions.
“It was like a crèche”
Craig Bellamy, who stepped down from his role as Cardiff’s Under-18 coach in January following allegations of bullying a young player, was critical of the club’s approach towards young players in a recent interview with The Times.
“There have been six boys from my team here [at new club Anderlecht, where he is Under-21s manager] making their first-team debut already this season,” he said.
“Not one in two years at Cardiff. I tried and I tried but I couldn’t even get them into first-team training.
“I tried to change it at Cardiff because I’m from there. But you can’t change above you. Everyone at the club has to believe in it. So it’s from one extreme at Cardiff to another here at Anderlecht where it’s all about development.”
Bellamy also revealed that the club were considering shutting the academy when he first moved to the coaching set-up in 2014, something that clubs such as Huddersfield Town and Brentford have done in recent years as the money being spent was not equating to academy players breaking through to the first team.
“A lot of people at the club were also saying they didn’t have the quality,” Bellamy continued.
“But I completely disagreed about that. I said ‘I’m telling you now, you’ve got the players.’ They had the talent but the discipline was abysmal. I went down to see the under-10s and honestly I left with my head scrambled.
“One player was trying to nutmeg me every ten seconds, another jumping on my back, kids misbehaving. It was like a crèche, not an academy. I spoke to the coaches and said, ‘This isn’t good enough. It’s meant to be a privilege.’
“At the under-18s, they were getting battered. They had ability but they didn’t want to run. They were going out, socialising and putting it all on Instagram. So I said from day one, ‘We have to get stricter, enforce some rules.’
“I told the players, ‘This is going to be tough, intensity has to go up. Some will revel in it and some will want out, it will be too hard for you.’ That’s how it was.”
Utilising the loan system
To his credit, Bellamy certainly appeared to change things for the better, setting up the Under-18s to win the Professional Development League 2 South for the first time three months after he left. There is perhaps hope then that members of that side will progress into the first team in the next few years, such as top scorer Dan Griffiths and academy player of the season, goalkeeper George Ratcliffe. The pair, along with three other academy stars, are now at the next stage of their development experiencing men’s football for the first time out on loan at local Cymru Premier clubs – Griffiths joined by Ryan Reynolds and Keenan Patten at Penybont and Ratcliffe playing alongside Sion Spence at Barry Town United.
Through covering the Cymru Premier for Y Clwb Pêl-Droed, Jordan Jones has seen first-hand how important it is that Cardiff trust the Welsh domestic system in helping develop their young talent.
“It can only benefit the league and the players in giving them a senior platform for them to showcase their worth. I view the Cymru Premier as one of the best grounds for putting yourself in the shop window.
“The players are put into meaningful situations, they know how to integrate into a senior team dynamic and it sends them back to their parent clubs a better player.”
Speaking about his own loan spell at Redditch United from Cardiff in 2017, Luke O’Reilly told us: “I didn’t really think it was the right thing to do.”
Finding the balance between youth and success
The five loanees currently playing in the Welsh top-flight still train with Cardiff City during the week, so their progress is being monitored by the club’s coaches. But in one of his last interviews as manager, Warnock claimed to have “not seen any development since” their promotion. It was part of a response he gave when asked about Bellamy’s recent comments, in which he also defended the fact that few young players had featured for the first team under him.
“If I had any youngsters good enough they would be in the team, that’s what I would say to him. You tell me any youngster that’s left here and made a good living out of it or gone on to better things, I can’t think of any. So it’s disappointing that there’s not many youngsters coming through.”
That, ultimately, is the dilemma that any first team manager faces when weighing up whether to give academy players opportunities in the first team. While it is good to give them experience and try to integrate them into the set-up, should that be prioritised over getting results with better, more senior players?
“Surely the ideal situation should be where you have both,” says Cardiff City fan Paul Evans, who watches the academy on a regular basis.
“A situation where the academy players being produced are good enough to increase the chances of success of the first team.”
“Success is important but it would mean so much more with homegrown players” echoes James.
It is difficult to argue with the way Neil Warnock transformed Cardiff City in his tenure, relying on an experienced, accomplished squad to win promotion to the Premier League and very nearly survive. It’s a formula that has earned Warnock huge amounts of success over the years.
Within days of his arrival at the club in October 2016, seasoned campaigners Junior Hoilett and Sol Bamba signed on free transfers and became crucial assets. His final signing was similarly typical – 30-year-old Armand Traore was brought in as short-term cover at full-back when Cameron Coxe and Ciaron Brown were options from the academy.
“Cardiff City can’t just keep buying, buying, buying and spending big on wages the whole time,” Chief Executive Ken Choo said in a recent interview with WalesOnline.
“The balancing act needs to be right, because Vincent [Tan] is still keen to see us mount a proper promotion challenge this season, but we have to develop our own players as well. And with the system we have in place, we will.”
“It was a waste of time”
Paul Evans suggests that the problem lies deeper than whoever is in charge of the first team.
“The truth is that the problem we have with our non-functioning academy had being going on for years before he [Warnock] arrived at the club.
“I really do feel that there are long serving members of staff in the youth development side of things at the club who are lucky to still be in a job.”
Meanwhile, another player we spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested the club’s high turnover of first team managers made it difficult to make a name for yourself.
“In the space of three years there were five first team managers,” he said.
“By the time you impressed one, they got sacked and the process started all over again. It was quite challenging for me at the time.”
Luke O’Reilly admitted he was disappointed with the way the club as a whole handled his contract situation and eventual release in 2017.
“[Goalkeeping coach] Martyn Margetson offered me a new contract in December  and I was supposed to come back after Christmas and sign it, but Marge got sacked on Christmas Eve and it didn’t happen.
“Even after Marge got sacked, the academy manager [James McCarthy] spoke to me and said the contract would be sorted out. He spoke to me and another lad, Rhys Abbruzzese. Most of the 23s got released at the time, and we were the only two that didn’t so we asked what was going to happen.
“He told us we were fine, and then two weeks later we got released. It was a bit of a strange one, a bit of a hard one to take.
“The first year and a half at Cardiff, I loved it. But then the last six months was one of the toughest times in my career. Even when I got released, I didn’t receive one phone call from anyone at the club to check how I was or help me. It was kind of bad really.
“Mentally, it’s tough when you get released and I was at an age where I didn’t know what I was going to do for a living and they didn’t support me one bit. I’m doing coaching now, and I know that you have to care for your players, but to let you go like that and not talk to you is wrong.”
The circumstances surrounding the first anonymous former player’s departure were slightly different. He said that he felt he could have stayed at Cardiff, but would more than likely have been sent out on loan again.
“At the time I felt like there was no point wasting my time [out on loan], so I took the easy route out I guess. But you know when a manager wants you or not, so it was a waste of time.
“It was what was best for me. I didn’t really want to leave Cardiff, but at the time my hand was forced. But I can’t fault Cardiff and Neil because they were completely honest so that’s the game sometimes.”
However the second anonymous former player’s experiences upon his release were much more positive.
“They were helpful to be fair. They tried to get me a club. They helped me get a trial at a few places. Without a doubt my time in Cardiff’s academy has helped me. All the experiences I had have helped me get to where I am today.”
New Cardiff City manager Neil Harris was keen to stress in his first press conference that he wants to give academy players a chance, saying he knows that supporters “want to see Cardiff City fans in the first team.” He has taken a keen interest in the Under-23 side already, trying to select a few players he thinks can make the step up.
Harris has pedigree – his coaching career began in charge of Millwall’s Under-21s and Under-23s, and he handed debuts to 16 academy players as first team manager. His assistant David Livermore started out with the club’s Under-16s and Under-18s.
It is this experience in developing young players that played a key role in Harris’s appointment. Neil knows what this club needs,” Ken Choo told WalesOnline.
“We can’t just always gamble, like a lot of other clubs do. Cardiff City has to be a self-sustaining football club, which is precisely why we’re throwing so much at the Academy.”
“The strategies of the current manager and the previous one are different. That’s not to say one is better than the other, it’s just the way it is.
“He has seen the talent in our Academy and wants to unblock it,” said Choo.
“Neil Harris is showing an enthusiasm and embracing the Academy, which is clearly positive for the staff and players,” added academy manager James McCarthy.
“If allowed, Harris should take a bigger view of the youth team situation and understand where, if they exist, the blockers are,” Ben James says.
“Welsh football is on the up again and we have a responsibility to help support the next generation of Welsh talent. If Harris can take an overarching view of the whole setup, that would be a start and if he can bring the first team and the youth system closer together, we would be in great shape”.
Ken Choo has also revealed ambitious plans to transform Cardiff’s academy in order to earn Category One status and see more of the club’s graduates become full Welsh internationals. According to WalesOnline, Choo and Vincent Tan would like a squad of approximately 18 experienced senior players, alongside seven home-grown talents.
Cameron Coxe made the substitutes bench for Harris’s first two games in charge, as he did for Warnock’s final fixture against Bristol City. He would appear the most likely academy player to make the step up, and the hope is that he will kick start a new generation of Bluebirds youth successes.
It may take time, but a decade down the line, Cardiff City could be the biggest showcase of exciting Welsh talent.
Gair Rhydd contacted Cardiff City for a response to the issues raised in this feature, but the club declined to comment.