This was a lesson in patience. On another day a weaker team would have folded, but City’s academy talents are made of sterner stuff, and this was yet another example of the never-say-die spirit that courses through the veins of the CFA. Two goals down at half-time, and it probably should have been more in truth, victory looked a distant hope for Simon Davies’ men, yet the turnaround was remarkable. A spirited and technically wonderful second half showing resulted in a last minute Lorenzo Gonzalez winner to rapturous applause in front of the home crowd.
It didn’t start off well. City were poor. Very much so. Celtic, and credit where its due, were direct, powerful and to the point. They used their clear strength and age handicaps to great effect, capitalising on a faltering possession based system as they frequently won the ball high up the pitch. The first goal was still entirely preventable, Ed Francis sticking out a leg naively resulting in a spot-kick. One nil. The second was a piece of individual brilliance. A whipped 25 yarder that Haug could only watch arc into the top corner over his out-stretched hand. There could have been further goals and arguably three or four nil would have been deserved for Celtic at the break.
It was a frustrating watch – Brahim was isolated as a number 9, there was no real incision as the players over-cooked everything, taking one touch too many as they moved the ball in pretty, but predictable, patterns in front of Celtic’s gigantic backline. There are clear arguments for using Brahim as a striker, he’ll learn from the experience and so on, and I’m sure it will benefit him in the future, but he is without a doubt a vastly more influential player when he’s facing the goal and this was the biggest factor in City’s second half turnaround. He was deeper, dictating play well with the second half sub Will Patching. Kongolo was given license to bombard forward and that made a difference, as did Fernandes being positioned as a more orthodox right-winger.
The football was quicker, more incisive and the movement in and around the box offered plenty more options for those breaking forward. Brahim was dropping deep, Fernandes was cutting inside and Kongolo and Smith were both offering options high up the pitch as City looked to claw themselves back into it. Smith was excellent. A real powerhouse of a player with a touch of the Fernandinhos to his game. Energetic, tough, yet technically adept – it was his sublimely weighted through-ball that left Fernandes with the simple task of squaring to Lorenzo Gonzalez for the last-minute tap-in winner. Smith only turned 17 two weeks ago and he captains Wales at youth-team level. You can see why – he’s a winner and a leader.
Brahim was a lot more comfortable in the second half, showcasing both his exceptionally nimble feet and his battling spirit as he teased and ran at Celtic’s line. Sancho was Sancho – one minute brilliant, one minute frustrating. He’s still only 16, but he is blessed with genuine top-class potential. Decision-making, as with most young wingers to be fair, is still his greatest weakness, but this will surely come with time. There’s too much natural ability there for it not to happen. He improved as the game went on and he was in the right place at the right time to head home City’s equaliser from a lovely Fernandes cross. The same could’ve been said for Fernandes’ first half too. He flattered to deceive, but he was another that benefited from the system change, coming away with two assists from the right hand side.
Gonzalez’s late introduction was exactly what City needed. A player who instinctively runs in behind, a player who wants to score the scruffy goal and a player who thrives in and around the box. A number 9 basically – something we sorely lacked for the majority of the game. This was his debut at this level and it was deserved after a strong start to life at City, scoring plenty of goals for City’s unbeaten u18s team. Yes, it was only a tap-in, but they all count and he had the sharpness of mind to be in the right place at the right time. There was decent showings too from Ed Francis and Cameron Humphreys as they both drove through midfield and broke the lines as City looked to get themselves back into it.
It was an encouraging performance, simply for the reason that it looked so unattainable after the first 45. This character, this attitude – it’s essential for any top class footballer and I’ve genuinely lost count of the amount of times we’ve witnessed a City youth team grab a win or draw from the jaws of defeat. It’s a remarkable mindset to have and it’s one that will stand them in good stead. It’s even more impressive when you consider that there was six first-year scholars involved today. Francis, Latibeaudiere, Sancho, Gonzalez, Bolton and Smith all only moved up this year to the u18s. They’re young, as is this City team, yet they’re still capable of displays like that second half. The future is indeed bright.