This would turn out to be a fixture with a difference, though, as first-team manager Neil Warnock — just weeks into his tenure as senior Cardiff boss — made his way over to the youngsters and gave a pep talk in his own inimitable way.
Warnock, you see, unlike predecessors Russell Slade and Paul Trollope, opts for a more hands-on approach when it comes to matters beyond the grasp of first-team affairs. While Slade could be seen at the odd development match, there appeared to be little direct route into the senior fold for those on the outside looking in.
As harsh as that may seem — Slade did use 10 players aged 23 or under during his 19 months at the club, after all — the former Leyton Orient chief departed with a reputation for overlooking those who perhaps felt that they had a justifiable shout to prove their worth higher up the ladder.
The modern world of management, in which a head coach lasts, on average, for just 1.3 years in the job, means that keeping one eye on the future usually takes a back seat. Why would a manager turn to an up-and-coming teenager when he has a Football League veteran to choose from?
A fair point, granted, yet in the final months of Slade’s first campaign at the helm, and less so in the second, there was ample opportunity for some of those younger players to be called upon. For the final handful of games, in particular, Cardiff had little to play for other than jostling for the odd position in the lower reaches of the top half.
In the end, the development players — largely made up of younger academy pros, with the odd over-aged outcast thrown in for good measure — were left wondering exactly when their big chance would arrive.
Many felt that the time was right for Slade to depart when he did last summer, being handed a director of football-type role to seemingly soften the blow of being ousted just weeks on from helping the club to an eighth-placed finish in the second tier. In came former Wales assistant Trollope and the rest, as they say, is history.
Trollope’s appointment will go down as one of the least inspired managerial selections in recent history, but the club did at least have good intentions at the time. Fresh on the back of Wales’ historic run to the semi-finals of the European Championships, City were keen to cash-in in their own way.
A new DNA, we were told, had been adopted; one that the Bluebirds had intended to use for decades to come. Much like the most famous example, La Liga side Athletic Bilbao, Cardiff intended to promote from within (albeit less exclusively) while at the same time adopting a unique style of play. The arrivals of Wales internationals Emyr Huws and Jazz Richards went a long way to supporting these plans.
We had all heard of The Swansea Way, seeing the Bluebirds’ local rivals grow from fourth-tier no-hopers to a fully-fledged Premier League side. Now it was the turn of The Cardiff Way.
“The club needs an identity, more Welsh players for the Welsh people to get behind,” chairman Ken Choo said at the time, following what had been a disappointing start to the 2016–17 season. “Vincent Tan asked Paul Trollope to begin that process and we have begun doing it.
“Paul knows it is about results, but he also says that we as board members and the fans need to give him time to build this pattern of play. So, for example, our Under-21s have replicated the exact same system and have won their last four matches playing that way.
“The Under-18s also play with the same tactics and they’re doing well too. We’re trying it lower down further. So when future players from those sides make the grade into the senior team, they will be comfortable and familiar with the style adopted.”
It was a breath of fresh air; the perfect antidote for Trollope to possibly help deflect some of the flack aimed his way by supporters. And yet here we are, just four months on and the whole mantra — a new style of play, a new DNA through the top to the bottom — has been completely shelved. For now.
Warnock may have arrived earlier this season with a hard-to-shake tag of his own, a manager who very much likes to go for the tried and tested, but his insistence on turning up to age-grade matches was certainly one way to quickly win over supporters. Forget just being an option for the remainder of the season — Warnock was making it known that he fully intended to stick around for the long term.
Questions were raised at the time about the so-called Cardiff Way, understandably so, yet in Warnock’s short time in charge, a change of huge proportions has already been made. The much-travelled manager made it known that he wanted the youth system completely restructured, paving the way for Craig Bellamy — another who could often be spotted around Trefforest during age-grade matches — to come on board in an official capacity.
“Somebody of Craig’s stature in this role can be of huge significance to us moving forward,” Choo said in December. “I know that Neil feels Craig’s influence here can create greater synergy between our youth players and the first team with the ultimate goal of bringing players through to senior football.”
The chairman had made it clear: not enough young players had made the step from youth-team prospect to first-team player. It could be argued, in fact, that Declan John stands alone in that regard; the only player to fully ingrain himself in the senior setup, even if he has since faded under three successive managers.
An honourable mention for Joe Ralls, too, who joined City after spending his formative years with Aldershot Town and Farnborough, while Kadeem Harris has also been around long enough for many to label him as ‘One of Our Own’.
And that’s the thing. There are nothing supporters like more than seeing a young talent burst through the ranks, a la Aaron Ramsey, Chris Gunter and Joe Ledley of the more recent crop. Darcy Blake, too, also impressed for a short while before taking a much-publicised plummet back down the divisions and into local parks football, while Robert Earnshaw, Adam Matthews and James Collins have — and still are, in the latter’s case — enjoyed success at various different levels since breaking through over the past decade and more.
Bringing through youngsters is not just a tool to appease supporters, though — it is a key feature for any club with serious ambitions of maintaining success. For all Cardiff’s struggles to generate money in recent years, instead of taking on unheard of players and paying them off a year later, they will never likely be able to do so when failing to offload star names.
David Marshall and Fabio da Silva, two of the more likeable figures in the squad, both departed for healthy sums last summer. Yet that proved to be a rare example of good business for City. Gone are the days when, reluctantly, Ramsey could be sold on for a £5m profit (surely closer to three times that sum could be expected in the current market), and other players offloaded for tidy sums.
Quite simply, Cardiff’s decision to bring Bellamy on board and restructure the academy system, essentially removing those too old to now have any realistic prospects of breaking into the first team, is one of the better decisions made by the club off the field in recent times.
Tommy O’Sullivan and Eli Phipps, both Colchester; David Tutonda and Luke Coulson, Barnet; Tom James, Yeovil; Jazzi Barnum-Bobb, Newport; Josh Yorwerth, Crawley; Ben Nugent, Crewe have all departed in recent times and managed to bag themselves a Football League club. Aaron Wildig and Joe Jacobson offloaded further back, have also made fairly successful careers for themselves elsewhere.
Being told that your time at Cardiff has come to an end need not end their dreams of one day making it as a pro, but for too long now those below the first team have badly struggled to take that one big step into the so-called Promised Land.
If City is serious about promotion — and the early signs from Warnock with regards to summer spending is pretty mixed — then bringing the academy in line with other similar-sized clubs is near the top of the priority list.
A club with the catchment area and potential of Cardiff really should be doing more to get a high-on-football generation of youngsters into the first-team contention. City chiefs have taken the first step to putting that into fruition — now it is over to those stars of the future to prove their worth.