FOREST Green looked the real deal as they brushed aside Championship outfit Cardiff City even without marquee summer signing Magno Vieira and former Premiership star Al Bangura.
David Hockaday’s side underlined their strength in depth - and on this evidence his starting 11 for the season opener against Cambridge United a week on Saturday will be giving him food for thought.
Vieira and Bangura will surely be nailed on starters, but a raft of Forest Green players certainly enhanced their chances.
Matt Taylor put on the kind of display which could give him the nod up front and striker Phil Marsh showed his adaptability in a roaming midfield role. Maverick James Norwood again proved his worth with another all-action display and the influx of strikers to the club has certainly given the fans’ favourite a new lease of life.
James Rowe has added a tough-tackling edge to his midfield armoury and captain for the day Jamie Collins excelled in Bangura’s midfield holding role. On another sun-kissed afternoon, Rovers clipped the Bluebirds’ wings as Hockaday got one over on football friend Malky Mackay, whom he coached as a player at Watford.
How the Cardiff boss would have been impressed by the lively Taylor, who was on the money early on- snaffling possession and fizzing wide with Joe Lewis scrambling to his left. A minute later Taylor watched his deflected strike hit the post with the floundering Lewis well beaten.
Cardiff rallied and they almost benefited from a defensive blip. Former Swansea City defender Chris Todd, who grew in stature, put ex-Wrexham stopper Sam Russell under pressure from a backpass after Welsh international striker Robbie Earnshaw charged down Russell’s clearance.
At the other end, Taylor blocked a weak Lewis clearance, but the Cardiff keeper did well to scamper back and stop the ball from going in. The stalemate was broken on 24 minutes. Norwood turned on the after-burners to leave youngster Deji Oshilaja and the covering Mark Hudson struggling, and cut back for Omar Koroma to scuff home past a flat-footed Lewis.
Cardiff were finding it hard to get any fluency going. On 28 minutes Peter Whittingham’s shot was beaten away by Russell in the home goal and three minutes after Filip Kiss saw his long range effort dip just over the bar.
Perhaps Cardiff’s best chance of the half fell to young substitute Kevin Luce, but he headed wide when he should at least have hit the target. Cardiff boss Mackay introduced a fresh 11 at the break but his side were forced to play most of the second half with ten men after former Leeds United midfielder Stephen McPhail limped off.
Mackay and Hockaday pleaded for leniency and rolling subs, but the rules were upheld.
Rovers bossed possession. However, a set-piece always-seemed Cardiff’s best way of salvaging a draw and it came close on 69 minutes.
Aron Gunnarsson let loose a 25-yard free-kick which beat the wall, but was well stopped by Russell getting across to his left.
Eddie Oshodi underpinned his versatility as an auxiliary right-back and the former Watford man must have impressed his former Watford gaffer Mackay as he showed strength by the corner flag to find Jamie Turley, who forced keeper Elliott Parrish to push a 74th minute cross clear for Marsh to slice wide.
HOCKADAY’S VIEW: “We went back to a few basics. We were looking for a reaction, we got it and in the first half we played well.
“We looked a threat, we’ve had shots on target, and we’ve hit the post and deservedly took the lead.
“In the second half it was a good exercise for us. It was just a good lesson against a Championship team to try and keep the ball and stay ahead.
“They’ve had the one great chance from the free kick but other than that we were pretty much free of any danger so it’s a great exercise, a great day and we just can’t thank Cardiff enough.
"I wanted to play eleven against eleven so I just said can he just come on and let him? But he said no there are certain rules and I get reported so he wouldn’t have it.
"I would have preferred eleven-eleven and if we had lost I don’t care but having said that we played against ten and we were one up so maybe that will happen in the season so we’ve got to learn how to keep the ball and we kept it pretty well."
"We are getting there to knowing what our best starting eleven is. There are going to be some surprises in there because some players did really well today.
"The great thing is that we’ve got 21 senior players, two of those are keepers so we have got 19 outfield players so we have got lots of flexibility in our squad."
Forest Green: S Russell; E Oshodi (P Green 77), J Turley, C Todd, E Asafu-Adjaye; J Rowe (K Forbes 77), J Collins, P Marsh; O Koroma (B Wright 46), M Taylor (R Styche 77), J Norwood (Y Klukowski 80).
Subs not used: J Hodgkiss, A Bangura, M Vieira, M Bulman.
Cardiff City: J Lewis; D Oshilaja, M Hudson, D Keinan, A Taylor; J Darko, F Kiss, P Whittingham, C Conway; E Velikonja, R Earnshaw.
Subs all used: K Sainte-Luce, E Parrish, D Blake, A Gerrard, B Turner, B Nugent, K Harris, A Gunnarsson, S McPhail, J Ralls, N Jarvis, J Mason.
Referee: S Tanner (Somerset).
Star man: James Norwood.
Rovers travel to Wealdstone on Friday.