Monthly Archives: December 2012

Do the owners of Forest and Rovers know what they’re doing?

This week saw two controversial managerial sackings in the Championship which have raised questions about the way Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest are being run.

Sean O’Driscoll, who was appointed as Nottingham Forest manager in the summer, was shown the door on Wednesday just a few hours after his team spectacularly beat Leeds 4-2. The Al-Hasawi family, who run the club, had insisted they would give the former Doncaster manager time, but with Forest a point outside the play-off spots, they changed their minds.

Meanwhile, in Lancashire, Blackburn’s owners once again displayed questionable judgement, sacking manager, Henning Berg, after just 57 days in charge. This despite giving the deeply unpopular Steve Kean two protest-filled years at the Ewood Park helm before forcing him out earlier this season.

Both Forest and Rovers are owned by vastly wealthy people, with no previous experience in football prior to their investments. And fans at both clubs are wondering, do they really know what they’re doing?

The Trent End in Forest's City Ground

The Trent End in Forest’s City Ground

Forest

Sean O’Driscoll’s sacking was met with widespread astonishment. Forest were playing entertaining football, just a point outside the play-offs, and though they hadn’t set the world alight, there were promising signs.

O’Driscoll, who had gained an army of admirers for achieving success on a budget with a stylish but unfashionable Doncaster side, was brought in with the aim of building a side in his image. He stuck to his beliefs at Forest and looked set to challenge for a spot in the top six.

But halfway through his first season, after one of the most impressive performances of his time in charge, he was shown the door by the club’s Kuwaiti owners.

Forest fans were left decidedly bemused by the sacking, and the vast majority opposed O’Driscoll’s departure. Fans claimed they could see a project in motion and a team being built inkeeping with the ideals and values of the club.

But one of the most worrying aspects of this case is O’Driscoll’s replacement.

O’Driscoll’s seat was still warm when it was announced Alex McLeish would be replacing him.

The Scotsman’s a controversial choice at a club which has always been associated with beautiful football. McLeish’s teams have tended to play an unattractive, but largely effective, long-ball style of football.

Forest’s greatest ever manager, Brian Clough, once said “If God had wanted us to play football in the sky, He’d have put grass up there.”

Not only does McLeish’s style not fit perfectly with Forest’s historic image, on the face of it at least, his direct style doesn’t fit in with the current setup.

O’Driscoll had a side which was familiar with playing patient, passing football. Are the players capable of adapting to McLeish’s more physical, negative style?

McLeish will undoubtedly be given substantial funds in the January transfer window, and he can use it to bring in players who will understand his system. But fans are worried McLeish’s appointment could go badly wrong for the club.

McLeish could take Nottingham Forest up this season, after all, he won promotion with Birmingham City in 2009.

But Big Eck’s image and his football doesn’t fit in easily with that of Nottingham Forest. The fact the Al-Hasawi family have dismissed a football purist like O’Driscoll, in favour of McLeish, shows a basic lack of understanding of the club’s culture. It’s always worrying when wealthy owners begin running the club without consideration for the club’s culture and the fans’ interests.

Blackburn

In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi visited Darwen, near Blackburn, to meet unemployed mill workers who were angry because cheap Indian cotton was undercutting their produce. The people of East Lancashire fell in love with the skinny Indian, and since then there has always been a spiritual bond between Lancashire and the subcontinent.

That was until Venky’s purchased Blackburn Rovers and started running the club in the most chaotic way imaginable. Since taking over, the owners have repeatedly broken audacious transfer promises and consistently angered the fans with outrageous decisions.

Last season’s fan protests against manager, Steve Kean, were particularly venomous, but the owners continued to back the Glaswegian. Even though Blackburn were shamefully relegated from the Premier League, Kean remained in charge for the start of the Championship, but with Rovers 3rd after eight games, Kean was bizarrely forced out.

The club then spent a whole month looking for a replacement before opting for former player, Henning Berg. The Norwegian had previously been critical of the club’s ownership, but he accepted the job, claiming he’d been convinced they had a plan for the club.

It’s unlikely the plan involved sacking Berg after 57 days in charge, but that’s just what Venky’s have done. Incredibly, after defying the fans and keeping the hapless Steve Kean for nearly two years, his replacement couldn’t manage two months.

Admittedly the Berg era has been a joke from start to finish; the football’s been dreadfully low-tempo, he’s only won once and Rovers have rapidly slipped down the table. Uninspiring Blackburn now find themselves 17th in the Championship and dropping towards the drop zone.

The Berg experiment will undoubtedly be viewed as a disaster, and another depressing chapter in the recent history of Blackburn Rovers.

The fact Berg only lasted 57 days suggests those running the club didn’t know enough about him when they appointed him, but scarier still, it suggests they have no structured plan for their football club. Fans have constantly criticised the owners for neglecting the club and allowing it to rot, and their recent activity is a further cause for supporter concern.

Kevin MacDonald will be caretaker manager at Ewood Park until the end of the season. While he is highly respected within the game, and his record as a coach stands up to scrutiny, the appointment of a caretaker for the entire second half of the season (seemingly Roman Abramovich’s invention) stinks of laziness on the part of the owners.

While Forest fans await the beginning of the McLeish era with cautious intrigue, Blackburn fans are simply dreading the next few months, hoping they can evade the drop.

The recent sackings at Forest and Blackburn are cause for concern because on the face of it they show a lack of long-term planning, and a poor understanding of the sport by the respective owners.

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League 1 half-term report

Halfway through the season and League 1’s seen a bit of everything; sackings, scandals and financial troubles, and that’s just what’s gone on off the field.

Here’s how each club has fared in the first 23 games of the season:

Sheffield United top the table at the halfway stage

Sheffield United top the table at the halfway stage

 

Sheffield UnitedA- – Recovering from last season’s agonising play-off final penalty defeat was always going to be tough. United will be content with the way their season has gone so far. Danny Wilson’s team are extremely difficult to beat, with only two league defeats so far. Man City are the only club in the top four tiers of English football with fewer losses. But United’s lack of firepower has held them back; before this weekend they were the lowest scorers in the top 10 and seven of their eleven victories have been by a single goal, which is very unusual for a team top of the league. Nick Blackman has nine goals in the league, but United’s second highest scorer is centre-back, Neil Collins, with four goals. The Blades have been great at grinding out results, but they don’t look as strong as the team which narrowly missed out on promotion last term.

TranmereA+ – Tranmere’s form this season has surprised everybody, including manager, Ronnie Moore. Whenever Moore gets interviewed these days he keeps emphasising how stunned he is to be top of the league. The Merseysiders didn’t lose any of their first twelve games, and looked to be racing away with the league. They are the league’s top-scorers with 38 goals, and the goals have been shared with Jake Cassidy, Andy Robinson and Jean-Louis Akpa-Akpro all netting regularly. But they’re currently suffering their first blip of the season, which includes Friday’s shocking 5-0 defeat against Swindon. How they react will go a long way to determining where they’ll finish this season.

BrentfordA – Uwe Rösler’s side are the form team in League 1 going into the second half of the season. After a steady but unspectacular start to the season, the Bees burst into life in late October as they embarked on a nine match unbeaten run, which includes seven wins. In recent weeks they’ve recorded extremely impressive victories against Sheffield United and the MK Dons. Strategically and organisationally, Brentford have been the best team in the division this season, but their success has been helped by the goals of Clayton Donaldson. The big striker, nicknamed Donaldinho, is the league’s second highest scorer. The Londoners are on a roll and are aiming for promotion to the second tier for the first time in over two decades.

DoncasterB – Dean Saunders has rebuilt the team after relegation, and the Yorkshiremen continue to play an aesthetically pleasing style of football. The star of the show has been David Cotterill, who’s been banging in the goals from midfield, and looks to have regained his confidence after some tumultuous times. Doncaster have more wins than any other team in League 1 and they have been very exciting to watch. However there’s still room for improvement. They remain on the lookout for a goal-poaching striker to take some of the pressure off Cotterill, and there have been some very unconvincing performances in the midst of all the great football. Automatic promotion is the aim, but a play-off spot would be a fine achievement.

SwindonA- – Last year’s League 2 champions were expected to have a huge impact on League 1, and though they’ve been inconsistent, they’ve proved they have the quality to challenge at the top end of the table. With Paolo Di Canio as manager things were never going to be boring, and there’s been plenty of excitement at Swindon games. They’ve scored 37 goals and conceded just 18, but when they concede first they tend to lose; they’ve picked up just two points from losing positions this season. Matt Richie has continued his brilliant form from last term and he’s already netted nine goals this season. The magnificent 5-0 victory against Tranmere suggests Swindon could still challenge for an automatic spot if they develop a bit more consistency, although if they get a play-off spot nobody will want to face Di Canio’s side and their beautiful football.

MK DonsB – It’s been a strange season for MK Dons fans. They’ve been used to seeing their side score freely and concede regularly in recent years, but this season the Dons have tightened things at the back at the expense of their attacking fervour. The Dons have been wasteful in front of goal at times, but perhaps that’s changing as we enter 2013. Along with every other club currently in the play-off spots, the Dons lack a top goal-scorer, and this is keeping them outside the top two. Karl Robinson’s team play some of the most beautiful football in the league, but in recent years they’ve lacked the killer instinct required to take them up. It remains to be seen if that’s changed this year, and although the Dons look a good bet for a play-off spot once again in May, they must be aiming for a top two finish.

StevenageB – After a blistering start to the season, Gary Smith’s side have lost their way slightly and have won just one game (against lowly Hartlepool) in their last six. They began the season with an incredible 11 match unbeaten run and it appeared as though the Boro were going to seriously challenge for an automatic promotion spot. Stevenage were unable to challenge healthily in last season’s play-offs because the squad was too small and tiredness had taken over, and this season the small squad once again looks to be having an adverse effect on their promotion push. Stevenage could do with a potent goal-scorer; Robin Shroot is an amiable, impactful forward, who will score a fair few goals over the course of the season, but a natural goal-scorer would go a long way towards securing another play-off for Stevenage. The aim for the season is to get back in the play-offs, but competition is fierce.

Notts CountyC+ – After narrowly missing out on 6th place last season, County were expected to make a strong push for promotion this year. But after a positive start to the season the Magpies have found wins hard to come by, with only four league victories since September. County, like so many clubs in League 1, are in need of a goal-scorer who can turn draws into wins. Keith Curle’s team are resilient and difficult to beat, but four draws in their last six games highlights County’s frustrations this season. Notts County have the makings of a good side, and at times’s they’ve looked like genuine play-off contenders, but a lack of cutting edge could cost them a place in the top 6.

BournemouthC+ – Bournemouth’s turnaround from relegation battlers to play-off challengers has been astounding to say the least, and it’s down to one man: Eddie Howe. When he returned to Bournemouth for his second stint as manager in October, the Cherries were in the bottom four having won just once in their first eleven league games. However since Howe’s arrival Bournemouth haven’t lost a game and they’ve shot up the league with 27 points from a possible 33. Howe never settled at Burnley, and it’s clear he belongs on the south coast. He understands the club and knows how to succeed at Dean Court. Former Rotherham striker Lewis Grabban has flourished under Howe, and Bournemouth look like very good candidates for the play-offs, now that the club’s regained its confidence.

CrawleyB- – It’s fair to say Crawley expected more from this season. They won promotion convincingly last season, but a transitional summer was poor preparation and they’re now suffering as a result. The promising start to the season under Richie Barker now seems a long time ago; the Red Devils have won once in the last nine games, and they’ve steadily drifted down the table. If they are to mount a serious play-off push, they need to start winning again quickly, before their downward slide goes too far. Crawley will have no problem staying up, which is every promoted club’s first priority, but sights were set a little higher. Crawley’s best player so far this season has been Hope Akpan, whose physical performances in midfield have been highly impressive. Unfortunately his indiscipline has resulted in several suspensions, which doesn’t help the Crawley cause.

YeovilC+ – The Glovers began the campaign spectacularly; winning three and drawing one of their first four games. Then they lost six games in a row, sparking fears of another season fighting relegation. Since then they’ve been on a run of inconsistency, struggling to build any kind of momentum. They have no problems scoring goals, but at the other end they’ve been porous; they have the worst defensive record in the top 16. Yeovil will be happy if they avoid getting dragged into the relegation dogfight this season, and a mid-table finish would represent progress for one of the smallest clubs in the division. They’re far too inconsistent to challenge for a play-off spot this season.

CreweA- – Crewe were a joy to watch last season as their late surge took them up via the play-offs. But their joy was short-lived as they lost two of their top performers, Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood, to Man Utd and Aston Villa respectively. Unsurprisingly they were hot favourites for relegation, but they’ve defied the odds and look set to stay up comfortably. The signing of striker Mathias Pogba (brother of Juventus’ Paul Pogba) from Wrexham has been a good one and the team play an attractive, but sturdy style of football. There’s a brilliant team ethic at Crewe and manager Steve Davis deserves a huge amount of credit for the job he’s done. It’s doubtful they’ll be able to challenge for a play-off spot, having said that they enter the second half of the season in great form with just one defeat in their last seven games. They’ve done brilliantly.

CoventryC- – Coventry fans must have thought things couldn’t get worse after their relegation from the Championship last season. But this is Coventry, and for the Sky Blues trouble always seems to be around the corner. Andy Thorne was sacked as manager just three games into the season, and Coventry went on a run of five consecutive losses before their first win of the season against Oldham on September 29. However since then, new manager Mark Robins has slowly but surely turned things around, and Coventry have now only lost once in their last nine games. With the team hitting form, and League 1 top scorer David McGoldrick (15 goals so far) continuing to impress, Coventry could compete for a play-off spot. Unfortunately off-field problems continue to cast a shadow over any on-field success. The club’s owners aren’t able to pay the hefty rent for the Ricoh Arena, and they could be forced to look elsewhere for a home ground, with non-league Hinckley United’s 4,329-capacity Greene King Stadium seen as a genuine possibility.

Leyton OrientC – An up and down season for Orient so far, where losing runs have quickly turned into winning runs, and feast has quickly turned to famine. Orient fans really have no idea whether they’re in a relegation fight or whether they have an outside chance of getting a play-off spot. Amazingly, Leyton Orient have only drawn one game this season, against Crewe in September. The Londoners have 10 wins and 11 losses so far, making them one of the league’s most unpredictable (and exciting) sides. Kevin Lisbie continues to roll back the years, but his team-mates aren’t contributing enough goals. Orient have only netted 25 goals so far this season, although in recent games they’ve been scoring far more regularly. The tendency this season is that when Orient score, they win. They’ve only lost twice when they’ve scored this term.

PrestonD+ – Graham Westley still hasn’t settled at Preston and the play-offs look an unlikely proposition by now. Westley made wholesale changes to the playing staff in the summer, but that’s resulted in the team looking dysfunctional and awkward. The style of football has been criticised by fans who want to see less of a long-ball game from their team. The Lilywhites lack a potent goalscorer, and they struggle to win games. Preston are winless in their last six games and only Sheffield United have drawn more games than the Lancashire club this season. It’s tough to see Preston go down this season, but it’s even tougher imagining them snatching a spot in the top 6. Things aren’t clicking at Deepdale and fans are frustrated. Attendances are regularly less than 10,000 and there’s an air of negativity surrounding the club.

OldhamC- – It’s another frustratingly low-scoring season for Oldham as they’ve averaged just a goal a game in their first 23 games. Paul Dickov was a tenacious striker in his playing days, but the Scot just can’t get his strikers to score, and were it not for the brilliant José Baxter, Oldham would be in severe trouble. The former Everton youngster has excelled in the Latics midfield, and he’s shown Premier League class on a regular basis, netting eight goals in the process. But Baxter’s only one player and Oldham sit just five points above the relegation zone. They’re once again scrapping for safety and with little money to spend in January, Dickov may have to make do with what he’s got. It’s going to be a long second half of the season for Oldham fans, who’ll be praying Baxter stays fit.

WalsallC – The Saddlers started the season brightly and they were 4th as recently as October. But a dramatic collapse in their form has seen them plummet down the table. Their win against Colchester on Saturday was their first in 13 games, and a vital three points for the Midlanders. Manager Dean Smith has tried to get his team playing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football, but unfortunately the players at his disposal probably aren’t good enough to play the style he demands. Apart from Carlisle, Walsall have conceded more than any other team outside the relegation zone, and with goals in short supply, it’s a worrying statistic. Walsall have defied the odds and miraculously stayed up for the past few seasons, and they’re hoping the win against Colchester can inspire them to do likewise in May.

ShrewsburyC- – I expected more from Shrewsbury this season and I didn’t expect to see them so close to the bottom four. The Shrews were promoted last season thanks mostly to their brilliant home form, and it’s their results at New Meadow which keep them outside the drop zone this season. All 5 wins have come at home, while they’re yet to win on their travels. The team has changed little since last season, and perhaps Graham Turner should have bought more players who had experience of League 1 football. Marvin Morgan can be a real handful on his day, but he’s not consistent enough for Town. If he can get on a good scoring run, it would make a huge difference to where they finish. Safety would represent a good season for Shrewsbury after spending 15 years outside League 1. Turner has a united dressing room, with some good footballers, and I expect them to dodge the drop.

ColchesterD- – It’s been a bitterly disappointing first half of the season at Cuckoo Farm. John Ward was dismissed after failing to win any of the first eight games of the season. His assistant Joe Dunne has been in charge since then, and initially the appointment appeared to have galvanised the squad, with Colchester winning five out of their next six games to climb into the top half. But The Us have only won once since October and they’ve lost the other seven games, including a 5-1 hammering at Stadium MK. Their morale-crushing defeat against Walsall in the last game emphasised the extent of Colchester’s woes. They sit just two points and two places above 22nd placed Portsmouth. Their main problem is up front, where the strikers have found scoring difficult. Jabo Ibehre has four goals so far and Ian Henderson has three, and Colchester average just a goal a game, which is always cause for concern. Colchester are in a bad way, and if things don’t improve they could very well be heading back to League 2 after eight years away.

CarlisleD- – Greg Abbott’s side are in deep trouble, and they could easily go down this year. Last season Carlisle finished a very respectable 8th, but the sale of star player Francois Zoko to Notts County meant a repeat this time round was unlikely. But there’s no way they could have predicted such a difficult season. It was the Cumbrians’ dreadful defence which cost them a play-off spot last season, but this year Carlisle have been chronic at the back. They have the worst defensive record in the league and have kept just one clean sheet in their first 22 games. United’s back four have been truly diabolical, but they’ve received little protection from the midfield. The defensive catastrophe puts a lot of pressure on forwards to counterbalance. 28 goals is a decent return for a team fighting relegation, but when the defence is so poor, there’s only so much the forwards can do. Carlisle will go down if Abbott can’t solve the defensive crisis.

PortsmouthE- – It’s never dull at Fratton Park, and this season possibly been the craziest so far in Portsmouth’s fight for stability. After relegation from the Championship the entire professional playing staff was forced out of the club in order to keep Portsmouth FC in business. Since then Pompey have relied on academy products, short term contracts and loans from other clubs. At first the team struggled to adapt, but towards the end of September Michael Appleton got his team to function. But Appleton, fatigued by off-field matters interfering with his coaching, left Portsmouth in November to take over at Championship Blackpool. Caretaker boss, Guy Wittingham, is still waiting for a first win in charge, but the club seems doomed to another relegation. They remain in administration and a 10 point deduction seems inevitable at some point in the season. Though good players such as Scott Allen, Ákos Buzsáky, Gyepes Gábor and Luke Rodgers have represented the club this season, and Izale McLeod has netted 10 times in the league already, the team doesn’t look unified. Portsmouth’s fans are taking control of the club’s finances, and it’s the club’s existence which matters most to them at the moment. On the field, relegation appears to be unavoidable.

BuryD- – Losing manager, Richie Barker, to Crawley shortly before the first game of the season was a bitter blow and it momentarily sent the Gigg Lane club into turmoil. Former Leeds and Sheffield United manager, Kevin Blackwell, took over from caretaker manager, Peter Shirtliff, eight winless games into the season. It wasn’t until October 23 that the Shakers recorded their first victory, with goals from Tom Hooper and David Worrall enough to defeat Hartlepool. They followed up this result with three wins in five games. They haven’t won yet in December but hope has been restored after a dreadful start. Steven Schumacher is still the leader of the team and an important influence as Bury try to drag themselves out of the mire. There are some very poor sides at the foot of the table, and Bury are by no means doomed.

ScunthorpeE – After a disappointing season last year, the Iron were hoping for a much stronger campaign from Alan Knill’s boys. What they got was a dreadful set of results and a managerial change. Four straight defeats at the start of the season set alarm bells ringing and although Scunthorpe recorded two wins and two draws in their next four games, the poor form soon returned and Alan Knill was sacked with the club third from bottom. Former manager, Brian Laws, took over and when he won his first two games, it appeared as though everything would better from then on. But since then, Scunthorpe have lost three games, including a damaging defeat against relegation rivals Bury. The 1-3 victory at Leyton Orient on December 15 gives Scunthorpe slight cause for optimism, but it still looks like being a very tough season. They’ve only taken six points at Glanford Park this season, and only Carlisle have conceded more goals in the division. Brian Laws has a tough job on his hands.

HartlepoolF- – Nightmares don’t get any worse than the one Hartlepool are suffering at the moment. With just one win and nine points in their first 22 games, the Monkey Hangers must already be preparing for life in League 2. Neale Cooper lost his job towards the end of October with the club rooted to the foot of the table. His replacement was John Hughes, who has improved the style of play at Hartlepool, but if anything the results have worsened. Hughes has picked up a solitary point since his arrival; a 1-1 away at Walsall. Hartlepool have by far the worst squad in the division, with a porous defence and strikers who can’t seem to score. 15 goals in 22 games is an appalling record by anybody’s standards, and they’ve only kept two clean sheets all season. As things stand the Pools don’t look confident or spirited enough to win games. They’re almost guaranteed to go down, and they’re doing it embarrassingly.

League 2 half-term report

We’ve reached the halfway stage of the season in League 2, and this is the time of year the table takes shape. But how have all the clubs done in the first 23 games of the season?

League2

GillinghamA – Gillingham have been top of League 2 since the 4th game of the season, and that’s where they’ll be on Christmas day. Martin Allen has built a sturdy, balanced and attack-minded team, who have been by far the stars of the season so far. Danny Kedwell started the season slimmed-down, and in tremendous scoring form, and when his goals dried up, the likes of Deon Burton and Myles Weston were on hand to take their share of the goal-scoring burden. Their form has dipped of late, meaning other clubs have caught up, but they remain very tough to beat. Gillingham have the talent and the manager to secure promotion, and I suspect they’ll be celebrating in May.

Port ValeA – Mickey Adams has done brilliantly in his second stint at Vale Park, and he really seems at home in the Potteries. Port Vale are the top scorers in League 2 and that record owes a lot to the brilliant form of Tom Pope. Only Crystal Palace’s Glenn Murray has scored more than Pope this season, and the striker’s 19 goals have propelled his team to 2nd. However Port Vale rely heavily on Pope’s contribution; they’ve only won twice when he hasn’t been on the scoresheet and they are yet to lose when he’s netted. His form has dipped of late and so have Vale’s results. But their attacking style of play, coupled with the general confidence around the club, should see them promoted.

CheltenhamA- – Cheltenham have reacted excellently to the play-off heartache of last season. Mark Yeates has built on the success of last season and he’s mounting an even bigger promotion push. They’ve got a big third-round tie to look forward to in the FA Cup against Everton, but with a small squad they can’t allow it to distract them from the league situation. Cheltenham are the lowest scorers in the top 7 and they’ve only won three games by more than one goal. They play good football, and if they can work out a way of finishing more of their chances, they’ll surely be promoted too.

SouthendB – After a stuttering start to the season, Southend are going into the second half of the season in great form, on the back of a nine-match unbeaten run. Sturrock is once again making Southend hard to beat, and with limited finances, they once again aim to challenge for promotion, either automatically or through the play-offs. The aim is to put recent money troubles behind them and move on. Britt Assombalonga has extended his loan from Watford until the end of the season, which is great news for the club, and Gavin Tomlin’s form has been sensational of late.

RotherhamB– – Big things were expected at the start of the season, but the Millers have been inconsistent for much of the season. Sometimes they can look like the best team in the league, but other times, they seem unorganised and dysfunctional. Manager, Steve Evans’s hefty touchline ban for an incident at his former club, Crawley, didn’t help the club at all. But if they can get a good run of results in the new year, they can go up automatically. The beautiful new stadium gave the club an initial boost at the start of the season, but they’ve failed to build on the early momentum. With a talented squad, and a manager who understands the league, there’s no reason why the Millers can’t go up.

BradfordA- – How would they have fared in the league had it not been for the cup run? Phil Parkinson’s doing a fantastic job and he’s engineered a good, balanced team, with an excellent home record. But the fixture list is getting dense, with the Bantams still in two cup competitions, including a two-legged Capitol One Cup semi-final against Premier League Aston Villa. Do Bradford have the depth to fight for an automatic promotion spot as well as challenge for silverware? They need to be careful they don’t squander their play-off spot in search of trophies. City are too big for League 2 and after some dreadful, miserable years, they’re once again in a position to climb back up the leagues. They can’t waste this opportunity.

ExeterB – Exeter have reacted well to their relegation from League 1, and have continued to play the beautiful football they have always played under Paul Tisdale. Unlike in League 1, it’s their away form they have to thank for being so high with seven wins in eleven away games. Jamie Cureton and John O’Flynn have a brilliant partnership up front, but at the back they’ve been very loose. The Grecians have the worst defensive record in the top half and they’ve kept just four clean sheets so far this season. They play the game the right way, they’re attack-minded and a lot of fun to watch, but are they reliable enough at the back to go up?

FleetwoodA- – These days we expect Blue Square Premier Champions to do more than just survive in League 2, but Fleetwood still deserve credit for the way they’ve adapted to life in the Football League. However, competing for a play-off spot isn’t enough for ambitious chairman, Andy Pilley, who sacked manager Micky Mellon after a downturn in results. The new man at the helm is Graham Alexander, who made over 1,000 career appearances for four clubs in 21 years as a player. He’s hoping he can put his experience to good use, and lead Fleetwood to a second straight promotion. An automatic spot might be beyond their reach, but there’s no reason why they can’t get a play-off spot.

NorthamptonC+ – The Sixfields outfit have what it takes to get a play-off spot this season after just missing out last year. But they are one of many clubs who have struggled for consistency. Adebayo Akinfenwa’s form is key to their success, and he not only gets goals, but also helps supply others with chances. They only have two away wins this season and that needs to improve if they are to challenge seriously for a play-off spot. There’s still more to come from the Cobblers.

RochdaleC- – Rochdale don’t do promotions; their 2009 promotion to League 1 was their first in 41 years, and they could only muster two seasons in the third tier before last year’s relegation. John Coleman’s been under pressure and has been criticised for not galvanising his squad. The club had gone on a run of four successive defeats, but on Friday night they thrashed Cheltenham 4-1 with a performance which will undoubtedly reassure fans. The presence of strikers like Bobby Grant, Dele Adebola and Ashley Grimes mean Rochdale always look like scoring, but they’ve only won four home games this season and only three teams have conceded more goals than Rochdale this season. John Coleman’s a very honest manager, but fans still question whether he’s the man to take them back up.

BurtonB- – After a season spent fighting relegation, Albion’s fans will be very pleased with the club’s position at the moment. If they can get Calvin Zola on a good scoring run, they can push for a play-off spot. Zander Diamond has been brilliant in defence for the Brewers, and things are so tight in League 2, a solid defender who contributes goals can make a huge difference. Gary Rowett’s doing a good job in his first full season as Burton manager and he’s exceeding expectations. Burton are one of a number of clubs who are keeping up with the top 7, who will fancy their chances of getting a play-off spot. If they’re in a similar position in March, then we can start talking about Burton as play-off contenders.

TorquayC- – Torquay have found it difficult overcoming the disappointment of last year’s play-off defeat and they have struggled for consistency this season. Rene Howe is still the driving force up front, and his 10 goals have helped keep them in touch with the play-off places. But this Torquay team lacks the zip of the past two seasons. Having said that, the Gulls are still unbeaten at Plainmoor in the league but only two away wins explains why they’re not featuring higher up the table. There is a need to be more cohesive and focused on the road if they are to make the play-offs for a third year in a row.

ChesterfieldC+ – Chesterfield were expected to challenge for promotion back to League 1 after last season’s dismal relegation (with the obvious silver lining of winning the JPT). But a tumultuous start to the season gave them a severe handicap. The strange timing of John Sheridan’s departure cast a shadow over the club, but new manager, Paul Cook is having a positive effect at the Spireites. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The Spireites have a good defensive record and in Jack Lester and Marc Richards they have strikers who know how to score in this division. The 4-1 win against Cheltenham was very impressive and despite a jittery start they should be challenging for a play-off spot at the very least this season.

Dagenham and RedbridgeC – Most Daggers fans were dreading this season, fearing a relegation scrap, but halfway through the campaign they look pretty sure of their place in the division and they’re only three points off a play-off spot. They’re part of a congested mid-table where pretty much anybody could make a break for the play-offs. And Dagenham and Redbridge are on a decent run at the moment. After a winless first 8 games, the Daggers now won 5 of their last 7 games and they’ve solidified at the back in recent games too.

YorkB- – They may not be matching the feats of Fleetwood, but York will be pleased with their return to the Football League.  After eight years in the fifth tier of English football, they’ve made a steady but assured start to life back in League 2. Gary Mills has made York had to beat, with only six league defeats so far, but they’re also the league’s draw specialists with nine in total. The important thing for City’s fans is they’re unlikely to be scrapping for relegation, but with just four points separating them and 7th placed Exeter, why should they be looking over their shoulders?

MorecambeC – Last season Morecambe started brightly but faded rapidly and finished the season 15th. This season they’ve failed to kick on and it’s hard to see them finishing above mid-table. Morecambe are another club who lack consistency but Jim Bentley’s side are winning the vital games which keep them away from the relegation scrap, and as long as they continue to beat the likes of Bristol Rovers, Barnet and Aldershot, they’ll be safe. There isn’t much money at the club and expectations have to be realistic.

Accrington StanleyC- – It’s difficult to grade Stanley’s seasons so far as it’s unclear what their ambitions were pre-season. Last year they finished 14th after the most turbulent season in their recent history, so one would expect they had their sights set on a higher finish this season. But with Stanley’s poultry budget, can they really expect to finish much higher than 19th? They lost manager Paul Cook, with the club 16th, and under former player Leam Richardson there’s been no improvement in results. The aim for this season is to avoid the drop without too many scares, then look for stability.

Wycombe WanderersC- – Things were looking very grim for Wycombe a few weeks ago. Gary Waddock was sacked in September as a result of last year’s relegation and a poor start to the season. Veteran captain, Gareth Ainsworth, took over but initial results were slow to improve and Wanderers looked set for a season scrapping for safety. However Wycombe have four wins in their last five games and things look to be on the up. Ainsworth’s team have lifted themselves away from the bottom two. There are whispers of a play-off push, but after the nightmare start to the season, Wanderers will be happy with mid-table mediocrity. Joel Grant is a player I’ve always enjoyed watching and the form of young Matt McClure has been good.

Oxford UnitedD – They are the disappointment of the season in League 2. Many people expected Chris Wilder’s team to be pushing for promotion this season, but performances have been poor and results have matched them. The Us began the season with three wins in a row and they looked set for a great year, but since then they’ve won just four games and they’re closer to the relegation zone than they are to the play-offs. With players like Peter Leven, Tom Craddock and Alfie Potter, Oxford should have enough to stay up, but is that really enough for a club which began the season with high expectations?

PlymouthD – This was supposed to be the season Plymouth put their financial troubles behind them and began rebuilding the club. But five wins so far is a disappointing return and Carl Fletcher has come in for criticism from some fans. They sit just four points above the relegation zone and unless they can find a goalscorer in January, they’ll be fighting the drop until the final days of the season. Joint top-scorers, Warren Feeney and Rhys Griffiths, have three goals each this season, and this explains why the Pilgrims find themselves 20th in the table. They’re in for a tough fight.

AldershotD- – The lowest scorers in the division are in trouble. Dean Holdsworth has come under fire for the poor results, with just five wins in the first half of the season. With little money to spend in January it’s going to be a very long second half to the season and Shots fans will be biting their nails until the end. Last season they finished in the top half, but they haven’t clicked at all this year. They’re averaging less than a goal a game, and that’s always problematic.

BarnetE+ – The initial excitement surrounding Edgar Davids’ appointment has worn off. They were winless when the Dutch legend arrived in mid-October, but then the Bees won three out of four games (drawing the other) and things looked to be on the up. Unfortunately they failed to win any of their next six games and found themselves bottom of the league. Friday night’s brilliant 3-2 victory against Burton has dragged the club out of the relegation zone, and they’ll hope it can spur them on to better things. They’ve scored just 19 goals this season but Barnet have proved over the past few years, if anybody can defy the odds and escape relegation, it’s them. As miserable as their current situation may seem, the Wigan of the lower leagues could once again spring a surprise.AFC

AFC WimbledonE – The Wombles are worried, and so they should be. They’ve lost more games than anybody else in League 2 this season and they have dropped into the bottom two. The departure of iconic manager, Terry Brown, was unfortunate but inevitable after a poor start to the season. New manager Neil Ardley has had a tough start to managerial life, with just two league wins since his appointment. A spirited performance against MK Dons in the FA Cup gave fans hope, but that showing hasn’t been replicated in the league yet this season, where they’ve been desperately poor. Confidence is low going into the new year, and after a meteoric rise, AFC Wimbledon could very well be heading back to the Blue Square Premier after just two seasons in the Football League.

Bristol RoversF – This is not where Rovers expected to be halfway through the season. It’s been an absolute nightmare at the Memorial Stadium this season and they deserve their place at the foot of the table. Performances have been woeful, they have the worst defensive record in the league and they’re conceding an average of two goals per game. They recently sacked Mark McGhee, who labelled his team’s performances, “embarrassing.” The new manager, John Ward, is very experienced, and has a few good players to work with, but can he get them out of the current predicament?

John Ward aims to get Rovers back to winning ways

John Ward is the latest manager appointed with the goal of getting Bristol Rovers back on track after some disappointing campaigns.

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Mark McGhee lasted less than a year at the helm before he was dismissed with the Pirates in the League 2 relegation zone having lost eight out of their last ten games. The dismal 4-1 home defeat against York on Saturday was the final straw for chairman, Nick Higgs, who sacked McGhee, claiming he had to do so before it was too late.

Everybody associated with the club is fully aware of the seriousness of their current predicament. Rovers have been in the Football League for 92 years, but 18 points from 22 games means they face a fight to stay up.

A closer look at the club’s fortunes in recent years shows the problems at Rovers are deep-rooted. The current poor form is simply the latest stage in a two and a half year malaise which has existed since Paul Trollope’s time in charge.

Recent decline

Trollope is the most successful manager in the club’s recent history, and his five years at the helm are remembered fondly by fans. Under Trollope the Bristolians won promotion to League 1 via the play-offs, had some very respectable seasons in the third tier and performed well in cup competitions.

Unfortunately the party came to an end with a poor start to the 2010-11 season and ten days before Christmas 2010, Trollope was relieved of his duties. The aim was to ensure a continuation of League 1 football at the Memorial Stadium, however the second half of the season was chaotic.

Former Doncaster manager, Dave Penny, lasted just two disastrous months before being given the boot. Club legend and former captain, Stuart Campbell, was made player-manager for the remainder of the season but he too was unable to alter the Pirates’ poor form and the club was relegated after four seasons in League 1.

It had been a catastrophic season but Rovers were eager to put it behind them and achieve promotion back to the third tier at the first attempt. Paul Buckle, who had led Torquay to the League 2 play-off final just a few days earlier, acrimoniously left his post in Devon to join Rovers.

The young Buckle was widely seen as a great appointment and the perfect man to transform spirits at Rovers. Unfortunately Buckle failed to settle at the Memorial Stadium and by January 2012 he too was deemed surplus to requirement, with the club hovering above the League 2 relegation zone and playing miserably.

Mark McGhee kept Rovers up last season and had a positive effect on results but this was just a short respite for the Gasheads.

This season has been woeful for Rovers, beginning with a seven match winless streak, and they now sit 23rd with the leakiest defence in the division. The Pirates’ top players haven’t performed this season and McGhee admitted himself, performances have been embarrassing.

The job ahead for John Ward

John Ward takes over a club which is in gradual, but substantial decline, and his first job is inspiring not only the players but also the fans.

This is Ward’s second stint in charge of Rovers, but the club has changed considerably since he left in 1996.

Some Rovers fans are sceptical of Ward, with concerns raised he may not be the right man to turn things around. But Ward has a wealth of experience in the lower leagues and he has performed well at Cheltenham, Carlisle and Colchester.

Ward is a likable personality and a good motivator, and Rovers hope he can put these skills to good use and get Rovers out of the drop zone.

It’s a tough task but Ward has some talented players at his disposal who are capable of dragging the team up the league. With other clubs above them like AFC Wimbledon struggling, and matches against fellow strugglers Aldershot and Plymouth over the Christmas period, there’s no reason why Rovers can’t quickly climb up the league under Ward.

Dave Jones: Should he stay or should he go?

Sheffield Wednesday are second from bottom in the Championship, they’ve lost their last seven games and on Saturday they lost to fellow relegation-batters Bristol City.

Sheffield Wednesday manager Dave Jones is under severe pressure. (Picture courtesy of talksport.com)

Sheffield Wednesday manager Dave Jones is under severe pressure. (Picture courtesy of talksport.com)

Manager, Dave Jones, is under severe pressure, with fans questioning both his ability to inspire his team and his tactical nous. Jones led the Owls to automatic promotion from League 1 last season, and has years of experience in the Championship with Wolves and Cardiff, but is he the man to lead Wednesday to safety?

Great expectations

Jones was appointed in March with Wednesday 3rd in the League 1 table and fresh from a morale-boosting victory against Steel City rivals Sheffield United. He led the team to promotion, leapfrogging United in the process, and Wednesday looked set for a fresh start in the Championship.

In August everything looked rosy for the Owls; they were unbeaten in the opening month of the season, winning two and drawing one. Few people were tipping Wednesday for the drop, and nobody could have predicted the abysmal run of results which would follow.

Wednesday had substantially boosted their squad in the summer, acquiring the services of full-back Joe Mattock, experienced centre-back Anthony Gardner and striker Jay Bothroyd, who excelled under Jones at Cardiff. They also bought Michail Antonio, who shined on loan from Reading the previous season, and borrowed highly-rated youngster Ross Barkley from Everton.

There were also exotic-sounding  transfers, such as Slovenian international Nejc Pecnik and the loan of Rodri from Barcelona B.

It seemed Sheffield Wednesday were all set for an enjoyable season back in the second tier of English football, but things turned sour very quickly.

After their unbeaten August Wednesday went on a miserable nine match winless run. They then won two games in a row against relegation rivals Ipswich and Peterborough and the Hillsborough club seemed ready to turn their season around.

Alas they’ve lost all their games since beating Peterborough 2-1 on November 3, and have slowly slipped down the table.

The defeat at home to Bristol City will hurt for a number of reasons.

Two of City’s goals were penalties, cheaply conceded through nervous defending by players who had just netted for Wednesday. Another painful aspect of this defeat is that Wednesday looked to be in control of the game, leading 2-1 with five minutes remaining, only for a Baldock penalty and a superb Adomah free-kick to steal the points at the death.

Wednesday’s misery was compounded when a late Wednesday goal was disallowed because defender Miguel Llera had grabbed the referee to complain about a decision he’d made, forcing the ref to halt play just before Gary Madine scored.

Of course this latest loss is especially painful because it was against a Bristol City team, below them at the start of play, who had themselves been on a poor run of form. The Robins, who revealed in midweek the appalling financial state of the club (record losses of £14.4m for the year ending May 2012), are now three points ahead of the Owls and outside the relegation zone.

Saturday’s soul-crushing defeat is the low-point in a disappointing season for Wednesday, and it’s piled the pressure on Dave Jones.

Jones unable to deal with pressure

Jones is probably one of the most mysterious characters in the Football League. He’s an extremely proud man, and somebody who resents criticism or questioning. This has damaged his relationship with the press, and to a lesser extent, with fans in recent years.

He can appear dour, negative and stubborn, and this is a defence mechanism that rarely works in his favour when under pressure. His stubbornness has been misread as arrogance in the past when in fact it’s usually a sign of insecurity.

Jones’s record suggests he’s a manager who struggles under pressure. He led Wolves to promotion via the play-offs when they were second favourites against a Sheffield United team which had reached the semi-finals of both the FA and League Cup that season. However in the Premier League Wolves struggled to adapt and finished bottom.

At Cardiff he reached the 2008 FA Cup final against the odds, but consistently failed to get promoted despite buying many high-profile players. Year after year the Bluebirds would get into promising positions, only to crumble spectacularly under pressure when expectations were raised.

At Sheffield Wednesday he took over a team which was not expected to finish in the top two, but had more or less secured a play-off spot. With expectations and pressure low he managed to rally his team and they overtook Sheffield United to finish 3rd.

Now though, with Wednesday struggling in the bottom three, Jones is once again under immense pressure, and supporters have been critical of his decision-making.

Last week Mark Beevers was allowed to sign for Millwall, where he’s been outstanding in defence while on loan from Wednesday.  He was sold despite the fact Wednesday are shipping goals at an alarming rate and haven’t kept a clean sheet since October.

Following Saturday’s game Jones was asked if he feared for his job and he said: “I didn’t give two penalties away at the end of the day,” adding: “It’s hard for us coaches because we’re under pressure as well.”

When asked if he expected to be in charge for next week’s crunch Yorkshire derby against Barnsley, Jones simply said: “I hope so. I hope so.”

Should he stay or should he go?

Confidence is in short supply at Wednesday and the players look dejected. There are some good footballers at the club but nobody knows when the losing run will end.

The few fans who still believed in Dave Jones are slowly turning against him as the situation gets bleaker. Sadly, Dave Jones’s jittery, overly-defensive interview answers suggest his confidence levels are about as low as those of the players.

The board has to decide whether or not they believe Dave Jones can inspire the players to turn things around. Unfortunately for the manager I suspect they’ll see what we all see; Jones isn’t the man to lead Wednesday to safety.

A revolution in youth football

The FA claims EPPP will revolutionise youth development in the Premier League and Football League, so how are things changing in Football League academies?

The elite player performance plan was created in order to increase the number of professional English players, and to ensure they are more technically accomplished than their predecessors. This so-called revolution has focused on coaching, classification, compensation and education, and the changes have been  influenced by world famous academies such as Barcelona’s La Masia and Ajax’s De Toekomst.

In Euro 2012 England had some of the worst possession stats in the competition and their archaic style of football looked outdated. To what extent can the EPPP bridge the gaping chasm that exists between England and the likes of Spain and Germany?

Anthony Redwood, the Academy Operations Manager at Cardiff City, claims the EPPP is already having an effect on Cardiff.

Foreign investment at Cardiff City has benefited the youth academy.

Foreign investment at Cardiff City has benefited the youth academy.

Redwood praised the EPPP and called it “the biggest revolution to hit youth development in this country since Howard Wilkinson introduced academies in 1998.”

Redwood explained how the EPPP demands far more coaching time for youngsters, and in Cardiff children are now receiving twice as much coaching as they were before the plan’s publication.

Redwood said: “It goes without saying that the more contact time you have with a player the better the standard he attains at the end of his development.

“It’s not just a football programme here, you’re talking about sports science, medicine, education and welfare, you’re talking about players from 9-16. So it’s a bit of a minefield in terms of how you approach it and what you put in place to make sure you tick all the boxes, not just for the player’s football development but for his own personal and academic development as well.”

Cardiff City has dramatically increased funding for its academy since the publication of the EPPP and the number of full-time staff at the academy has increased from eight to sixteen.

The dream of playing in the Football League is what drives youngsters to improve.

The dream of playing in the Football League is what drives youngsters to improve.

Will the EPPP lead to more young local players getting changed here?

Will the EPPP lead to more young local players getting changed here?

Under the new categorisation system, introduced by the EPPP, Cardiff’s academy has been provisionally awarded category two status, placing it among the very best in the Football League.

Cardiff has a proud history of continuously developing bright footballers who have gone on to shine in the Premier League and the Champions League. The likes of Danny Gabbidon, Aaron Ramsey and Adam Matthews are technically gifted and intelligent passers of the ball.

Redwood detailed how the club has received over £18m in offers for academy graduates in the eight years he’s been working with youth development in the Welsh capitol. With such obvious results the academy can justify any requests for further funding from the club’s wealthy Malaysian owners.

Thanks to the EPPP younsters are getting closer medical attention and Cardiff have now employed a full-time academy physiotherapist.

Thanks to the EPPP younsters are getting closer medical attention and Cardiff have now employed a full-time academy physiotherapist.

On the other hand Cardiff’s resources are vast compared to most Football League clubs and several clubs in lower leagues have complained about the financial demands of the EPPP.

Wycombe Wanderers recently ended its youth development programme, claiming it was a luxury it couldn’t afford.

The smaller clubs in Leagues 1 and 2 have all had to re-evaluate their spending priorities and for some it has been extremely difficult finding the necessary funding to meet EPPP requirements. The new categorisation system means club reputations are at stake and if Football League clubs want their academies listed as category 2 or 3, they usually need more coaches and more facilities, which come at a cost.

While a club like Cardiff can demand millions for their young talents a club like Wycombe usually finds itself losing its biggest assets for a pittance. And here we find probably the EPPP’s most controversial element, its new compensation policy.

Statistics based on First team squads, 06/12/12

Statistics based on First team squads, 06/12/12

Statistics based on First team squads, 06/12/12

Statistics based on First team squads, 06/12/12

The policy sets a strict compensation guideline for any clubs wishing to acquire players under 18 years old, based on the player’s age, the category of the youth academy and the number of appearances made by the player. This policy was forced upon Football League clubs by the Premier League, and many clubs in League 1 and League 2, for whom compensation is a large source of income, claim the policy is unfair.

They believe the policy allows big clubs to purchase talent on the cheap after the selling club spent substantial time and money developing them. Since players under 18 can’t sign professional contracts the sellers are obliged to release assets.

Fred Keenor was a Cardiff legend, but the EPPP aims to leave the past behind and introduce modern coaching setups.

Fred Keenor was a Cardiff legend, but the EPPP aims to leave the past behind and introduce modern coaching setups.

The EPPP is generally seen as a big step forward for youth coaching in this country, however, as Anthony Redwood points out, the results won’t be visible for another decade. Only then will the football world be able to judge whether it was a success or a failure.

Ninian Park, Cardiff's old ground, where players such as Nathan Blake, Danny Gabbidon and Aaron Ramsey made their names.

Ninian Park, Cardiff’s old ground, where players such as Nathan Blake, Danny Gabbidon and Aaron Ramsey made their names.