The misery continues for Coventry

This week marked the latest low point in the sorry recent history of Coventry City as the club entered administration.

Coventry were relegated from the Premier League in 2001 and it would be fair to say no club in the Football League has had a more miserable 12 years than Coventry. Administration is a huge blow for their fans just when they were hoping to stabilize in League 1, but by now Cov fans are used to bitter disappointment.

The Ricoh Arena is at the centre of Coventry's latest problems

The Ricoh Arena is at the centre of Coventry’s latest problems

In 2001 the Sky Blues were relegated from the Premier League after 34 unbroken years in the top division. This was despite the best efforts of manager Gordon Strachan and despite having a squad which included John Hartson, Mustapha Hadji, Craig Bellamy, Lee Carsley, Gary Breen and Gary McSheffrey.

Despite losing some of their best players Coventry expected to be challenging for a quick return to the Premier League, but they found it tough to adapt to life in the second tier.

They quickly went from big-guns to mid-table mainstays and struggled to build any kind of momentum in the Championship. In their 11 years in the second tier they only finished in the top half three times and never looked capable of challenging for promotion. Their highest finish came in 2006 when they ended the season eighth in the Championship but even then they were 12 points outside the play-off spots.

There were big expectations for managers such as Gary McAllister, Micky Adams, Iain Dowie, Chris Coleman and Aidy Boothroyd to turn the club’s fortunes around but all of them struggled as the club further stagnated.

Many clubs find moving to a new stadium can give them impetus, but the opening of the 32,609-seat Ricoh Arena in 2005 had no such effect on Coventry, who remained in entrenched in the lower end of the Championship.

The stadium became a costly albatross around the club’s neck. Coventry narrowly avoided administration in 2007, but the cost of renting the state of the art stadium continued to hamper the club.

Coventry’s inability to sell out the massive ground caused different problems. It provoked ridicule from fans of other clubs who went to great lengths every time they visited the Ricoh to point out the vast expanses of empty seats. It also had an expectedly detrimental effect on the players. Once the initial excitement of new facilities wore off, they were left with an empty bowl and very little atmosphere to inspire them.

Coventry’s dismal time in the Championship came to an end last year when they were finally put out of their misery and relegated to League 1. At first glance it looked like a damaging blow for the club but fans and pundits put a positive spin on the situation, pointing to big clubs like Norwich, Leicester and Southampton who had been relegated to League 1 and quickly returned in a far stronger position (on and off the field) than when they were relegated.

Unfortunately, this season has been yet another mediocre and ultimately disappointing season of false-dawns and let-downs.

Andy Thorn was let go just 3 games into the season and it took the Sky Blues nine games to register their first league win, against Oldham at the end of September. Things looked set to improve as Mark Robins transformed the team and got them playing vibrant attacking football.

Unfortunately after dragging the club to the edge of the play-off spots Robins left to take over at Huddersfield Town. Results since his departure have been far from catastrophic and much to the amazement of onlookers the East Midlands club has sustained its play-off push.

This was of course until this week’s announcement that the club would be entering administration, meaning it would suffer a 10 point deduction, all but ending their hopes of going up via the play-offs.

The news was unsurprising. A few days prior to the announcement, the club had moved many of its operations out of the stadium.

The club is estimated to be combatting debts of around £60m, and the biggest problem is the ludicrously high rent the club currently pays on the stadium, which is run by ACL. The Coventry owners Sisu have been lambasted for agreeing to ACL’s high demands in the first place, but have found it difficult to negotiate a solution to the rent bill of £1.3m.

The club is in a desperate mess, and fans are unsurprisingly furious with the club’s owners.

Coventry never recovered from their shock relegation from the Premier League in 2001, and since then has failed to generate any momentum. The 12 years which followed relegation have been miserable and uninspiring, and new boss Steven Pressley has a delicate juggling act to perform if he is to reverse the club’s decline.

The former Celtic and Falkirk defender takes over a club with bags of potential but a heap of problems off the pitch.

After 12 years Coventry supporters just want something to cheer. The club recently disappointed its fans once again by losing 3-2 on aggregate to Crewe in the JPT semi-final, meaning they were denied their first Wembley final since their famous FA Cup triumph in 1987.

Supporters are just asking, when are they going to be allowed to be positive again?

Why doesn’t anybody want to get promoted to the Premier League?

Most clubs dream of promotion to the Premier League and all the perks which come with it. Great away trips to some of the top clubs in Europe, increased media attention and a huge cash injection are what most Football League fans dream of at night.

So why are Hull, Watford and Palace so intent on staying in the Championship?

Why don't clubs want to go up?

Why don’t clubs want to go up?

This weekend all three clubs lost and these are not anomalies. The chasing trio have been seriously inconsistent in recent games and none of them seem willing to take advantage of the other clubs’ unreliability. It’s almost as if they don’t want to go up.

The bizarre thing is the way all of these clubs have dragged themselves up the league to get into a position to challenge for second spot, only to lose their nerve just when they have the chance to assert their authority.

Palace, for example, had a great start to the season but the surprise departure of Dougie Freedman knocked them. As Ian Holloway got to know the club Palace lost pace with the division’s front runners.

But at the start of February they began a tremendous run, where they once again clicked, and clambered up the league. This run culminated with a magnificent 4-2 win against Hull, which appeared to signal Palace’s promotion push was ready to blow away the likes of Hull and Watford. But after this impressive result the Eagles slipped up against former manager, Neil Warnock, with a 2-2 draw at home to Leeds.

Then at the weekend Palace failed to lift themselves for the trip to arch-rivals Brighton. They were duly beaten 3-0 by the free-flowing Sussex side.

Watford’s story is similar. Just a few weeks ago Gianfranco Zola was praised on this blog for taking a group of borrowed foreigners and turning them into an elegant, attack-minded team. But just when they looked set to take the reins and pull away from the chasing pack they’ve stumbled.

They’ve now lost their last two games, firstly against a Blackpool team who have been far from spectacular (at least on the pitch) this season. Then on Saturday they travelled to relegation-threatened Barnsley and lost 1-0. Even though Barnsley have seen a resurgence since David Flitcroft was appointed manager this was still a frustrating result for Watford who are tiring at the wrong time of the season.

Hull are currently second in the Championship, but are inconsistency personified. Their last five results read:

Lost away to Bolton 4-1

Won at home against Birmingham 5-2

Lost away to Palace 4-2

Won away against Burnley 1-0

Lost at home against Nottingham Forest 2-1

At times Hull look confident, solid and goal-hungry. At other times the Tigers seem meek, vulnerable and overly conservative.

Champions-elect Cardiff now lead the league by seven points with a game in hand over the chasing pack. But Cardiff have been extremely sporting in the last few weeks, giving their rivals plenty of chances to catch them. Cardiff’s scrappy win against Wednesday was only their second in their last six games. The Bluebirds have given Hull, Watford and Palace more than enough chances to catch up and even overtake them, but they’ve failed to capitalise on the Welshmen’s slip ups.

This inconsistency presents two big problems for these three clubs.

First of all it goes without saying if they’re reluctant to snap up the second promotion spot, somebody else could sneak up on them. At the moment Nottingham Forest look the most likely option to take over. Billy Davies has transformed Forest since he took over and the brilliant victory at the KC Stadium was their sixth in a row.

They’re still eight points off Hull, but if they can keep up their scintillating form, who’s to say they too can’t snatch automatic promotion from the stumbling front runners?

The second big problem concerns the play-offs. It’s always difficult for players to raise their game for the play-offs if they’ve narrowly missed out on second, and are still depressed about it. But if they’re not in good form anyway the play-offs suddenly become a daunting proposition.

This year more than ever before we’re looking outside the current top six for potential play-off winners. There are plenty of good sides who have probably underperformed this season but could do very well in the play-offs if they can find some good form.

We’ve already discussed Forest’s good form, and even though Leicester are by now out of automatic promotion contention the Foxes have proved in the past when they are at their best they are possibly the best team in the league. If they can recapture their form from the first half of the season, they could be play-off favourites.

Likewise Brighton have underperformed in general this season but Gus Poyet’s team are big match players, and they showed on Sunday what they can do when they click. Dougie Freedman too has had an impact at Bolton and their defeat against Ipswich on Saturday was their first in nine games. They have played themselves into play-off contention.

There are just ten games remaining in the regular season, but this means there are 30 points up for grabs. These are by far the most important games of the season for teams chasing promotion, either automatically or through the play-offs.

If players and teams can’t raise their games and hold their nerves for these matches then they don’t deserve to go up.

Torquay’s quick-fire collapse could continue

The League 2 relegation dogfight features some predictable names such as Barnet, York, Wimbledon and Aldershot. Plymouth and Accrington Stanley are also less than surprising inclusions in the scrap. But as recently as early February any suggestion of Torquay being dragged into the mix would have been ridiculed.

The situation is getting desperate for Torquay

The situation is getting desperate for Torquay

But the Devon club, who have featured in the last two League 2 play-offs, now find themselves just one place and one point above the drop zone.

Last season they were just three points off automatic promotion to League 1, and two years ago they lost agonizingly to a John Mousinho stunner in the play-off final at Old Trafford. Until December they looked a decent bet to finish in the top 7 again this season, but things have taken a turn for the worse, and the Gulls have taken just one point from their last nine games.

Torquay started the season with hopes of promotion, despite the sale of key players in the summer. Torquay’s first half of the season was steady but unspectacular, although they were unbeaten at home until an embarrassing defeat against non-league Harrogate, which many fans now see as the start of their slide down the table. Since their loss against the unfancied Yorkshiremen the Gulls have only registered one win at home.

Torquay’s form had already dipped when they were dealt a hammer blow at the start of February with the news popular manager, Martin Ling was likely to miss the rest of the season with a “debilitating illness.”

Ling’s mystery illness required his assistant, Shaun Taylor, to step into the role, but his four games in charge all ended in defeat. Former Bury and Scunthorpe manager, Alan Knill, took over four games ago, but three losses and a draw have taken the Gulls within spitting distance of the bottom two.

Torquay were relegated out of the Football League for the first time in the club’s history in 2007, but returned two years later, which was a tremendous achievement in a competitive division. They don’t want to put themselves in the same position again, but with just one win since December 1 fans are extremely concerned.

The atmosphere at Plainmoor has become increasingly tense and nervous, with frustration rebounding constantly between the crowd and the players.

Their only win in 2013 was the televised derby away at Exeter, which ended in a 1-0 win, but even then they were extremely lucky and Torquay could count themselves lucky the Grecians had left their shooting boots at home.

Despite having an adequate squad to stay up, Torquay look disorganized at the back. They’re leaking sloppy goals, and look bereft of self-belief at the back.

To add to their defensive worries, hefty striker Rene Howe has hit a dry spell, and hasn’t netted in his last eight games, which is extremely unusual for the goal-machine and extremely worrying for his club, who have been dependent upon him for goals in recent seasons.

Torquay’s collapse is remarkable, and the club seems to have become a trembling mess overnight. But as Alan Knill himself pointed out, in League 2 a losing run can turn into a winning run astoundingly quickly.

But with just 10 games remaining, the Gulls form has to turn around quickly or they could find themselves in deep trouble, without enough time to save themselves.

Wolves players need to take responsibility for their predicament

There’s no avoiding it, and it has to be discussed; Wolves are in trouble, and Dean Saunders needs to turn things around quickly if they are to stay up this season.

Wolves fans suffered a nightmare season last year as they were relegated from the Premier League with a measly 25 points. But having retained most of their players, and acquired a new, highly commended, intelligent manager in Ståle Solbakken, they were confident of pushing for an instant return to the top flight.

Saunders needs sort things out quickly.

But after a solid start to the season, Wolves have steadily dropped down the league, and after an embarrassing FA Cup defeat away at Blue Square Premier side Luton, Solbakken was shown the door. This was undoubtedly the correct decision as Solbakken clearly wasn’t inspiring the players, and the players found it difficult to adapt to his continental style of play.

Dean Saunders was appointed after a great first half of the season at League 1 Doncaster, but a quick look at Saunders’s CV may have suggested he was not the man for the job.

Saunders was given his first managerial post at Wrexham in 2008 after working as a coach for several years in John Toshack’s Wales set-up. Saunders struggled at first to find a rhythm at Wrexham and there were serious questions asked about his managerial ability. But he slowly turned things around at Wrexham and built a formidable, attacking machine, which looked set to challenge seriously for the Championship, until he was snapped up by Doncaster in September 2011.

He took over a Doncaster team which looked doomed to relegation, but Saunders was well backed with high-profile loan and short-term signings. But even the likes of El-Hadji Diouf couldn’t save Doncaster, and they were relegated at the end of the season, with Saunders’ managerial ability questioned once again.

Saunders revamped the Doncaster squad and got them competing seriously for promotion back to the Championship, this season, before he was snapped up by Wolves, with the aim of resurrecting their fading play-off hopes. Instead, he has not won any of his first six games and their latest defeat against in-form Barnsley has seen them fall into the bottom three.

Saunders is a long-term option for a club who desperately need a short-term solution. The question is, can Saunders change things quickly enough to keep Wolves up?

Wolves’s squad isn’t the most exciting, but there are good players in there who are underperforming badly. The likes of Roger Johnson, Kevin Doyle, Sylvain Ebanks-Blake and Adam Hammill are proven players at Championship level, but they’re simply not contributing enough, and haven’t done so for a while.

The team still haven’t recovered from the loss of confidence last season, and in hindsight, the board probably missed a golden opportunity to revamp the squad in the summer. At the time, keeping the majority of the squad together looked to be a big achievement for the board, but after such a poor season it would probably have been better to get rid of some of their biggest underperformers.

Some football pundits have said sacking Mick McCarthy was Wolves’s biggest error, but they have conveniently forgotten the team’s abysmal form at the time of his departure.

McCarthy had enjoyed some wonderful times at Wolves, guiding them to promotion and keeping the Black Country club in the Premier League for three seasons. But the time had come for McCarthy to leave. Wolves were playing poorly, with deteriorating confidence, and their performance in the embarrassing 5-1 home defeat to local rivals, West Brom, was possibly among the worst ever seen in the Premier League.

Those who claim the Wolves board was wrong to get rid of McCarthy are looking through rose-tinted glasses, and conveniently forgetting the state of the team when he left. McCarthy will always be loved at Molineux, but keeping McCarthy certainly wouldn’t have kept them up, and they probably would have reacted similarly to relegation under the former Irish international.

Wolves have 13 games left to save themselves from returning to the third tier for the first time since 1989, starting with Sunday’s clash with table-toppers, Cardiff.

They desperately need to get their house in order, and halt what has become a deeply distressing malaise.

Now isn’t the time for players to feel sorry for themselves, and Dean Saunders has to step up to the mark to prove he is capable of being a Championship manager.

With matches against fellow relegation candidates, Birmingham, Millwall, Bristol City, Huddersfield and Bolton, there’s no reason why Wolves can’t drag themselves out of their current predicament. But for this to happen the players need to stop the pouting and take responsibility for their terrible performances.

Would you want Paolo Di Canio at your club?

The most controversial and entertaining manager in the Football League has quit his job, so what next for Paolo Di Canio?

The flamboyant Italian left his post at Swindon Town after getting frustrated with the League 1 club’s troubling finances, and the effects they were having on his preparations. He is already being linked with Leeds United, where Neil Warnock doesn’t seem to be enjoying life, but there are a few factors chairmen need to consider before giving Di Canio a job.

 

Football genius or troublesome fascist?

Football genius or troublesome fascist?

Di Canio was a very unlikely manager, and big questions were asked when Swindon appointed him in 2011.

As a player he was capable of spectacular skill and breath-taking goals, not least his beautiful bicycle volley against Wimbledon for West Ham in 2000, which is still considered one of the greatest goals of the Premier League era. But he was also an unpredictable personality, who could implode at any time.

In 1993 he left Juventus after falling out with legendary manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, and in 1996 he repeated the trick at Milan by quarrelling with Fabio Capello. In a match between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal, Di Canio pushed the referee to the ground, and received an 11 game ban which ultimately signalled the end of his tenure in the Steel City.

In England he is best remembered for his time at West Ham, but even there, where he is still adored by supporters, he was considered as stable as a tower of jelly. Tantrums and fallouts were commonplace and he barely played in his final season at the club because of a spat with manager, Glenn Roeder.

He had a comparatively problem-free time at Charlton, before returning to his childhood club, Lazio. Back in Rome, he wound up opposing fans, fraternised with right-wing ultras and regularly gave supporters a fascist salute.

His former manager, Harry Redknapp recently claimed he never once believed Di Canio could be a manager.

But his record at Swindon is quite remarkable. In his first season in charge at the County Ground he led Swindon to the League 2 title, and the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

He leaves Swindon in the League 1 play-off spots, and just three points off the top of the league. They are unbeaten in their last 11 league games, and have a great chance of going up this season, either automatically or through the play-offs.

Di Canio has left as a result of the poor state of the club’s finances, and in his statement to the press he cited the sale of playmaker, Matt Richie, to Bournemouth, as a major reason for his departure. Ritchie, who has excelled under Di Canio, was sold behind the manager’s back in the January transfer window, and since then relations between the manager and the boardroom have been strained.

But Swindon’s financial crisis is down in no small measure to Di Canio and his spending.

Di Canio was given hundreds of thousands to spend on players in order to manufacture a squad capable of storming up the leagues, and in an aesthetically pleasing style. Swindon spent more on agent fees over the past year and a half than any other club in League 2 and League 1, such was the club’s commitment to getting the players Di Canio wanted.

The Roman has expensive tastes, and any chairman who chooses to employ him must be prepared for arguments over transfer funds, unless they want to overspend and encounter the kind of problems which are currently crippling Swindon. Di Canio has an eye for talent, but it comes at a cost, and it’s still unclear whether he could work within a strict budget, or even whether he would be willing to try such a strategy. It appears he was looking to leave Swindon as soon as the cheque book was put back in the drawer.

Whichever club picks up the fiery Di Canio will also have to put up with his bizarre personality.

At Swindon, Di Canio’s passionate press conferences and tempestuous touchline antics entertained the masses, but he was sometimes guilty of bringing negative attention upon the club.

Di Canio’s fallout with Leon Clarke was damaging, but accusations of racism by French striker, Jonathan Tehoué were very difficult to deal with. Di Canio is a self-confessed fascist and a Mussolini sympathiser, so accusations of racism are likely to stick, and no club wants this kind of bad publicity.

Jekyll and Hyde

He’s a brilliant, passionate lover of the sport, whose Swindon team played gorgeous, entertaining football as they climbed from League 2 to the verge of the Championship. He understands football better than almost any other manager in the Football League and he will always strive to win, but in a style befitting his perfectionist streak.

However this Jekyll and Hyde character comes with a reputation and a troublemaking tendency, which will always cause problems for clubs. His departure from Swindon with the club so close to the top of League 1 shows Di Canio’s unpredictability and spontaneity.

Wherever Di Canio ends up next, fans, and more importantly chairmen, must prepare for a rollercoaster ride, which will inevitably consist of great football and controversy. It’s up to them to decide whether the Italian stallion is worth the hassle.

Rogers coming out leaves questions unanswered

Yesterday, US international and former Leeds and Stevenage player, Robbie Rogers, posted an emotional blog post in which he declared he was gay and intended to retire from football.

Robbie Rogers in one of his rare Leeds United appearances.

Robbie Rogers in one of his rare Leeds United appearances.

It marked another chapter in the very slow-moving history of homosexuality in football, but Rogers’s announcement has left more questions unanswered than answered. Should football be proud of Rogers’ ability to come out, or ashamed he had to wait until he was 25 and retired before revealing his secret?

Rogers is the first professional footballer to come out in Britain since Justin Fashanu in 1990.

Like Rogers, Fashanu’s football career was stagnating by the time he revealed to the Sun he was world’s first openly-gay footballer, but his announcement caused a storm even he couldn’t have expected. Fashanu found himself excluded and alienated by his teammates, fans and even members of his own family.

Clubs refused to hire him and he dropped further and further down the football ladder. In 1998, after accusations of a sexual assault against a 17-year-old man in the States, Fashanu flew back to London where he was found hanged in an abandoned garage.

Remembering Justin Fashanu’s tragic story, it’s not difficult to see why footballers fear coming out.

Rogers’s early-morning blog post makes him just the second ever British-based openly-gay footballer. There have long been calls for a brave player to make the big step forward and reveal they were gay but will Rogers’ announcement satisfy those calls, and has Rogers actually done anything to help any footballers who feel scared to reveal their sexuality?

Without wishing to disrespect Rogers, many would have hoped for a player with a higher profile to come out. In his homeland he is reasonably well-known among football fans, but on this side of the Atlantic, it’s unlikely anybody would have heard of Rogers unless they supported either Leeds or Stevenage.

In the handful of games he actually played for Leeds (one start and three substitute appearances) and Stevenage (five matches) he looked pretty unremarkable, and his time in English football was hampered by injuries. Even though he has played Olympic football and won 18 caps for the US, he could hardly be considered anything more than an average footballer.

He is unattached after his Leeds contract was terminated in January, and his sporting career looked to be directionless after a disappointing stint in England. It’s fair to say he wasn’t the high-profile name equal-rights campaigners were hoping for.

Far more worrying than his low profile is the fact he had to retire from the game, aged 25, before he felt he could disclose his secret.

The news of his retirement took up just a paragraph in his blog post, and his reasons for quitting the game are very unclear. Even though he doesn’t say his sexuality had anything to do with his decision to retire, he clearly implies he was not comfortable revealing his sexuality while playing.

Rogers’s retirement suggests footballers still believe the sport is too backwards to accept homosexuality.

But there’s no doubt Rogers coming out will make it easier for other gay footballers to follow suit in future.

Reassuringly, following his announcement, Rogers’s twitter feed was flooded with supportive messages from players, fans and friends from outside football. Leeds United forums were full of well-wishing messages, which far out-weighted the tiny, homophobic minority.

Rogers has proved football has moved on.

The nature of his announcement shows there is still work to do to make it easier for footballers to come out. But the reaction of the football world shows British football has moved on from the shameful days of Justin Fashanu, and is now in a position where it can accept homosexuality.

Rogers has laid the foundation for more gay footballers to reveal their sexuality, should they wish to do so.

Zola deserves praise, not scorn

Crystal Palace manager, Ian Holloway, has been critical of Watford’s exploitation of the loan system, which allowed them to bring 11 players in on loan.

Palace had gone two goals down before resiliently clawing back to draw the match 2-2, but Holloway felt aggrieved his opponents were allowed to field seven loan players. Cassetti, Chalobah, Abdi, Pudil and Vydra all started for the Hornets, while Battacchino and Forestieri came off the bench, meaning over half the players who featured for Watford were borrowed from other clubs.

The FA and the Football League have no rules limiting the amount of players a club can borrow from foreign clubs.

Zola was tipped to struggle at Watford, but he's turned it around. Credit: Illarterate

Zola was tipped to struggle at Watford, but he’s turned it around. Credit: Illarterate

Watford’s connections to Italian club, Udinese, and Spanish side, Grenada, through their new owners, the Pozzo family, have allowed them to bolster their squad with loanees.

Holloway was scathing in his criticism of the legal loophole, which made these loans possible, suggesting it gave Watford an unfair advantage.

 

But instead of criticizing the system, Watford deserve praise for turning a catastrophe waiting to happen, into an unexpected promotion push.

The new owners were lambasted for sacking popular manager, Sean Dyche, at the end of last season, and appointing Gianfranco Zola. The former Chelsea legend had an unfairly poor reputation after a mixed tenure as West Ham manager.

The owners then proceeded to borrow wildly, meaning at one point in the summer, Zola had to cope with a squad comprising of over 40 players. The current first team squad has 15 nationalities represented, from Argentinian, Cristian Battocchino, to Swede, Joel Ekstrand, with most of the players still struggling to learn English.

Watford started the season with a brand new squad, a new manager and new owners.

I must confess I predicted a chaotic season, marred by sackings and disaccord.

However I’m very pleased to admit, I was wrong.

Gianfranco Zola, previously labeled “too nice to be a manager,” has brought the most multicultural squad in the Football League together, and turned them into the best footballing side outside the Premier League.

He has taken a gang of individuals, and transformed them into a free-flowing, attack-minded, passing team. Watford are playing the kind of delightful, one-touch, exciting football, all Championship fans want to see from their clubs.

The loanees have stepped up to the mark and brought an extra degree of class to the Championship.

Swiss midfielder, Almen Abdi, is part of an exciting generation of Kosovan-born Swiss internationals, which includes Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka. He’s a skillful, cultured midfielder, who links play brilliantly.

Daniel Pudil is another intelligent footballer, who’s added an extra dimension to Watford’s entertaining midfield.

But the star of the show has been Matěj Vydra. The Czech striker is graceful, strong and fast, but more importantly, he’s a superb footballer, who should be playing at a higher level. His goal-scoring has bordered on the prolific and he oozes class on the ball.

Many Championship clubs have relied heavily on loans in recent years, but very few have done it successfully.

Cardiff City constantly brought in big name loans, only for them to flop. Leeds United have failed to secure and kind of continuity over recent years because they have relied too heavily on quick-fix loans.

But Watford have gone further than any other club, and their success this season is based on loans. As a long-term strategy this is extremely dangerous because it involved huge upheaval every summer, and endangers stability. But in the medium-term, it’s working very well, and this is testimony to Zola’s brilliant management.

It’s very difficult for any manager to integrate several loan players into a side, but Zola has managed it in spectacular fashion. For this he deserves a huge amount of credit. In a short amount of time he’s taken the average Championship squad which existed when he first arrived, combined it with some foreign acquisitions, and created something beautiful.

But can this free-flowing side achieve automatic promotion?

Cardiff look like certainties for promotion. They’re grinding out results, and on the rare occasions they slip up, the chasing pack aren’t punishing them. They’re now 11 points ahead at the top of the Championship, and look to be cruising towards the promised land.

However 2nd place is up for grabs, and with the likes of Leicester, Middlesbrough and Palace constantly dropping points, a solid end to the season would see Watford promoted automatically.

Consistency is a rarity in this league, and this season in particular, it almost seems as if clubs don’t want to go up. But the door is open, and Watford are one of a number of clubs who can go up if they just start stringing wins together.

If they eventually miss out on 2nd place, they’ll fancy their chances in the play-offs, where nobody will want to face Zola and his borrowed stars