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Congratulations to Bradford, Yeovil and Palace: 2013 play-off review

May I start by apologising for the lack of updates on this blog over recent weeks. Having pestered readers with views on tedious managerial changes and politics in football, outside commitments have meant this blog has been neglected at the most important stage of the season.

Wembley was the stage once again for the Football League Play-offs

Wembley was the stage once again for the Football League Play-offs

But now that the season has ended with Crystal Palace’s impressive win against Watford, the time has come to look back over the biggest games in English football; the Football League Play-Offs.

They are the showpiece events of the Football League calendar, they are the most important games in any club’s season and they provide some of the greatest and darkest days of a fan’s life.

League 2: Bradford 3-0 Northampton

The Match: Bradford’s hammering of Northampton will go down in history as one of the easiest play-off final victories in history. Goals from Hanson, McArdle and Wells meant the Bantams had effectively won the game by the 30-minute mark.

Bradford could have scored six or seven but they decided to take their foot off the pedal. This ensured a terribly dull last 60 minutes for us neutrals.

Bradford thoroughly deserved their promotion. They had sacrificed a possible automatic promotion by putting huge emphasis on their League Cup campaign, and battled hard to reach the play-off final.

Phil Parkinson got his tactics spot-on, instructing his players to pass the ball quickly, use the wings and constantly test the Northampton back four. They overran the Cobblers in midfield, stretched the defence and loaded the box with attackers, meaning Northampton couldn’t cope with crosses.

Northampton were desperately poor on the day. Having reached the top seven through tough defending and great organisation, Northampton were disorganised, open and incredibly careless. Most disappointingly they lacked energy and didn’t seem to be as enthusiastic as Bradford. Aidy Boothroyd was severely punished for their negativity and for the baffling decision to leave Adebayo Akinfenwa on the bench. One particularly limp shot on target sums up Northampton’s miserable afternoon.

Bradford in League 1? There’s no reason why Bradford can’t excel in the third tier. They have had a miserable time of things since Premier League relegation in 2001, facing relegation after relegation as well as crippling financial problems. But this season has shown the potential of Bradford City.

They play good, attacking football and have a very balanced side. There will be a tremendous feel-good factor around the club throughout the summer, and with the coffers looking healthier than they’ve looked in years, Parkinson should have some money to spend over the coming months.

Bradford should not just aim to stay up, but stay up safely.

What do Northampton do next? The play-off final highlighted Northampton’s deficiencies. They were too negative to go up this season and couldn’t vary their style of play when the long-ball option failed, as it did against Bradford. The squad needs freshening and strengthening, and Aidy Boothroyd’s decision not to offer top-scorer and Europe’s heaviest footballer, Adebayo Akinfenwa, a new contract shows there may be a desire to acquire more mobile forwards. But replacing Akinfenwa’s goals and his personality could be very difficult.

League 1: Brentford 1-2 Yeovil

Match: This was undoubtedly the most entertaining play-off final, and both teams deserve heaps of credit for putting on a great show and representing League 1 well.

Yeovil had the perfect start when Paddy Madden toe-poked the ball brilliantly into the top corner after six minutes. Brentford struggled to get going in the first half, and never troubled Stech in the Yeovil goal. Yeovil then doubled their lead when James Hayter’s header crossed the line before Shaleum Logan could hook it away.

Brentford reacted superbly after the break and must have thought a comeback was on the cards when Harlee Dean placed his header beyond the reach of the Glovers’ goalie just six minutes into the second half.

But despite a spirited and entertaining effort in the second half, a combination of poor luck, resilient defending and goal-keeping kept the Londoners out and Yeovil held on to clinch the unlikeliest of promotions and extend their fairy-tale story even further.

It was harsh on Brentford, who have had a magnificent season and were still reeling from the final day drama against Doncaster. But Yeovil have been brilliant under Gary Johnson this season and have defied all the odds to go up.

In truth this was a game neither side deserved to lose, but Brentford lacked the belief and the confidence which Yeovil had in abundance.

Yeovil in the Championship? It doesn’t sound right somehow, does it? The smallest club in League 1, with the smallest budget have won promotion to the Championship! It also makes the Glovers the top team in the West Country for the first time in their history.

Yeovil’s rise in recent years has been unbelievable, considering they only became a league club in 2003. The return of Gary Johnson has reinvigorated the Somerset club after some tough seasons, but can Yeovil really compete in the second tier?

Financially of course they can’t compete with the giants of the Championship, but Johnson has always had a great eye for a bargain, as proved by the brilliant Paddy Madden.

Yeovil will have the most unglamorous squad in the Championship but the great team spirit at Huish Park and the positivity created by their Wembley win will give them plenty of reasons to believe they can survive next year.

What do Brentford do next? It’s the bitterest pill for Brentford to swallow after squandering the golden opportunity to get promoted on the final day of the season against Doncaster.

Uwe Rösler has nurtured a talented squad who play excellent, attacking football, but the failure to clinch promotion will undoubtedly haunt them throughout the summer. There’s no reason why the Bees can’t go up next season, but first of all the German must put the last few weeks behind him and move on with a positive mindset.

Some players may leave, but Rösler will still have a good squad, and expect them to be challenging for promotion once again next year.

Championship: Watford 0-1 Crystal Palace AET

The match: It could hardly be called a classic but Crystal Palace fans will not care because for them it’s the perfect end to an extraordinary season.

The Eagles began the season brilliantly but then shockingly lost their manager and club hero, Dougie Freedman, to Bolton. In came Ian Holloway and he had a tough time settling before masterminding his team’s victorious play-off campaign.

Having out-thought Brighton in the semi-final, Palace out-fought Watford in the final.

The dire first half produced few opportunities, and while neutrals got excited once or twice by Wilfried Zaha’s runs, the Manchester-bound youngster constantly failed to find an end product.

In the second half Palace became more adventurous. They began to stretch the unimposing Watford back-line and create openings. Only Manuel Almunia, between the Hornets’ sticks, kept the final goalless, and forced extra time.

Watford’s disappointing performance continued into the additional half hour, and just before half-time in extra-time, Marco Cassetti’s clumsy foul on Zaha gave veteran Kevin Phillips the chance from 12 yards to give Palace a priceless lead. He hammered the ball past Almunia.

Neutrals hoped the goal would trigger a reaction from Watford but Zola’s men simply couldn’t raise their games and Crystal Palace held on to secure promotion back to the top-flight.

One of the great characteristics of Palace’s successful campaign has been the way unglamorous individuals have stood out. Jedinak was a colossus at the heart of midfield and the two centre-backs, Delaney and Gabbiddon, who have not had particularly spectacular seasons, stepped up for the play-offs and kept clean-sheets in all three games.

Palace in the Premier League? Crystal Palace hold the record for the most relegations from the Premier League, and they are already the bookies’ favourites for relegation next season (although this is common practice for the play-off winners).

The task is made even more difficult by the fact Wilfried Zaha is leaving for Manchester United and top-scorer Glenn Murray is expected to be out until Christmas with a serious knee injury. Crystal Palace’s squad is small anyway, and includes many players who don’t look capable of playing at a higher level (Wilbraham, Garvan and Ramage are likely to struggle in the Premier League, although both Garvan and Ramage have signed contract extensions).

But Ian Holloway has proved at Blackpool that he has a knack for getting the best out of squads and surprising Premier League sides. He needs to get Palace thinking the same way the Tangerines thought when they were promoted in 2010.

It’s going to be tough for Palace, but the poor standard of this season’s Premier League should give them hope, and they need to approach the big league with a fearless attitude.

What do Watford do next? Much of how Watford do next season depends on who they manage to retain.

They will hold on to some of their borrowed players, but many will return to their parent clubs. Zola has done brilliantly to unite the current squad, but he may have to do the same thing again over the summer. Expect plenty of fresh faces at Vicarage Road, and they can help improve spirits after the Wembley ordeal.

Watford never recovered from the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion and they underperformed massively against Palace in the play-off final. Despite playing some beautiful football this season, Watford have also looked slightly unfocused from time to time.

The Football League Blog End of Season Awards

After 1,644 games, played over eight months the Football League season is very nearly over, and to celebrate this incredible season it’s time for the most prestigious awards in football – the Football League Blog End of Season Awards!

So sit back, relax, have a drink if you like and get ready to disagree vehemently with most of the verdicts (and possibly agree with a tiny minority of the picks).

 football league

League 2 Player of the Year

Winner– Tom Pope (Port Vale) – The league’s top scorer has been sensational all season and to score 31 goals in any league is a magnificent achievement. He has been the driving force behind Port Vale’s promotion, and Pope has on many occasions been the difference between victory and defeat. With his large frame, commanding aerial presence and clinical finishing he is destined to shine in League 1 next season.

Honourable mentions: Adam Barrett (Gillingham), Marlon Pack (Cheltenham), Gary Jones (Bradford)

League 1 Player of the Year

Winner– David Cotterill (Doncaster) – The Welshman has struggled to settle in recent years at various clubs, and has been troubled by a serious loss of confidence. But at the Keepmoat he has managed to remind the football world of his outstanding natural talent. He was made the lynchpin of the team by Dean Saunders and through a series of wonder strikes he has become his club’s top scorer. The midfielder showed he is too good for League 1 and with the belief of a good manager he can flourish in the Championship.

Honourable mentions: Paddy Madden (Yeovil), Alan Judge (Notts County), Harry Maguire (Sheffield United)

Championship Player of the Year

Winner – Mark Hudson (Cardiff) – It’s rare for a defender to get any kind of recognition but Hudson has been by far and away the best defender in the Championship this season, and his consistency and leadership justify his award. The big centre-back is an intelligent reader of the game, a physical presence but also a headstrong authority in the Cardiff back four. Their rock-solid defence was the main reason Cardiff ran away with the league and Hudson, as the leader of the defence deserves recognition as the Championship’s Player of the Year.

Honourable mentions: Matej Vydra (Watford), Glenn Murray (Crystal Palace), Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace)

Young Player of the Year

Winner – Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace) – The big comparison this season has been between Wilfried Zaha and Blackpool’s Tom Ince. Zaha edges the competition, despite arguably being a less complete player than Ince. Zaha can at times be frustrating, at times underwhelming and at times bemusing. But this season he has shown his class on a far more regular basis. He has pace, exquisite control and by now a deadly end product. He is flair personified and he will only get better at Man Utd. Ince is a more rounded player, but he doesn’t have Zaha’s range and capacity for the incredible. Therefore the winner is Wilfried Zaha.

Honourable mentions: Tom Ince (Blackpool), Anthony Knockaert (Leicester), Harry Maguire (Sheffield United)

Goal of the Season:

Winner: Nathaniel Chalobah (Watford) vs Leicester

It’s so difficult choosing a goal of the season from three leagues, but Chalobah’s thunderous wonder goal against Leicester last week triumphs over Anthony Knockaert’s (Leicester) audacious mid-air back-heel against Huddersfield and Simon Cox’s (Nottingham Forest) cultured control and finish against Birmingham.

League 2 Manager of the Year

Winner – Martin Allen (Gillingham) – Mad Dog has had an unstable few years, moving from club to club, but he seems to have found his feet at Gillingham and this season won the first promotion of his managerial career. He has galvanised his ambitious team and led them to a deserved League 2 title. They have been the best side in the fourth tier this season and after a sublime start to their campaign never looked like slipping up. Allen’s determination and passion was personified by his team as they showed class and confidence on their way to success.

Honourable mentions: Mickey Adams (Port Vale), Phil Parkinson (Bradford), John Ward (Bristol Rovers)

League 1 Manager of the Year

Winner – Eddie Howe (Bournemouth) – Who else could it be? He returned to his old club in October with the Cherries battling relegation. He transformed the seaside club into a team of aesthetically pleasing winners, heading on a relentless run of results which saw them shoot up the table. Howe managed to get the best out of his team and the addition of Matt Ritchie was a shrewd bit of business. Bournemouth were unlucky not to win League 1, but that won’t matter one bit. Howe has completed the job he started five years ago and taken Bournemouth to the second tier for only the second time in their history. He may be one of the youngest managers in the division but he is also one of the brightest.

Honourable Mentions: Uwe Rösler (Brentford), Gary Johnson (Yeovil), Dean Smith (Walsall)

Championship Manager of the Year

Winner – Malky Mackay (Cardiff) – In a league where inconsistency has been the recurring motif the Cardiff boss has cultivated an efficient and focused squad, whose reliability has seen them take the Championship title with ease. He has created a winning mentality among his players and a steely stubbornness which will be essential if they are to stay up next season in the Premier League. After years of last ditch failure and disappointments Mackay has found the magic formula which has finally seen Cardiff achieve their long-held goal of promotion to the big time. It’s not always been pretty but it has certainly been successful.

Honourable mentions: Gianfranco Zola (Watford), Dougie Freedman (Bolton), Steve Bruce (Hull)

Shock of the Year

Winners – Yeovil – The little Somerset club have come from nowhere to qualify for the League 1 play-offs. Gary Johnson is back where he feels most comfortable after a few years away from Huish Park and he has got the Glovers punching above their weight in a seriously competitive division. Not even the most positive Yeovil fan could have predicted a fourth place finish but Johnson has led the club to their highest ever league finish. This has been helped massively by the goals of Paddy Madden, with the Irishman proving to be one of the bargains of the season in the Football League. With Brentford emotionally drained after missing out on promotion, Sheffield United not looking convincing this season and Swindon still looking slightly unsure under Kevin MacDonald, who’s to say Yeovil can’t cause an even bigger shock and win promotion?

Honourable mentions: Crystal Palace, Walsall, Port Vale

Biggest Loser of the Year

Winner: Wolves – While unsavoury the violent scenes at the end of Wolves’s home defeat to Burnley were an accurate representation of their fans’ anger. The club retained most of the squad relegated from the Premier League last May, but those players have not shown the necessary fight in the Championship. The Wolves have lacked teeth in the second tier and despite ambitions of an instant return to the Premier League they are now staring League 1 square in the face. The appointments of Ståle Solbakken and Dean Saunders were both poor, with neither manager’s track record getting adequately scrutinised prior to their arrivals at Molineux. Now the lacklustre Wolves look set to become the first team ever to suffer consecutive relegations from the top tier to the third tier twice in their history.

Honourable mentions: Blackburn, Plymouth, Aldershot

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?

Caution in the cup

Wigan on a League Cup night

And then there were three.

Middlesbrough, Leeds and Bradford are the only Football League clubs left in this season’s Capitol One Cup (League Cup in old money) after they beat Premier League clubs Sunderland, Southampton and Wigan respectively.

You’re unlikely to find a harsher critic of the Capitol One Cup than myself but Boro, Leeds and Bradford have all done brilliantly to reach the quarter finals.

However it’s Bradford that’ll receive most of my attention in this entry. Nearly half the 11,777 attendance at Wigan’s DW Stadium had travelled from Yorkshire and the Bradford fans played a massive part in a great night for the Bantams.

On the pitch a unified, stoic display from the League 2 side took the game to a penalty shoot-out, which Bradford won 4-3.

As is expected in the much-maligned cup, Wigan made several changes but their team still included Premier League regulars like Al-Habsi, Ramis and Gomez. Bradford’s changes on the other hand were forced upon them due to injuries and suspensions picked up in their 1-0 loss to Burton.

But Phil Parkinson’s side showed their spirit, combating Wigan’s free-flowing passing and limiting their opponent’s chances. When Wigan got their rare shooting opportunities they were denied.

Bradford’s resilience paid dividends as they held out for penalties. Doyle, Jones, Darby and Connell all converted their spot-kicks for Bradford. Scottish international Shaun Maloney blasted his over the bar for Wigan before Gomez capped off his miserable night watching his tame effort get saved by the brilliant Matt Duke.

Incidentally this was City’s seventh penalty shoot-out victory in the last three years.

Tough Times

Last night was a great night for a club that’s enjoyed very little success or luck since its relegation from the Premier League in 2001. Following their relegation from the top flight the Bantams have suffered three relegations, numerous brushes with bankruptcy and very little success. Since arriving in League 2 they’ve constantly finished closer to the bottom of the league than the top and last year they had a real relegation scare.

However this year for the first time in many years there’s an air of positivity around Valley Parade. The club are currently in the play-off spots after a good start to the season which sees them unbeaten at home.

City have some very good players in their current squad. Matt Duke is a goal-keeper that I’ve long admired; a confident shot-stopper that for some reason has failed to settle at any club he’s joined since leaving Hull City. Zavon Hines is a tricky, attack-minded winger who should be playing at a higher level.

In truth the club should be playing at a higher level. For the past few seasons they’ve had by far the highest attendances in the division despite constantly underperforming. This season they’ve averaged 9,977 fans at home; more than 21 League 1 clubs and two Championship clubs. They’re the third best supported club in Yorkshire behind the two Sheffield giants and Leeds United.

Caution

Because of the reasons listed above I hope they don’t get too wrapped up in the hype of the cup. Cup runs, particularly Capital One Cup runs have a horrible tendency to destroy seasons for clubs in the Football League. Teams that have looked destined for promotion have seen their hopes dashed by over-involvement in the cup.

Of course the cup can give clubs a major short-term boost but more often than not it consumes everybody’s thoughts. No matter how much you try to put the cup to the back of your head it’s always there! After all the prospect of playing Arsenal or Man Utd is far more exciting than an away game against Exeter on a Tuesday night!

For the first time in over a decade Bradford City have the chance to get promoted. Bradford fans finally have good reason to be proud of their club once again. They finally have a team that matches the club’s size and stature.

I just hope the cup doesn’t derail their promotion push. Because it’s a very long season, and though they may feel fresh and excited now, these extra games could haunt them in February, March or April.

Bradford City are a whale in a fishbowl in League 2. They need promotion and Phil Parkinson needs to let everybody remember what the ultimate aim is for this season.