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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

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Cardiff finally rid themselves of “nearly-men” tag

The inevitable was finally confirmed last night as Cardiff’s battling 0-0 draw against in-form Charlton secured promotion to the Premier League.

The Cardiff City Stadium has been a fortress this season

The Cardiff City Stadium has been a fortress this season

Malky Mackay’s team has led the Championship since November and despite a shaky run of results the Football League’s perennial bottlers never looked like messing up their promotion charge. After years of “so near yet so far” the Cardiff fans were finally allowed to celebrate their long-awaited promotion to the Premier League.

When Cardiff were last relegated from the top flight in May 1962 Harold MacMillan was the British Prime Minister, the Algerian War of Independence had just ended, the Cuban Missile Crisis was still a few months away and Elvis Presley was in the charts with Good Luck Charm. To say Cardiff’s promotion has been a long time coming is an understatement.

A deserved promotion?

Cardiff deserve their promotion, having been by far the most consistent team in the division.

The Bluebirds have not played the most entertaining football in the Championship this season and most fans would agree the current squad isn’t as talented as some of the ones which have fallen short in recent years. But the key difference this season has been Cardiff’s winning mentality and the determination of the players to succeed.

Since taking over at the club less than two years ago Malky Mackay has worked hard in the transfer market to bring in young, hungry and ambitious players, with most of his recruits coming from the Football League.

Cardiff’s main strength has been its defence which has been rock solid, especially at home. The centre-back partnership of Turner and Hudson has been reassuring with both players enjoying magnificent seasons. Connolly at right-back has been impressive, and Andrew Taylor has been the best left-back in the Championship this season. The defence has had to cope with injuries, especially in recent months, but young Ben Nugent, the experienced Kevin McNaughton and on-loan Leon Barnett have filled in admirably.

Goal-keeper David Marshall has also shown great improvement this season, possibly due to greater competition from former Peterborough goalie Joe Lewis. Marshall has always been a good shot-stopper but in the past the Scot has been unreliable when dealing with crosses. This season has seen the former Celtic man become a more rounded goal-keeper.

One of the most remarkable things about Cardiff’s season is the way they’ve dominated the league without depending on any one player. It has been a team effort from start to finish, with the goal-scoring responsibility shared between the entire squad. No Cardiff player has reached double figures yet this season and 16 different players have netted for the Bluebirds this term.

Some people have pointed to the £14m spent by Mackay in assembling his squad, but this does the manager a huge disservice. He’s firmly put his stamp on the club, getting rid of most of the worst traits of the Dave Jones era. He’s transformed the team from a dysfunctional collection of perennial bottlers into a well-drilled, determined group of winners.

It’s often said a great team is one which can win while playing poorly. This has been exemplified by Cardiff.

In a season where inconsistency has been rife in the second tier, Cardiff have shown the focus required to string results together. When times have been tough and the team’s been tired the side from the Welsh capital has somehow managed to turn draws into victories. Of their 25 league wins this season 17 have been by just one goal. This demonstrates the pluckiness and resilience of the team, and its ability to consistently grind out results.

Similar to Reading

What may be slightly unnerving for Cardiff supporters is the way their season mirrors that of Reading last season.

Reading too based their promotion push on narrow, hard-fought victories. Reading’s top scorer was super-sub Adam Le Fondre, who only managed 12 goals, with the top-scoring regular starter Noel Hunt scoring just eight times. Much like Cardiff the Royals had a solid defence, which frustrated Championship strike-forces and made amends for the lack of creativity in midfield and up front. Reading’s style of play, tough, workmanlike and resolute but unspectacular, was very similar to Cardiff’s style this season.

Reading now look set for an instant return to the Football League because their gutsy attitude couldn’t compensate for a lack of talent and potency.

But there are two key differences between Reading and Cardiff which could make the difference.

Firstly Cardiff look set to spend big in order to strengthen the squad this summer. Controversial owner and lover of all things red Vincent Tan has hinted at giving Mackay a £25m treasure chest to help him turn his team from functional to Premier League class. Reading’s unwillingness to add to their Championship-winning squad cost them as their team was shown to be inadequate against a higher calibre of players in the Premier League. Early indications are that Cardiff won’t make the same mistake.

Secondly Cardiff will be going up with more momentum than Reading. This is the first time in over half a century the Welsh capital will have a team in the top division of English football. Generations of supporters have never seen their club in the top flight, but all this frustration will now be transformed into enthusiasm and excitement. Having lived in Cardiff I can testify to the passion of Cardiff fans. They genuinely care about their club and desperately want it to do well.

The whole city will get behind the Bluebirds and create a feel-good-factor. When a whole city, especially one the size of Cardiff, unifies behind a team it creates a buzzing atmosphere, which the players and staff can feed off. This was seen when Cardiff’s bitter rivals Swansea were promoted, provoking a wave of positivity which was essential in keeping the club in the big league.

Reading fans had already experienced promotion once, and couldn’t recreate the excitement felt under Steve Coppell. Last year’s promotion lacked the buzz of their first one in 2006.

Can Cardiff stay up?

Of course they can, but they undoubtedly need plenty of fresh faces, especially in midfield and in attack. It’s essential they add players capable of making the difference in the Premier League.

Players such as Gunnarsson, Mutch, Cowie, Helguson and Gestede simply don’t have the required ability to compete in the top flight, while flair players such as Kim, Noone and Mason may find it tricky to adapt at first. Bellamy’s best days are behind him and Peter Wittingham is thought to be considering his future.

The acquisition of Fraizer Campbell in January was a positive move which showed Mackay’s ambition as well as recognition of where Cardiff need to strengthen.

The fans must also stay patient next season if they hit rough patches. Cardiff’s fans are renowned for their passion but they can also be incredibly impatient when things don’t go their way. They can’t afford to turn on the team if they go on an unfavourable run of results. Unity and support is imperative in what will probably be a tough season.

The club’s Malaysian owner Vincent Tan also has to give his controversial rebranding a rest. Last summer’s kit colour change caused outrage among supporters and a similar fiasco this summer could take the shine off the promotion and draw attention away from the players.

But Cardiff shouldn’t fear the big step up. There is a considerable difference in quality between this season’s opposition and next season’s opposition but the bottom of the Premier League is weaker now than it has been for years. With some wise investments and the passionate backing of the club’s fans Cardiff could definitely stay up next season and succeed in the long run.

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.

The best away days (and weekends) in the Football League

Football tourism has exploded in recent years across the globe as more and more people decide to combine football with their holidays.

Last year 4% of visitors to the UK watched a football game while in the country, and Brits are regularly hopping on planes for footballing weekends on the continent. Barcelona, Amsterdam and Munich are all very popular due to the good beer, delicious cuisine, fabulous sights and of course, the entertaining football.

But many English football tourists don’t leave their homeland, choosing instead to take weekend breaks in England. There are plenty of fascinating and intriguing cities which are perfect for a relaxing weekend away, but which also offer a fantastic matchday.

If you want a bit more out of your matchday than just a long journey and 90 minutes of football, here are a few suggestions of great matchdays in the Football League. These places offer football with extras; sights, culture and nightlife.

So, where are the best matchdays in the Football League for away fans?

 

Carlisle United

Situated to the north of the Lake District and just ten miles from the Scottish border, Carlisle is probably the Football League’s most remote outpost.

Carlisle is a beautiful little city, surrounded by picturesque countryside. Brunton Park is on the outskirts of Carlisle, but there are a few good pubs around the ground. You can also walk fifteen minutes along Warwick Road into the city centre where there is an abundance of pubs and plenty to see.

The city centre has attractions such as Carlisle Castle, the Cathedral and the Citadel, but just walking around the quaint streets of this medieval city is a pleasant experience. Carlisle’s Tudor revival architecture is very impressive, and you’ll find many small shops and cafés if pubs aren’t your scene.

And if you want a bit more peace and quiet, Cumbria has some of the most beautiful scenery in England. Head off for a hike or even a scenic drive around its spectacular hills and lakes.

Carlisle fans are notoriously friendly, and are usually very talkative. Carlisle’s the perfect away day for the start or the end of the football season, when the sun’s shining.

 

York City

York’s return to the Football League was greeted joyfully by League 2 fans who knew what a great matchday it can be. Bootham Crescent, York City’s home ground, is less than a 15 minute walk from York’s main sights and the bustling city centre.

York is one of England’s oldest cities, and also one of the most beautiful. It has several historic sights worth visiting such as York Minster, York Castle and the city walls. With nearly 2,000 years of history, it’s not surprising York has a plethora of museums, the best of which is probably the Jorvik Viking Centre.

The city may seem too cultured for football supporters, but don’t worry, there are plenty of places to drink. There are a few pubs near the ground, all of which accept away fans, and the nightlife in the city centre is highly recommended.

York City fans are generally very pleasant, therefore visiting supporters never feel threatened, and can converse easily with the locals.

 

Cardiff City

Cardiff has been transformed in recent years into a modern European capital city, with plenty to see and do, other than watch the football.

The Cardiff City Stadium is located in the Canton area of Cardiff, which admittedly isn’t a great advert for the Welsh capital. Other than the newly erected shopping centre near the stadium, there’s very little for away fans to do, as none of the nearby pubs allow travelling supporters. This is due to Cardiff fans’ reputation for violence and antagonism, and though the club has taken great strides in recent years to eliminate hooliganism from the club, Cardiff fans remain generally less welcoming than most Football League fans.

The best way to see Cardiff on an away day is to arrive in the city centre and travel to the game by train after a bit of sightseeing.

Milennium stadium tours are very entertaining, while Cardiff on a rugby day is an experience.

Milennium stadium tours are very entertaining, while Cardiff on a rugby day is an experience.

Cardiff city centre is packed with good pubs, great shopping and some brilliant sights. The Millennium Stadium tour is a great use of a spare hour, and Cardiff Castle is an extremely impressive structure.

Since Welsh devolution in 1999, a fortune has been spent making Cardiff attractive to tourists. Cardiff Bay used to be an industrial wasteland, however the new Senedd (Welsh for parliament), the Millennium Centre and the array of new bars and restaurants, have made it a glamorous honey pot.

If you’re lucky enough to have an away game in Cardiff on the same day as rugby international, a night out with the boozy egg-chasers is recommended.

 

Plymouth Argyle

The Football League’s most Southerly and Westerly club, Plymouth Argyle, offers a brilliant away weekend, which caters to football fans of all tastes.

Plymouth is a naval city, and as such has a wide variety of drinking establishments. The Barbican is the perfect place to spend a hot afternoon, with plenty of pubs offering great food and drink, while North Hills is ideal for student nights out.

Near the stadium, the Britannia is the most popular place for away fans to congregate.

Home Park is a strange ground, with three modern stands and a single, classic stand running along the touchline. The Green Army are very proud of their club, and fans enjoy discussing football with visitors.

If you want to chill out (or nurse a hangover) on a Sunday, the Hoe is a fine place to sit and relax. But if the weather permits, why not head to a local beach? The coastline around Plymouth is dotted with quiet, picturesque, sandy beaches where you can lay down for a bit or sample the surf.

And if you don’t fancy watching Plymouth play, you could always jump on the ferry and head off to watch lower league football in Spain. There are ferries travelling from Plymouth to Santander, where Racing are struggling in the Segunda after last year’s relegation from La Liga.

 

Notts County and Nottingham Forest

Only 300 yards separate the Football League’s two closest grounds, and the city of Nottingham provides a great football weekend.

Though Meadow Lane and the City Ground are around a 25 minute walk from the city centre, there’s plenty to excite fans in the area around the two stadia. There are pubs and food outlets around the grounds, and the Nottingham clubs are the only ones in Britain with a nearby Hooters, where fans can enjoy good food and drink, surrounded by skimpily-dressed waitresses.

The grounds themselves have been modernised over the years, and fans of both sides are generally friendly.

The Oldest Inn in England, in Nottingham

The Oldest Inn in England, in Nottingham

Nottingham’s city centre isn’t the prettiest, but it has an instantly recognisable statue of Robin Hood, paying tribute to the area’s most famous figure. There’s also now a statue to the city’s most celebrated adopted inhabitant, the late great Brian Clough, who led Forest to two European Cups.

The Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, established in 1189, is believed to be the “Oldest Inn in England,” and though this fact is disputed by some, what can’t be debated is that it’s a great historical sight, which also serves a good pint.

And if you want something a little rowdier than a medieval pub, Nottingham’s renowned nightlife should do the trick. With hundreds of bars and clubs, Nottingham has developed a reputation as one of the best nights out in the UK, so if your team has lost, there are plenty of places where you can forget about it.

 

Shrewsbury Town

Many fans would argue the away trip to Shrewsbury has lost a bit of its shine since the club relocated from the quaint, Gay Meadow, near the town centre to the modern Greenhous Meadow stadium on the outskirts of Shrewsbury.

But Shrewsbury still has plenty to offer visiting supporters. The town centre has impressively retained its charm, and the Tudor and Georgian architecture give the place real character.

The castle towers over the rest of the town, and looks mightily impressive. There’s also the church of St Chad, which is the second largest domed church in the UK. Shrewsbury has a reputation for good shopping, with many people attracted to the town at Christmas time when the streets feel particularly atmospheric.

There are a few pubs around the new stadium, although fans also have the option of drinking in the town centre before catching a bus to the ground.  Shrewsbury town centre has plenty of great pubs and restaurants, and is capable of being a good night out.

 

Blackpool

The Football League has many seaside resorts which are worth visiting like Bournemouth, Brighton and Southend. But Blackpool is Britain’s number one seaside resort for a reason.

Bloomfield Road itself is a short walk from the promenade and the beach, and the seaside is practically unavoidable for away fans, whether they’re there for a weekend, a day or simply a few hours.

Only a 20 minute walk from the ground is the famous Pleasure Beach, with its fantastic selection of rides and amusements. It’s a brilliant attraction for kids and big kids alike.

There’s also Blackpool Tower and the pier, which are both must-sees, and for younger supporters a donkey ride along the beach is essential.

The ground itself has been modernised, but the away stand still looks rickety and hastily built compared to the rest of Bloomfield Road. Home fans tend to be very welcoming and pleasant.

There are plenty of pubs around the ground which cater to all tastes, and there’s no need to travel far to look for somewhere to eat or drink. If you’re there for the weekend, Blackpool is full of pubs, bars and clubs, which guarantee an eventful night out.

Although Blackpool is normally associated with the summer, it can be enjoyed in any conditions when there’s football on. Blackpool may seem tacky to some, but most see it for what it is: an old-school resort town, which promises a good time.

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.