Tag Archives: Football League

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.

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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?

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.

MK Dons vs AFC Wimbledon: Evil vs Good?

 The biggest match in Europe this weekend won’t take place in Old Trafford, the Camp Nou or San Siro; it will take place in Stadium MK where the Milton Keynes Dons face AFC Wimbledon for the first time in history.

You read correctly, on a weekend when fixtures include Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund and Ajax vs PSV, the most important encounter is an FA Cup 2nd Round match between the MK Dons of League 1 and AFC Wimbledon of League 2.

But before you close this tab, thinking I’m some kind of nut case, let me explain myself, and more importantly let me explain the significance of Sunday’s game.

The History

Wimbledon FC fans protest against their club being moved to Milton Keynes

Rewind to the year 2000, when Wimbledon FC were struggling financially following relegation from the Premier League. They were ready to start their 10th season ground-sharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, 6.5 miles from their traditional home at Plough Lane, which they left in 1991 due to the club’s inability to fund its renovation.

At this time Milton Keynes didn’t have a professional football club, despite having a population of nearly 200,000 people. Businessman Pete Winkleman wanted to change this and began the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, with the intention of building a state of the art arena to persuade a Football League club to move to the city.

The only person enticed by the suggestion was Wimbledon’s new chairman, Charles Koppel, who saw it as a great way of relieving the club’s financial woes. Unsurprisingly Wimbledon’s fans were outraged by the suggestion and passionately protested against the move.

At first the FA and the Football League both opposed the plan, calling it “franchising” and predicting a disastrous outcome should the move go ahead. However, after a lobbying campaign by Wimbledon’s board, an independent commission gave the plan the green light and in 2003 Wimbledon FC moved 60 miles to Milton Keynes.

The club continued to use the name Wimbledon FC for a year until it was changed to the Milton Keynes Dons in 2004. The MK Dons were English football’s first ever franchise.

Rising from the ashes

Out of the ashes of Wimbledon FC a determined group of fans got together and formed AFC Wimbledon, with the long-term intention of achieving promotion back into the Football League. A lightning-fast climb up the amateur leagues culminated in promotion to League 2 in 2011.

The success of AFC Wimbledon has gained the club huge plaudits and they’re particular a favourite of underdog-loving neutrals.

Anger towards the MK Dons had inevitably eased over the years as AFC Wimbledon attempted to rebuild, but when the two clubs were drawn against each other for the 2nd Round of this year’s FA Cup old memories came flooding back.

Most AFC Wimbledon fans didn’t want this fixture and still don’t feel enough time has passed since their club was stolen from them. Many AFC Wimbledon fans are still extremely bitter, not only about the move, but also about the Milton Keynes club’s conduct since 2003.

Between 2003 and 2007 MK Dons Chairman Pete Winkleman had tried to pass off Wimbledon FC’s history as MK Dons’s history. This has not been forgotten by AFC Wimbledon’s fans despite Winkleman returning Wimbledon FC’s trophies and memorabilia to AFC Wimbledon in 2007.

AFC Wimbledon fans are angry the Milton Keynes club is still calling itself “The Dons.” The old Wimbledon FC were nicknamed the Dons, as are the current AFC Wimbledon and fans claim the MK Dons have no right to use it.

Many AFC Wimbledon fans are refusing to travel to Milton Keynes on Sunday because according to them the issue’s still far too sensitive and painful.

What about the pantomime villain?

The MK Dons are nearly a decade old and they’ve changed a great deal since the original controversy over their creation.

The club has worked very hard to forge an identity and a history of its own. They have already won a League 2 title and a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in their short history and their support base is growing year by year.

The club is trying its best to shake off the nickname “Franchise FC” and by now the vast majority of football fans have accepted the MK Dons are here to stay.

But despite the MK Dons’s superb attempts to establish its own identity, Sunday’s game against AFC Wimbledon is expected to trigger the same negative coverage the club received when it was first formed.

 Franchising: still the ultimate evil

The coverage will be damning because despite the football world’s acceptance of the MK Dons, fans are still wholeheartedly opposed to franchising.

For most fans franchising remains the ultimate evil: a putrid concoction of commercialism and arrogance borne out of pure greed.

Franchising is the American invention that goes against everything we as football fans believe in. It devalues supporters and shows complete disregard for their needs and emotions. It underestimates and takes for granted loyalty, the most important trait of any football supporter.

When Wimbledon fans were robbed of their club it provoked universal revulsion among football fans across the World because we all empathised with them. We all imagined how we’d feel if the clubs we support were taken away from us.

For most football fans life without our club is almost unthinkable but this was the reality for Wimbledon fans in 2003.

 Good vs Evil?

It’s awfully tempting to look at Sunday’s game as a clash between footballing good and footballing evil; honest, loyal, traditional fans taking on a plastic, commercially-driven franchise. We once again find ourselves sympathising with Wimbledon fans and hating the MK Dons.

But one of the main reasons Sunday’s game is so important is because it’s a chance to normalise the situation and give both sides a greater degree of closure.

Both sets of fans knew this day had to come sometime and although Sunday’s sure to be an emotional, awkward and heated day, it will hopefully relieve a lot of tension.

The first meeting of the MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon will draw a heap of attention but once the full-time whistle is blown all football fans can begin to move on. After Sunday’s game all future encounters between these sides will seem far more normal.

Many fans on both sides won’t look forward to Sunday but everyone knows the game’s an essential step in the development of both clubs. From Sunday onwards we can stop viewing the MK Dons as the franchise which stole Wimbledon FC, and begin to see them as a club in their own right. Likewise we’ll be able to see AFC Wimbledon as more than just an antidote to the MK Dons.

On the field I can only see one result.

The MK Dons are hitting form at a good time in the season and they’re playing a sophisticated style of football which I expect will lead them to promotion. AFC Wimbledon on the other hand are entrenched in a relegation battle and struggling for confidence.

But in many ways what happens on the field on Sunday is irrelevant. The important thing is that AFC Wimbledon fans get a degree of closure from the match and the MK Dons use the landmark event to move on and leave the past behind.

Can John Hughes save Hartlepool?

If there’s one club in the Football League that needs a lift it’s Hartlepool United.

The beleaguered Monkey Hangers are rock bottom of League 1, six points off 23rd place Shrewsbury and nine points off safety. The club’s only league win this season came on September 1 against Scunthorpe and on October 24 manager Neale Cooper resigned.

Phil Brown, Colin Cooper and even Sven Goran Eriksson were considered by the Pools but in the end they chose Livingston manager John Hughes.

Hughes has been linked with Hartlepool before and with the club in dire straits he’s decided to join. His only previous experience of working in the English league came at Swansea where he spent a short spell as a player in the 90s. He later went on to play for Celtic, Hibs and Falkirk in Scotland.

His managerial career has been mixed. He began as player-manager at Falkirk in 2003, hanging up his boots in 2005 after winning Scottish Division One and the Challenge Cup. In the SPL they overachieved and in the cups they excelled, finishing as Scottish Cup runners-up to Rangers in 2009 and qualifying twice for the Europa League. Hughes’ Falkirk team were highly praised, not just for their comparatively high league finishes, but also for their aesthetically pleasing passing style.

In 2009 Hughes left Falkirk to join his hometown club, Hibernian. The Edinburgh club expected great things from Hughes, and the Scottish media looked forward to seeing Hughes prove himself at a bigger club. His first season ended in Europa League qualification and a 4th place finish, six points ahead of hated rivals Hearts. His second season started poorly and the fans quickly turned on his bungling side when it became apparent Hibs were in a relegation battle.

He’s been at Livingston for less than a year and in that time he’s struggled to motivate the team. Livingstone are thought to have one of the best squads in the division but they’re currently stuck in mid-table.

In truth, although Hartlepool are in huge trouble at the foot of League 1, the manager’s job has become available at a good time for Hughes. Thing had gone stale in Scotland and Livingston fans were ambivalent about his departure. It was now or never if he was going to test himself in England.

What can he do?

So what awaits Hughes at Hartlepool? Probably the biggest challenge of his football career.

Morale is predictably low and Hartlepool have huge problems at both ends of the pitch.

In most games this season the Pools defence has looked decidedly shaky and increasingly nervous. Only Carlisle have conceded more goals and the Hartlepool defence has developed a worrying trend of dropping too deep and panicking whenever their opponents are on the ball.

The defenders’ jobs are made harder by a midfield that struggles to hold onto the ball and lacks any sort of creativity.

When midfielders aren’t creating chances, life is difficult for the strikers. Life is particularly difficult for Hartlepool’s mishmash strike-force. Youngsters Franks and Poole have seriously struggled for confidence in a losing team and veteran Steve Howard, back at his first club, has looked way past his sell-by date.

Will he be able to save Hartlepool from relegation?

Hughes is a manager that’s often spoken about long-term aims and building success over several seasons. This was how he flourished at Falkirk, and it may explain why he didn’t last at Hibernian or Livingston. But Hartlepool don’t need a long-term project, they need a quick fix. They need results to change drastically before they lose sight of the other 23 teams in the division.

I don’t give Hartlepool much hope for the rest of the season. They have one of the worst squads in the division and their league position is a fair reflection of their performances. More than anything I don’t see any individual in the squad that can raise their game and lead the charge towards safety.

I wish John Hughes all the best because as a football purist that encourages passing football, he’s the kind of man we need to see working in the Football League. Unfortunately I don’t think he’ll have enough time to turn things around at Hartlepool and save them from relegation.