Tag Archives: play-offs

Sheffield United labelled “prehistoric” by angry managerial candidate

Sheffield United have been branded “prehistoric” by a man they hoped would be their next manager.

Former Australia manager, Graham Arnold, took the unusual step of publically slating the club after he was interviewed for the job by the Blades board. The West Coast Mariners boss was so disgusted by his interviewers’ attitudes towards football he actually quit the interview, which was being conducted through video-link, and stormed out half-way through.

Sheffield United have been labelled "prehistoric" by Graham Arnold.

Sheffield United have been labelled “prehistoric” by Graham Arnold.

Arnold told The Australian: “In all honesty, I didn’t have to think too long or too hard about it. It just wasn’t for me.

“Forget that the financial offer in itself was quite poor, but I would have been taking three steps backwards in my development as a professional coach if I had gone.”

“I walked out of that meeting with the club’s board and football director Dave Bassett, and said ‘Wow’.

“It just blew me away. Being one of the bigger lower league clubs, I was expecting a lot more in terms of how they wanted to develop as a club on the field.

“But they just didn’t seem interested when I was talking about playing a short passing game and taking the football another level up. It was about smashing the ball long and working on set pieces. It was prehistoric stuff. That’s not the way to develop a football team.”

 Damning

The comments were a damning indictment of Sheffield United’s take on the beautiful game and a huge embarrassment for the Bramall Lane bigwigs.

Fans have traditionally taken pride in the “Sheffield United way.” This style of football prioritises effort, physicality and a desire to win over skill, elegance and aesthetics. Visitors to Bramall Lane in recent decades have often been left frustrated by their hosts’ old-school style of play and their questionable discipline.

Managers such as Kevin Blackwell and Neil Warnock nurtured teams who were tenacious, hungry and forceful but who also had a choice reading of the laws of the game and a Machiavellian approach to the sport.

The “Battle of Bramall Lane” in 2002 is infamous because it is still the only Football League match to be abandoned because a team did not have enough players to continue. Sheffield United had three players sent off against West Brom, and were lucky not to have a fourth expelled, before Warnock allegedly told two of his players to fake injuries in order to get the match abandoned.

Sheffield United now find themselves in League 1 and although Danny Wilson tried to improve the style of play at the club, it was still brutal on the eyes. It worsened when United legend, and the “Sheffield Way” personified, Chris Morgan took over towards the end of last season.

 Ugly and unsuccessful

Arnold’s comments on Sheffield United were scathing and with the Blades preparing for a third straight season in England’s third tier, there are many fans who believe the club’s board should use his criticism constructively.

The Australian’s opinions have highlighted what many fans already knew; their club’s stubborn refusal to keep up with the times has left them looking backwards, stranded in the dark ages. The people who run United are still thinking the way directors were thinking in the 1970s, and though Stoke City is an obvious anomaly, clubs tend not to see long-term success by adopting long-ball, bully-boy tactics these days.

Sheffield United is a big club with a substantial fanbase but since 1994 they have only had one season in the top flight.

Despite adventurous and entrepreneurial ventures off the field, which include twinning with Chengdu Blades in China, the people running the club have bafflingly stuck with a failing system on the pitch.

Graham Arnold had ideas about playing progressive, passing football at Sheffield United, but Dave Bassett and the Sheffield United board wanted to keep playing the percentages and concentrating on set-pieces. For some reason they wanted somebody who was going to employ the same style of play which had seen Sheffield United fall short in recent years.

The two clubs promoted automatically from League 1 this season, Doncaster and Bournemouth, succeeded by playing aesthetically-pleasing and positive football, despite having far smaller resources than the Blades. This shows the way smaller clubs are excelling in the third tier by playing the ball on the floor.

 Look to the future

Sheffield United will celebrate their 125th birthday next year but unfortunately for the fans, the board and Dave Bassett are looking to the past for inspiration instead of adopting a more positive approach.

Traditionally the supporters have embraced United’s traditional ugly style of play, but times are changing and across the country clubs are looking for managers who play entertaining football. This isn’t because they’re arrogant or because they have illusions of grandeur. It’s because this is the way most successful clubs play their football by now.

Graham Arnold has shamed Sheffield United by putting the club’s backwards approach under a spotlight. The comments were damning but they’re completely justified and those in charge of the club need to use this embarrassing mess as a catalyst for change.

The board must abandon its bizarre and short-sighted stubbornness in favour of a more positive approach, otherwise the club will remain trapped by the myths of its own history.

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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.

Final day drama in Leagues 1 and 2

What a way to end the League 1 and League 2 seasons! There was plenty of action right up to the final seconds with twists and turns, tears and cheers, and that was just what happened at Griffin Park.

There was promotion and relegation to be decided in both leagues, and now that it’s over there are serious questions to be asked.

 football league

1. How do Brentford pick themselves up for the play-offs?

They had promotion within their grasp. A last minute penalty to secure promotion, missed, and then their opponents break quickly and score to secure their passage into the Championship, instead of Brentford. Nobody can really imagine how young Marcelo Trotta must feel today after yesterday’s nightmare.

It was cruel on the Brenford supporters who must have been sure their near 60 year wait for a return to the second tier was about to end. The players were left visibly crushed and demoralised by the sickening kick in the teeth. But now they must prepare themselves for the play-offs knowing they really shouldn’t be there.

Unfortunately their form has slowed in recent weeks and they are without a win in their last three games. They face Swindon, who go into play-offs on the back of a defeat against relegated Scunthorpe.

This is by far the biggest challenge of Uwe Rösler’s short managerial career, and he will have to show all his metal to get the Bees (who have a poor record in play-offs) promoted. But how often do we see the 3rd-placed club struggle in the play-offs after the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion.

2. Is Brian Flynn the man to keep Doncaster up?

Flynn was contracted as manager until the end of the season, after taking over halfway through the season following the departure of fellow Welshman Dean Saunders.

Few people would argue against Flynn being given the reins on a full-time basis.

He may look like a pensioner but Flynn is only 57-years-old and still has so much to offer. His record in charge of Wrexham, Swansea and the Welsh under-21s shows he is a natural motivator, who is adept at nurturing talent. He also has a brilliant understanding of the transfer market, and is excellent at spotting talent.

Can he keep Doncaster in the Championship? It will be a tough task because he will have one of the smallest budgets in the division. But in the topsy-turvy Championship, who’s to say the Yorkshire side can’t replicate the success they had under Sean O’Driscoll? If anybody can keep them up it’s Brian Flynn.

3. Will Bournemouth care that they weren’t crowned champions?

No. When you’ve been waiting 23 years to get back in the second tier, you’ll take it however it comes, especially since they looked like relegation candidates before Eddie Howe returned to the club.

They’re still going up, they’ve still got a heap of momentum behind them and they will still fancy their chances of doing well at a higher level. Missing out on the title is a minor disappointment.

4. Have the worst four teams been relegated from League 1?

It would be tough to argue otherwise.

Portsmouth have at times this season played like a play-off-chasing team. But no club could cope with the instability on or off the field which Pompey have had to endure. Their team has had so many changes, it’s been impossible to establish any kind of run. Even without the 10-point deduction they would have been comfortably relegated. On the plus side Portsmouth enter League 2 with better prospects than when they entered League 1.

Hartlepool’s second half of the season has been surprisingly positive, and John Hughes deserves credit for coming in at a difficult time and turning things around. Unfortunately the damage was done before the Scot took charge. Hartlepool only managed two victories before the new year and despite a plucky fight the squad wasn’t strong enough to stay up. It’s hard to argue a club who achieved just nine points from their first 23 fixtures deserve to stay in the division.

Bury have been punching above their weight in League 1, and in doing so they’ve ran up some worrying debts. Kevin Blackwell had very limited resources and it was always a huge ask for him to keep the Shakers up. The squad never looked good enough to avoid the drop and with a leaky defence and a blunt strike-force it was inevitable they would be relegated. With cost-cutting required next season could be tough for them.

Scunthorpe were the only club relegated on the final day of the season in League 1. They did all they could to stay up, beating Swindon 3-1 but just like the other three teams going down with them to League 2 they were struggling from the beginning, having lost their first four games of the season. Bringing in Brian Laws gave Scunthorpe hope but it was too much to ask but nine years after he got them promoted from League 2, he is now taking them back into the bottom division of the Football League.

So yes, the four worst teams in the division were relegated.

5. Were Rotherham the second best team in League 2 this season?

No they weren’t but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to go up. Port Vale deserve massive credit because they’ve been magnificent and probably should have finished second but they took their foot off the pedal after securing promotion.

Pulling their foot off the pedal is one thing Rotherham haven’t done this year. They showed their determination by saving their best run of the season for the final weeks. Their five wins in a row saw Steve Evans’s side clinch 3rd in the league and return to the third tier after a six year absence.

Rotherham have been tough and hard-working all season, but they’ve also played some great attacking football. They’ve scored far more goals than anybody else in the league, and with their new stadium and a wily, Machiavellian manager there’s no reason why they can’t excel in League 1.

6. Were the worst two teams in League 2 relegated?

Aldershot were the worst club in the division this season. They never looked like scoring, they lacked creativity and this put enormous pressure on the defence. They had less wins than any other team and throughout the season they didn’t look good enough to stay up. Aldershot have seen worse days, but having worked so hard to get back in the league they will find it tough to re-group and challenge in the desperately tough Blue Square Premier next season.

Barnet’s season can be split in two – the season before Edgar Davids joined on October 11 and the season after he joined the North Londoners. Looking at League 1 and League 2’s relegated clubs, poor starts are a recurring theme and you can’t get much poorer than Barnet’s start. A winless first 13 games left Barnet playing catch-up from the beginning. Davids came in and galvanised the squad and their form since his arrival has been very impressive. However their loss on the last day of the season, coupled with Wimbledon’s win, mean League 2’s greatest survivors will start life at their new stadium in the Blue Square Premier.

There are several clubs at the bottom of League 2 who have been very lucky to avoid the drop. Torquay and Plymouth didn’t expect to be battling relegation this season and they need to get their houses in order if the two Devon clubs are to avoid a repeat next year. Dagenham and Redbridge have struggled badly and escaped the drop by the skin of their teeth. Next season could be very difficult for them. Wimbledon had a brilliant final day victory to evade relegation, but they too need to improve if they are to stay up next season.

7. Is it time for a third relegation spot to be introduced in League 2?

Once again the standard of teams battling to stay in the Football League was particularly poor. And once again the standard of teams fighting for promotion in the Blue Square Premier was extremely high.

Non-league clubs are desperate for the Blue Square Premier to be given a second automatic promotion spot because they believe there currently exists a glass ceiling preventing many good clubs from competing in the league at the expense of league clubs who possibly aren’t good enough to be there.

The Blue Square Premier clubs make a very convincing argument and their frustrations are understandable. Many of the clubs in the top six of the fifth tier would have performed far better in League 2 this season than the bottom seven sides, had they been given the chance.

But in the interest of stability the status quo should be retained. The difference in funding and coverage between League 2 and non-league is enormous and so many clubs fail to adapt to the drop. This season saw Stockport County relegated to the Blue Square North after failing to acclimatise to life outside the Football League. Numerous clubs have gone bankrupt because of the culture shock. The last thing we want to see is clubs regularly going bust when they leave the league.

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.

Zola deserves praise, not scorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But can this free-flowing side achieve automatic promotion?

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

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

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

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

How did Millwall get there?

Millwall are one of the shocks of the seasons so far; Kenny Jackett’s unfashionable team travel to Wolves tonight sitting  6th in the Championship and top of the form table, but the question is can they sustain their current form?

The Lions are roaring this season and causing the odd shock.

Millwall were as usual one of the pre-season favourites for the drop despite finishing a very respectable 16th in the Championship last season. The club looked to be set for another season in the bottom half of the table when they lost five of their first seven league games.

However Millwall are unbeaten since their home loss against Brighton and Hove Albion on September 22 and they’ve won five of their last six games. Millwall’s current 11-match unbeaten run is the longest they’ve gone without defeat since gaining promotion in 2010.

The Lions’s turnaround is largely down to shrewd business by Jackett in the loan market.

First Mark Beevers was borrowed from Sheffield Wednesday. The 22-year-old was frustrated with life on the bench at Hillsborough so he went on loan to the Lions and has formed a watertight central-defensive partnership with veteran vice-captain, Danny Shittu.

Prior to Beevers’s arrival the Lions had failed to keep a clean sheet in the league but Millwall have now only conceded two goals in their last six games. Beevers has added composure and confidence to the Millwall back 4 and he compliments Shittu brilliantly.

On November 1 Adam Smith was loaned to Millwall from Spurs in order for him to get more first team experience. Smith has shown himself to be a very capable right-back; defensively solid and an effective attacker.

Arguably the key addition was New Zealand international Chris Wood, who has scored seven goals in his last seven games. The on-loan Wes Brom striker has added potency to a Millwall’s functionality, with his height causing defences a lot of problems.

Kenny Jackett has shown foresight and planning in choosing young players who are hungry and eager to impress. But with all three scheduled to return to their parent clubs in the new year can Millwall sustain their promotion push beyond January?

Where can Millwall finish this season?

It will of course depend on whether they are able to keep hold of any of them, and if they are unable to keep hold of them, will they be able to replace them?

Millwall haven’t got the resources to compete financially with the league’s big spenders so it’s vitally important Jackett keeps making the best possible use of the loan market. This means selective borrowing and choosing players that will add an extra dimension to the team.

Millwall have a functional team, full of hard-working, determined players. In Kenny Jackett they have a calm, composed and competent manager, who understands the league and knows how to get the best out of his squad.

Millwall’s football isn’t pretty but it’s certainly effective and no team will look forward to travelling to the Den this season (although when has a team ever looked forward to playing at the Den?).

Over the course of a season it’ll be difficult for Millwall to maintain their promotion push.

The squad is still very small and with Wood, Beevers and Smith all leaving the Den for the second half of the season, will Millwall get the clean sheets or goals to keep up the push for a top 6 place.

What Millwall need to do now is take advantage of their current run of form to make the club more appealing for prospective signings. Millwall has always been a very unfashionable club for many reasons, but if they enter January riding high in the league perhaps they’ll be able to attract a higher calibre of player.

Where Millwall will finish this season depends a great deal on the business the club conducts in January. And who knows, with the right signings, Millwall may be able to compete for one of those prized play-off spots?