Tag Archives: Premier League

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.

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.

The misery continues for Coventry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why don't clubs want to go up?

Why don’t clubs want to go up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost away to Bolton 4-1

Won at home against Birmingham 5-2

Lost away to Palace 4-2

Won away against Burnley 1-0

Lost at home against Nottingham Forest 2-1

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

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

This inconsistency presents two big problems for these three clubs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolves players need to take responsibility for their predicament

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

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

Saunders needs sort things out quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.