Tag Archives: promotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

League 2: Bradford 3-0 Northampton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

League 1: Brentford 1-2 Yeovil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Championship: Watford 0-1 Crystal Palace AET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Football League Blog End of Season Awards

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

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

 football league

League 2 Player of the Year

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

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

League 1 Player of the Year

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

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

Championship Player of the Year

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

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

Young Player of the Year

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

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

Goal of the Season:

Winner: Nathaniel Chalobah (Watford) vs Leicester

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

League 2 Manager of the Year

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

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

League 1 Manager of the Year

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

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

Championship Manager of the Year

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

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

Shock of the Year

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

Honourable mentions: Crystal Palace, Walsall, Port Vale

Biggest Loser of the Year

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

Honourable mentions: Blackburn, Plymouth, Aldershot

Cardiff finally rid themselves of “nearly-men” tag

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

The Cardiff City Stadium has been a fortress this season

The Cardiff City Stadium has been a fortress this season

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

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

A deserved promotion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similar to Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Cardiff stay up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why don't clubs want to go up?

Why don’t clubs want to go up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost away to Bolton 4-1

Won at home against Birmingham 5-2

Lost away to Palace 4-2

Won away against Burnley 1-0

Lost at home against Nottingham Forest 2-1

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

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

This inconsistency presents two big problems for these three clubs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you want Paolo Di Canio at your club?

The most controversial and entertaining manager in the Football League has quit his job, so what next for Paolo Di Canio?

The flamboyant Italian left his post at Swindon Town after getting frustrated with the League 1 club’s troubling finances, and the effects they were having on his preparations. He is already being linked with Leeds United, where Neil Warnock doesn’t seem to be enjoying life, but there are a few factors chairmen need to consider before giving Di Canio a job.

 

Football genius or troublesome fascist?

Football genius or troublesome fascist?

Di Canio was a very unlikely manager, and big questions were asked when Swindon appointed him in 2011.

As a player he was capable of spectacular skill and breath-taking goals, not least his beautiful bicycle volley against Wimbledon for West Ham in 2000, which is still considered one of the greatest goals of the Premier League era. But he was also an unpredictable personality, who could implode at any time.

In 1993 he left Juventus after falling out with legendary manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, and in 1996 he repeated the trick at Milan by quarrelling with Fabio Capello. In a match between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal, Di Canio pushed the referee to the ground, and received an 11 game ban which ultimately signalled the end of his tenure in the Steel City.

In England he is best remembered for his time at West Ham, but even there, where he is still adored by supporters, he was considered as stable as a tower of jelly. Tantrums and fallouts were commonplace and he barely played in his final season at the club because of a spat with manager, Glenn Roeder.

He had a comparatively problem-free time at Charlton, before returning to his childhood club, Lazio. Back in Rome, he wound up opposing fans, fraternised with right-wing ultras and regularly gave supporters a fascist salute.

His former manager, Harry Redknapp recently claimed he never once believed Di Canio could be a manager.

But his record at Swindon is quite remarkable. In his first season in charge at the County Ground he led Swindon to the League 2 title, and the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

He leaves Swindon in the League 1 play-off spots, and just three points off the top of the league. They are unbeaten in their last 11 league games, and have a great chance of going up this season, either automatically or through the play-offs.

Di Canio has left as a result of the poor state of the club’s finances, and in his statement to the press he cited the sale of playmaker, Matt Richie, to Bournemouth, as a major reason for his departure. Ritchie, who has excelled under Di Canio, was sold behind the manager’s back in the January transfer window, and since then relations between the manager and the boardroom have been strained.

But Swindon’s financial crisis is down in no small measure to Di Canio and his spending.

Di Canio was given hundreds of thousands to spend on players in order to manufacture a squad capable of storming up the leagues, and in an aesthetically pleasing style. Swindon spent more on agent fees over the past year and a half than any other club in League 2 and League 1, such was the club’s commitment to getting the players Di Canio wanted.

The Roman has expensive tastes, and any chairman who chooses to employ him must be prepared for arguments over transfer funds, unless they want to overspend and encounter the kind of problems which are currently crippling Swindon. Di Canio has an eye for talent, but it comes at a cost, and it’s still unclear whether he could work within a strict budget, or even whether he would be willing to try such a strategy. It appears he was looking to leave Swindon as soon as the cheque book was put back in the drawer.

Whichever club picks up the fiery Di Canio will also have to put up with his bizarre personality.

At Swindon, Di Canio’s passionate press conferences and tempestuous touchline antics entertained the masses, but he was sometimes guilty of bringing negative attention upon the club.

Di Canio’s fallout with Leon Clarke was damaging, but accusations of racism by French striker, Jonathan Tehoué were very difficult to deal with. Di Canio is a self-confessed fascist and a Mussolini sympathiser, so accusations of racism are likely to stick, and no club wants this kind of bad publicity.

Jekyll and Hyde

He’s a brilliant, passionate lover of the sport, whose Swindon team played gorgeous, entertaining football as they climbed from League 2 to the verge of the Championship. He understands football better than almost any other manager in the Football League and he will always strive to win, but in a style befitting his perfectionist streak.

However this Jekyll and Hyde character comes with a reputation and a troublemaking tendency, which will always cause problems for clubs. His departure from Swindon with the club so close to the top of League 1 shows Di Canio’s unpredictability and spontaneity.

Wherever Di Canio ends up next, fans, and more importantly chairmen, must prepare for a rollercoaster ride, which will inevitably consist of great football and controversy. It’s up to them to decide whether the Italian stallion is worth the hassle.

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

Bournemouth’s Eddie shows Howe it’s done

The disappointment which accompanied Bournemouth’s draw away at Premier League Wigan on Saturday says a lot about the Cherries’ improvement since the return of Eddie Howe as manager.

Bournemouth were denied a memorable FA Cup victory at the DW Stadium by a 70th minute Jordi Gomez equaliser. Former Torquay man, Eunan O’Kane, put the visitors ahead with a blistering first half effort, but they couldn’t hold on and will now have to face Wigan again on January 15.

But Bournemouth won’t fear Roberto Martinez’s team when they visit Dean Court, after all, they are unbeaten since Eddie Howe rejoined the club in mid-October.

Howe’s arrival after nearly two years at Burnley triggered a turnaround which has lifted the Cherries from the League 1 relegation zone to the edge of the play-off spots. Now fans and players alike are targeting promotion to the second tier for the first time since Harry Redknapp’s era, over two decades ago.

Bournemouth's Eddie Howe feels at home at Dean Court

Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe feels at home at Dean Court

The first time round

Howe shot to prominence during his first spell in charge on the South coast. Then the youngest manager in the Football League at 31 years old, he led unfancied Bournemouth to promotion from League 2 in his first full season.

The following season, despite fierce competition and a miniscule budget, Bournemouth flourished in League 1. However halfway through the season Howe broke Cherries fans’ hearts by moving to Championship Burnley.

Howe was universally adored at Dean Court and fans believed he’d accomplished miracles during his time at the helm. But the events of the second half of the season raised questions about Howe’s ability.

Bournemouth, under the leadership of striker Lee Bradbury, went on to reach the play-offs, agonisingly losing their semi-final against Huddersfield on penalties. Howe on the other hand had an inconsistent and largely unspectacular time at Burnley.

Throughout his tenure at Turf Moor, Howe failed to build momentum and Burnley were stranded in mid-table. People quickly forgot about his feats at Bournemouth and much of the earlier buzz surrounding the young manager evaporated.

Fast-forward to October 2012 and Burnley were once again threatening to push for a play-off spot, but were looking unconvincing. Bournemouth on the other hand had won one of their first 11 games, and appeared to be in deep trouble.

Howe made an extremely brave decision to leave the comfort and safety of Championship Burnley, so that he could drop down a division for a battle against the drop at his old club.

The second coming

His gamble looks to have paid off spectacularly.

Ten wins, four draws and no losses have catapulted Bournemouth from the relegation zone to 7th, level on points with the MK Dons, and outside the top six on goal-difference. In the 14 league games played since Howe’s arrival, the Cherries have scored 31 goals and they’ve now kept four straight clean-sheets in the league.

Howe’s inspired the players and got them playing some stylish and intelligent football. The current Bournemouth team, with its vibrancy, confidence and audacity, seems unrecognisable compared to the stuttering, goal-shy outfit which slipped into the bottom four in October.

One of the main ways Howe’s achieved success is by getting the best out of his big names and big personalities.

Summer signing, Lewis Grabban, has been netting regularly for Bournemouth, and he’s hit the kind of form which got him recognised at Rotherham. Other attack-minded players have also raised their games substantially, including Eunan O’Kane, Marc Pugh and highly-rated Harry Arter.

Other experienced figures such as Simon Francis and Miles Addison have played well, while the presence of veterans Steve Fletcher and David Jamesin the dressing room has benefited the young manager.

Another masterstroke was the decision to bring Brett Pitman back to the club. Pitman was a key player in Howe’s first spell at the Dean Court helm, and in December he was brought in on loan from Bristol City, where he’s struggled for form. He’s since scored three goals and signed a permanent deal with Bournemouth.

Perhaps a promotion?

Howe has reminded the football world why he generated such hype during his first spell in charge at Bournemouth.

Attendances are up substantially, and there’s a belief Bournemouth can bypass the play-offs altogether, and finish in the top two. They’re the form team in League 1 and opponents are dreading their visits to Dean Court, where the Cherries have lost just once all season.

Howe’s time at Burnley will be judged a failure because he never managed to ignite excitement at the club, and never looked like getting the Clarets promoted.

Howe seems at home on the South coast, and after his unsuccessful venture in Lancashire, he will probably be less willing to leave Bournemouth this time round. He knows and understands the club having spent a total of 15 years at Bournemouth as a player and manager.

Howe’s affinity with the club is key to his success, and under the former player’s management, Bournemouth could undoubtedly challenge the top two this season. Howe’s returned to the club to finish a job he started in 2008 and the second coming has provoked the question, Howe far can Eddie take Bournemouth?