Tag Archives: Watford

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.

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