They call it ‘The Most Valuable Game in Football’. It’s not the World Cup Final, a clash of the titans in the Champions League or a crucial match-up between leading clubs in any of the world’s top divisions. It is, of course, the nPower Championship play-off final which decides who will fill the last remaining promotion place to the cash-bloated Premier League. This year’s renewal sees Crystal Palace face Watford as both clubs aim to reach the promised-land. Victory is believed to be worth around £120 million to the winner.

Both of these clubs will be more than happy to accept the incredible riches on offer, especially as they have suffered varying degrees of financial hardship in the last decade. Just one season at the top followed by relegation would set them up well for years to come given the increased parachute payments to those who drop out of the Premier League, but what the respective chairmen will be hoping is that Palace boss, Ian Holloway, or his Watford counterpart, Gianfranco Zola will be able to keep their clubs amongst English football’s elite for more than one fleeting campaign. But which one is best equipped to do so?

Holloway has obviously been there before when his plucky underdogs at Blackpool thrilled us all for one all-too-brief visit to the Premier League. They triumphed in a classic play-off final against this season’s champions, Cardiff City. The Tangerines then entertained us all with their devil-may-care all-out attacking attitude to the game, giving scant regard to the pragmatic, defensive approach that most newly-promoted teams adopt. Despite winning many friends and admirers, this gung-ho naivety ultimately proved their undoing and the man responsible for this now hopes to get a second shot at top flight longevity with The Eagles.
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Holloway’s previous experiences could prove a help or a hindrance in this task. If he has learned from past mistakes, Palace could have a chance at sticking around provided they recruit the correct amount and choice of playing reinforcements to the current squad. This is even more crucial considering that any Premier League campaign will be undertaken without star man, the Manchester United-bound Wilfried Zaha. If Holloway stubbornly believes his way is the right way, then no amount of money will save palace from coming right back from whence they came.

Watford manager Zola also has previous Premier League experience from when he struggled manfully in charge of West Ham United with a conniving board of directors undermining his efforts to save them from the drop in 2009-10. Having won plenty of plaudits for his efforts at Upton Park he finds himself on the cusp of a return, and this time he seemingly has decent backing from the boardroom. The Hornets have exploited their owners’ Italian and Spanish links (the Pozzo family who control Watford are also in possession of Serie A club, Udinese and Spanish club, Granada) and loaned some good quality players to augment their promotion push.
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The financial jackpot of the Premier League would only give Zola and the Pozzos even more ammunition to be able to farm the European transfer market and their very handy network of available talent. Zola’s previous experience at the top level as one of the Premier League’s greatest foreign imports combined with his brief but educational stint with The Hammers could provide him with more of the necessary tools required to help Watford avoid being relegated straight back down to the Championship. As much as we all love Holloway and his wacky antics and comedic pearls of wisdom, Zola’s class and breeding makes him more adept at keeping his club in the Premier League for more than just the shortest of stays.

MARK GODFREY

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