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Friday, 22 February 2013

The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On (Final Part)

When the Top 25 players in the Championship were named a year ago on The Seventy Two, it was a one time view of players at the time.  Nearly half of the list are now at Premier League clubs which indicates some level of accuracy in the view.  This week's review finishes here with a look at the final five names on the original list - with perhaps the biggest star wrapping things up.

Leeds United have had some very good players over the past two or three years - and most of them now play for Norwich City.  It has been a curious sideshow to the Ken Bates era but one which the Canaries have benefited greatly from, particularly with this player's signing.  I enlisted the help of Little Norwich to give me a view on the latest player to meander down the well-trodden path.

Robert Snodgrass:  Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Leeds United 
Club now:  Norwich City
Progress made?  Moved to the Premier League

In his first season as Norwich manager Chris Hughton has earned praise and criticism in equal measure from what has become quite a divided fan base. Despite this, one area where all fans can agree the new manager has excelled is player recruitment. Hughton’s signings have been largely successful.  Along with Sebastien Bassong, Robert Snodgrass has been the pick of these signings.

Snodgrass was our third signing from Leeds in the space of a year and coming to a club with familiar faces may have been the reason for the positive start to his Norwich career. In his performances this season he has been one of Norwich’s most constant threats, with his dead ball delivery troubling some of the league’s best defences.

Snodgrass is currently Norwich’s top scorer in all competitions this season. This probably says more about Hughton’s cautious approach than anything else but what is clear is that without Snodgrass’ goals, especially the three free kicks in consecutive away games before Christmas, Norwich would be in a very different position. He has looked every inch the Premier League player, and still has lots of time to improve further. 

John Verrall now picks up the reins to check out a former Manchester United youngster at the heart of a promotion charge.

James Chester: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Hull City
Club now:  Hull City
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (2nd)

With Hull’s promotion push in full-flow now, James Chester will hope to be a Premier League player this time next year. The signs are there that he is perfectly capable of being one too.

Chester has been a virtual ever-present since joining ‘The Tigers’ from Manchester United. The centre-half was runner-up in the player of the season vote last year and is now proving to be a major reason for their good form under Steve Bruce so far this campaign.

Now playing in a three-man defence, in a 3-5-2 formation that Bruce has generally deployed, Chester has shown his adaptability and his tactical astuteness – the sort of attributes that come with learning your trade at Manchester United – and he plays with a wise head for young shoulders.

If Hull are to get promoted they will need Chester to maintain his rock-solid form.

I now drift up the M1 and take a look at a player who might perhaps slip under the radar of many Championship followers

Marvin Emnes: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Middlesbrough
Club now:  Middlesbrough
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (6th)

Although this will probably result in scorn from my friends in the North East, Emnes is probably one of the names on the list to pass people by the most.  That's partly because, aside from last season, Emnes hasn't been by any means a regular starter, playing in fewer than half of all games across six seasons.

His inclusion in this list was based on a streak of form unmatched at any other time in his stop-start career to date.  Ten goals in the first 18 games made him an automatic choice and one of the leading scorers at the time of the compilation of our vote.  The second half of the season was less profitable, although returned a none-too-shoddy eight goals all the same.

This season Emnes endured a rather strange start, with fans at the Riverside presumably wondering if he was becoming a bit of a mystery man.  Injury and a family illness in Surinam contributing to a bizarre run where his first nine games of the season were all away from home.  Emnes managed a decent return of four goals in this period, but a solitary goal since mid-October has loosened Emnes' grip on a regular first team shirt and a return to top form currently appears some way off.

Joe Harrison's final review takes a look at one Leeds United player not to leave Elland Road in the past 18 months

Ross McCormack: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Leeds United
Club now:  Leeds United
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (12th)

Our original article on McCormack described his Championship career to that point as one defined by peaks and troughs in form, a pattern which has continued in the intervening months. 

The Scot was superb for Leeds United last season, firing 18 league goals and once again proving himself as one of the division’s most gifted players. However, history (or at least his inconsistency) seems to be repeating itself, with McCormack having only registered 2 Championship goals for the Whites this season.

There are mitigating factors behind this apparent slump though, ones which again draw parallels to events earlier in his career, at Cardiff. 

Having had an excellent season last time out as Leeds’ main attacking threat, McCormack spent much of the first half of the season shifted wide to accommodate his manager’s preferred focal point – for Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd in South Wales, read Luciano Becchio in Yorkshire. However, Becchio’s deadline day departure to Norwich City may yet provide McCormack with a route back to Elland Road prominence and goal-scoring form once more, and given his career to date, it would be unwise to bet against that happening.

And so to the end and it's very much a case of 'last but not least', as I head back to South London to check on the progress made by one Wilf Zaha.

Wilfried Zaha: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Crystal Palace
Club now:  Manchester United (Crystal Palace on loan)
Progress made?  Moved to the Premier League

The undoubted star of the list - indeed the Championship as a whole - one year on, Zaha's improved consistency and ever-more-evident raw talent has earned the young man from the Ivory Coast (yes, he's eligible for England) the archetypal schoolboy's dream transfer, to the biggest and most successful side in domestic football, Manchester United.

Zaha will attempt to emulate the likes of Best, Giggs and Ronaldo by bringing his significant skills to the Old Trafford touchlines, whilst also pressing his claims for a regular spot in the national squad.

Zaha finished last season as he had started it, being named Palace's young player of the year for the second season in a row.  Expected by many to be middle of the road at best, Palace made a scintillating start to the season with Zaha inspiring a flood of goals alongside Yannick Bolasie and Glenn Murray and earning a call up to the full England squad for the friendly against Sweden in November.

But all good things must come to an end and the inevitable transfer - a massive £15m+ one at that - was quietly and quickly sealed by the 19-times Champions in the January transfer window.

For now fans of the football league get to enjoy Zaha's sublime and dazzling skills for a few weeks more and many will be eagerly anticipating the impact he can have at the Theatre of Dreams

So that's that.  Reflecting back again the list looks like it was in pretty good shape, with so many now in the Premier League and a clutch more soon to join them.  The folly of attempting to produce such a list has perhaps been shown up most pertinently by the exclusion of Tom Ince, in great form ever since this was produced and seemingly destined for a big summer move, whilst Everton's latest recruit John Stones hadn't even made a first team appearance for Barnsley at this time last year.  

There were perhaps some players named who in retrospect are decent performers but not potential stars, and the vote was perhaps skewed by form at the time rather than a longer-term view.  Emnes is mentioned above perhaps in this bracket, whilst as a Bristol City fan although I rate both Maynard and Adomah highly, I acknowledge the superb run of (short-term) form City were on at the time under then-new boss Derek McInnes perhaps contributed to their inclusion, although that could yet be justified as both could conceivably be performing in the Premier League next season. 

Many thanks to Joe and John for their contributions, it was fun putting such an extensive programme of writing together a year ago and without their help I couldn't have delivered a review on the entire list alone.  

To view the review of the other 20 players please click below.  Thanks for reading!
Read Part 1 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'
Read Part 2 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'
Read Part 3 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'
Read Part 4 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'

The Exiled Robin

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On (Part 4)

The Top 25 players in the Championship were named a year ago on The Seventy Two, a culmination of personal views and ultimately a fan's vote.  Fourteen have already been reviewed this week and this fourth update takes a cursory glance at a further six players, four of whom are now on the books of Premier League clubs.

Firstly today, Joe Harrison provides an angle on one of the few from the list to have commanded a significant transfer fee since appearing in the vote.

Jay Rodriguez:  Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Burnley 
Club now:  Southampton
Progress made?  Moved to the Premier League

A year on, it comes as no surprise that Jay Rodriguez would be ineligible for the same list this year, as he has made the step up to the Premier League. Unfortunately for Burnley, it has not been with them, Southampton signing the Lancastrian for a fee believed to be around £7m following his 21 goals for the Clarets last season. It would be an understatement to say that the Saints were keen to get their man – not only did they spend £7m on a player entering the final year of his contract; they had had bids for him rejected in both of the previous two transfer windows, too.

The 23 year old is not guaranteed a place in the Saints’ first team, with Rickie Lambert often preferred as the focal point of the attack, but he has started his fair share of games, making over 20 Premier League appearances. He is also off the mark in the league, including a goal at Old Trafford. As with the rest of the Southampton squad, it remains to be seen what impact the managerial changes at St Mary’s will have on Rodriguez, but the evidence of the season so far suggests he will form an important part of a Saints team hoping to consolidate their Premier League status. 

John Verrall from Peterborough United blog 'Standing on the Glebe' was one of the original contributors to the Best 25 list, and takes a look at the next two players on today's review.

Jacob Butterfield: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Barnsley
Club now:  Norwich City (Crystal Palace on loan)
Progress made?  Moved to the Premier League

Jacob Butterfield’s year has been a frustrating one. After a really impressive start to the 2011/2012 campaign with Barnsley, he became a key figure for The Tykes and was even put in as captain at the tender age of 21.

As such attention of higher placed clubs was drawn and Norwich City were the ones who took a chance on Butterfield, bringing him to Carrow Road in the summer.

His chances in East Anglia have been limited though and he is yet to make his Norwich City debut with the club choosing to loan him out to Bolton and Crystal Palace, where he is currently playing now.

However, Butterfield still has youth on his side and, if he can continue to impress at Championship level, regaining the form that saw him gain a move to the Premier League, he may well still have a bright future at Norwich City. 

Club in Dec 2011:  West Ham United
Club now:  West Ham United
Progress made?  Promotion to the Premier League

The combative West Ham United central midfielder has gone from strength to strength over the past few years.

Although the Hammers relegation to the Championship was very disappointing for the supporters of the club, it allowed Noble to come to the fore as he raised his game and became a key member of the squad which eventually got them promoted.

Now a regular in their Premier League, Noble has cast any doubts about his ability at the top level aside and has put in a series of notable appearances in this season – scoring four times in the process.

Two hot-shot strikers are up next, and firstly I review a prolific Championship goal-getter before moving onto a player desperate for an injury-free season to prove his true value.

Billy Sharp: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Doncaster Rovers
Club now:  Southampton (Nottingham Forest on loan)
Progress made?  Promotion to the Premier League

One of those to earn a  move shortly after the list was published, Sharp made a crucial contribution to new club Southampton's surge to promotion, albeit without truly establishing himself as first choice. He returned a strike rate as impressive as ever with nine goals in 20 appearances, even more significant when it's considered that nearly half of those appearances came from the bench.

However despite those goals, once promotion was assured the Saints moved quickly to secure Burnley's Jay Rodriguez (his year is analysed above) and following a couple of appearances in the early Premier League games, Sharp once again found himself surplus to requirements and scanning the Championship for another option.  

Nottingham Forest, with ambitions aplenty following their takeover and Sharp's former Doncaster manager Sean O'Driscoll at the helm seemed a perfect opportunity, and following seven games without a goal, a purple patch ensued, with Sharp's eight goals in 14 matches helping O'Driscoll's side to the brink of the playoff positions.  

Sharp has continued to score goals since O’Driscoll’s abrupt and surprising departure, but ultimately perhaps seems destined to be one of those players never quite considered good enough for the top flight, despite how valuable an asset he can be in the Championship.

Nicky Maynard: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Bristol City
Club now:  Cardiff City (via West Ham United)
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (1st)

An acrimonious month at Bristol City followed by a deadline day transfer to West Ham was to await wantaway striker Maynard following the publication of the original list, and it's not been all sweetness and light since.  The ex-Crewe Alexandra forward struggled to make an impact at the Boleyn, and although a pair of goals played their part in pushing the Hammers over the finish line, their other Championship deadline day signing, Ricardo Vaz Te (not a name on our list incidentally), became the preferred option.

A summer move back West, a little further along the M4 to ambitious Cardiff City, seemed to offer Maynard another chance at playing in a successful Championship campaign. However, whilst the club's campaign has thundered on relentlessly, Maynard's own participation has been minimal.  Three, albeit impressive, games into his career for the Welsh side, an all-too-familiar damaged knee ligament prognosis has left this talented marksman sitting on the treatment table whilst his new colleagues lead him into the promised land.  

Time will soon tell if Maynard can take his chance in the top flight, assuming Cardiff don't demonstrate an exaggerated version of their annual springtime collapse, and also on the proviso that his unfortunate proneness to long term knee injuries doesn't become career threatening.

And finally for this penultimate part of the review, John Verrall reviews another of London Road's shining lights.

Grant McCann: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Peterborough United
Club now:  Peterborough United
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (24th)

At the age of 33 Grant McCann has found himself beginning to take a back-seat at Peterborough United, with his first-team appearances being limited this season. His passing range still remains, but his pace and stamina – two areas of his game which have never been his major assets – have depleted even further and Darren Ferguson has used him much more sparingly this campaign.

That said, a talented player he still remains. After starting the season in the transfer-list, the Northern Irish international forced his way back into Ferguson’s first-team plans after a promising start to the season and, although his contract is due to expire at the end of this campaign, there has been slight hints that a potential contract extension may happen in recent times. Indeed, McCann has made no secret of his desire to stay at Posh.

Ferguson has always stated that he feels McCann plays best when he is deployed in a midfield three, but he is now being used in central midfield duo at London Road and has still shown he has the fitness and physical levels to continue playing Championship football, with a late winner against Leicester City in his most recent game.

Read Part 1 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'
Read Part 2 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'
Read Part 3 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'

The Exiled Robin

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On (Part 3)

Following on from the publication of the Top 25 players in the Championship, named a year ago on The Seventy Two, this third of five updates tracks the progress of each of the players voted one of the best on view at the time.

First if all I relook at a man often accused of being a flat-track bully over the years, but who is now proving his ability at the highest level.

Rickie Lambert:  Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Southampton 
Club now:  Southampton
Progress made?  Promotion to the Premier League

There's little greater compliment I can pay than to say that upon reflection of the original article, it became quickly apparent that I could actually just rewrite the whole piece, simply replacing the word 'Championship' with 'Premier League'.  Such has been the smoothness and vivacity with which this one time lower league journeyman has taken to the oft (falsely) quoted "best league in the world".

The doubts that surrounded him 18 months ago before his first Championship appearance re-appeared a year on ahead of his first top-flight outing, but were quickly dispelled as an early pair of goals against the two giants of Manchester announced Lambert's significant presence to the blinkered world that rarely looks beneath the top 20 clubs.

A brace of goals against Aston Villa soon followed and helped the Saints to their first league win, and regular contributions since - including five goals in the last eight matches - mean that Lambert is currently tied as the top English marksman in the top division with 11 goals, alongside luminaries such as Frank Lampard and Theo Walcott, and means his name remains in the frame when the media are discussing forward options for England.  

Although the article linked above stops short of saying "good touch for a big lad", there's little doubt Lambert's frame and physical shape result in a first impression being taken by many, and still belies a natural ability and technique - let alone a goal scoring knack - that many others would love to possess.

Next up, Joe Harrison returns to review the second Cardiff City player on the list.

Kevin McNaughton: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Cardiff City
Club now:  Cardiff City
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (1st)

While looking back on the selections made a little over a year ago, I think it would be fair to say hindsight has not been too damning – there are no names that make you cringe with embarrassment or wonder how exactly made it through. However, that certainly does not mean that every played named last year would make an equivalent list this year, and Kevin McNaughton would be one of those likely to miss the cut. As mentioned in the original article, despite initial struggles last season, what won McNaughton his place was his remarkable consistency over a number of seasons for Cardiff, becoming one of the most reliable players in the league.

For one reason or another though, he appears to have encountered difficulties after Cardiff’s transition from Dave Jones to Malky Mackay. Last season saw him struggle to match the performance levels of previous years: his poor distribution – always a weakness, but one made up for – became more pronounced, errors crept into his normally faultless positioning and wingers began to get the better of him – something that was almost unheard of previously. 

This has led to the Scot losing his place in Cardiff’s first team, replaced by the towering Matthew Connolly. If these criticisms sound harsh, some context is of course necessary: McNaughton is not a bad player; he has simply gone from an outstanding full back at Championship level to a solid one.

There was a Blackpool player in last year's list and, as if to spit in the face of a one-time, one-moment vote, it isn't stardom-bound Thomas Ince! 

During Blackpool's brief sojourn in the Premier League, one player who got promoted with the Tangerine's caught the eye, and stayed.  John from Tangerine Dreaming kindly offered this look at their attacking midfield mainstay.

Gary Taylor-Fletcher: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Blackpool
Club now:  Blackpool
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (14th)

There's no doubt that Taylor-Fletcher remains a superb attacking player in his own right. He is the same as ever, creative and hardworking. Towards the end of last season he shifted position to become a central striker. Whilst he's doesn't have a dominant aerial presence,  he does compete in the air, however that's not really his role. He had scored a handful of goals, but the way he combines with his wide forwards and midfielders is his greatest asset. He always offers to receive the ball in space and constantly seeks one-two combinations often with deft flicks that carry high level of risk.

There have been two factors that have affected him this season. Firstly, an injury which kept him out for a chunk of the season to date. Secondly, and more importantly, his team not having any effective midfield platform to build upon. When this happens he has been seeing less of the ball to his feet in the final third which is where he flourishes.

Unless Blackpool turn their season around he is unlikely to shine between now and May, but the true test of his quality will be to see where he heads in the summer given he is out of contract. Blackpool are planning to roll back budgets next season and Taylor-Fletcher will attract better contracts from elsewhere. Blackpool's loss will be someone else's gain.

Another from Joe Harrison now as he reviews a player who on his day can frighten any defender in the division.
Club in Dec 2011:  Birmingham City
Club now:  Birmingham City
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (17th)

As noted in the original article last year, following his free transfer from Cardiff, Burke quickly became an integral part of the Birmingham City side Chris Hughton took over from Alex McLeish. Under the now-Norwich manager, Birmingham were able to reach the play-offs, where they would lose to Blackpool in the semi-finals, and Burke was one of their most important attacking outlets. 

Due to their Europa League commitments, Birmingham played a massive 62 games last season, and according to ESPN’s statistics, Burke played a part in an astonishing 61 of these, quite an achievement for a player whose time at Rangers was blighted by injuries. In these appearances, Burke racked up an impressive 14 goals and 19 assists, having quite simply the best season of his career.

However, Birmingham’s struggles have made it difficult for both the team as a whole and Burke individually to maintain last season’s standards. Hughton departed, to be replaced by Lee Clark, and the club’s well-documented financial troubles have become more pronounced. Far from being promotion contenders, the Blues currently hover uncomfortably just a few places above the relegation zone. Burke has still been able to contribute, but in raw terms (goals and assists) he is to this point struggling to reproduce the form of 2011/12. 

Nottingham Forest’s well-documented January interest shows that on his day, he remains one of the Championship’s most dangerous players and is one Birmingham will need to ensure the second half of the season is an improvement on the first.

John Verrall from Peterborough blog 'Standing on the Glebe' was one of the original contributors to the Best 25 list, and he kicks off his reviews one year on with a look at one current and one former Posh player.

Craig Mackail-Smith: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Brighton & Hove Albion
Club now:  Brighton & Hove Albion
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (7th)

A year on and it still doesn’t appear that Brighton and Hove Albion have quite worked out how to use their record signing's talents.

Gus Poyet has tried partnering Mackail-Smith with somebody else up-front and, more regularly, deployed him as a lone striker, but despite a decent goal-scoring return he hasn’t hit the heights that quite justified his £3 million price tag as yet and now finds himself in-and-out of the side.

Often linked with a move away from The Amex, Mackail-Smith’s future doesn’t look completely secure on the south coast, but he has shown glimpses of quality and still remains one of the hardest-working footballers in the professional game.

Club in Dec 2011:  Peterborough United
Club now:  Peterborough United
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (24th)

Somehow George Boyd is still a Peterborough United player. During the past year there have been numerous occasions when Boyd has been linked with a move away from Posh, but it was on deadline day this year that the time that he would leave finally appeared to have arrived.

Nottingham Forest had had a bid accepted and agreed personal terms with Boyd and only a medical remained. Yet, after the longest medical ever known in football, the deal fell through thanks to a failed eye-test.

On the pitch, Boyd shows no signs of dodgy vision. Still Peterborough United’s talisman, the left-winger has continued to impress and although not as mercurial as he once was, he has adapted himself to be one of the hardest working members of this Posh squad.

Still capable of the spectacular – as his 45-yard volleyed goal earlier in the season against Huddersfield showed – he will need to perform to his maximum potential if he is to keep Peterborough United as a Championship club next season. 

Read Part 1 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'
Read Part 2 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'

The Exiled Robin

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On (Part 2)

The second instalment in the series re-examining the progress made by the Top 25 players in the Championship, named a year ago.

Joe Harrison and John Verrall have once again joined forces with me to review three-quarters of the top 25, with a selection of excellent club writers filling in for the remaining seven on the list.  Throughout this week I’ll publish updates on each player, giving an insight into the progress made in the intervening 14 months.

Today's instalment kicks off with another player from our list who would be ineligible from a vote this year, as he is plying his trade in the Premier League.  Rob Langham, lifelong Reading fan and proprietor of the host of the Top 25 archive at The Two Unfortunates, takes a look at how Jimmy Kebe's career has evolved since his match-winning performances helped the Royals to a late and somewhat surprising surge to promotion.

Jimmy Kebe:  Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Reading 
Club now:  Reading
Progress made?  Promotion to the Premier League

A couple of weeks ago, Jimmy Kebe pounced twice as Reading bossed long stages of a Premier League match for the first time in 2012-13. First, he capped a superb move by neatly sidestepping Sunderland’s flailing defence to thump the ball high past Simon Mignolet; then he rose at the back post to provide Reading with a 2-1 win and continue their most unlikely revival.

In many ways, Kebe’s season has mirrored Reading’s. Occasionally missing through injury, he has generally struggled to impose himself on matches, although the strength of the opposition does provide a mitigating factor. As an example, the pace and tenacity of Ashley Cole in the recent 2-2 draw with Chelsea forced the Malian into a defensive role and it’s as a disciplined wide midfielder that Kebe has been compelled to reinvent himself this campaign.

The second half of 2011-12 saw Kebe make a telling impact on a number of occasions; not least with two assists on a never to be forgotten night at St. Mary’s – his perfect cross allowed Jason Roberts to nod the Royals into the lead while an adroit cut back for Adam Le Fondre restored Reading’s advantage en route to a Championship defining 3-1 win over Southampton. Kebe’s pace remains a major asset – even when the team is struggling, he’s capable of transporting the ball from box to box in a few seconds.

He’s also the epitome of the confidence player of course – as Reading struggled before Christmas and appeared woefully short of quality, Kebe’s role often seemed circumscribed but his ability to defend and keep his position has seen him preferred to Garath McCleary and Hal Robson-Kanu for the most part. Against Sunderland recently, his contribution was decisive.

Next up is a Leicester double, with thanks to Mike McCarthy, better known as the Fox Blogger, for the updates on this pair of Foxes.

Club in Dec 2011:  Leicester City
Club now:  Leicester City
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (5th)

How do you solve a problem like Andy King?

On the one hand there is the talented youngster, famed for his stealthy late runs into the box. A cool finisher when given the opportunity. Level headed too.

At the tender age of 24, King has already secured more than 200 appearances for the club. His skill and experience would be an asset to almost any team in the division. 

But the manager who made King a first team regular now seems reluctant to keep Leicester's best youth product since Emile Heskey in the first eleven. 

At his best as the attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, King no longer seems to fit Nigel Pearson's 4-4-2.

When asked to fill a more defensive role, his creativity suffers. Some fans ask the point of including him at all. It's not an unfair question. Though analysis such as these should always be taken with an industrial pinch of salt - Leicester's record this season has been far better without him.

But Andy King's best days are still ahead of him. He remains a match for the best attacking midfielders in the division - it’s just that right now his manager isn’t prepared to build a team around him.

Kasper Schmeichel: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Leicester City
Club now:  Leicester City
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (5th)

Kasper Schmeichel was rewarded with his first international start recently, it was well deserved.

The Dane was Leicester’s player of the year last season and has continued this year in similar form. 

With 12 clean sheets so far Schmeichel is already well on his way to eclipsing the 14 Leicester managed last season. It’s a record that reflects his understanding with the back four and of course his natural shot stopping ability.

That said, Kasper isn’t immune from the odd clanger - though he has earned most of the luck that has seen him though those dodgy moments. That’s because Schmeichel has picked up the useful habit of saving penalties. The two he’s stopped this season have secured 1-0 wins for his side on each occasion.

He’s incredibly popular too, even Leicester City legend Gordon Banks was glowing with praise for Schmeichel in a recent interview.

The Dane is maturing as a goalkeeper and deserves another chance in the Premier League. If his current level of performance continues he won’t have long to wait.

The fourth player under the spotlight today is Bristol City's Albert Adomah.

Albert Adomah: Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  Bristol City
Club now:  Bristol City
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (23rd)

One year on and the transfer deadline day wishes of Bristol City fans were much as they'd been 12 months earlier - desperately hoping to avoid mention of Albert Adomah's name on the Sky Sports ticker. The fact that Adomah was in South Africa, helping his native Ghana to the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations, appeared to do little to dispel the stories about moves to Fulham, Aston Villa or Crystal Palace.

As it turns out the message from his agent seems to be that Adomah is waiting for a Premier League move, and with just a year left on his contract after this summer, one suspects now may be the time for one of the smaller top flight clubs to take the plunge, probably having to part with as little as £1-£1.5m cash to get their man.

Adomah has had a mixed year since, rarely displaying the sort of form alluded to in the original article but being consistently one of the West Country club's most potent of attacking forces. His pace and trickery remain a key ingredient to worry any defender at this level, but the continued lack of a consistent end product, be it via goals or pinpoint crosses, mean others in the division - most notably Wilf Zaha & Tom Ince - have far surpassed Adomah's mildly-lit star and instead of a future in the Premier League, Adomah's immediate task is to once again help steer the Robins clear of relegation danger.

And finally today, the eighth player to be reviewed in this update, Joe Harrison returns to take a look at Nottingham Forest's former number one, who of all the players named has had a surprisingly turbulent few months but perhaps has brighter days ahead:

Club in Dec 2011:  Nottingham Forest
Club now:  Norwich City
Progress made?  Moved to the Premier League

Lee Camp offers a lesson in how a footballer’s stock can fall in a relatively short space of time.

Though the 2010/11 season ultimately ended in play-off disappointment for Nottingham Forest, Camp could look back on the campaign as something of a personal triumph – a string of outstanding performances seeing him widely regarded as the best goalkeeper the Championship had to offer. 

It was this form that led to Forest’s play-off conquerors, newly promoted Swansea City, making a number of bids for the Northern Ireland international. Forest flatly rejected these, a decision understood to have upset Camp.

In the following season, the breakdown of that move to the Premier League appeared to have affected Forest’s number 1, with his performances failing to match the high standards he had set himself (although he was hardly alone in this at the City Ground). 

This season has seen a similar story, with continued tension between the goalkeeper and the Forest hierarchy, leading to a statement on the club’s official website confirming his release from Forest on a free transfer. 

So, a strange end to such a promising career in Nottingham, but Camp looks set to move to Norwich (he has signed since this was written), and with John Ruddy’s injury problems and Mark Bunn’s less than convincing form, he may be finally about to get the chance to prove himself in the Premier League.

Read Part 1 of 'The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On'

The Exiled Robin

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Best 25 Players in the Championship; One Year On

A little over a year ago, four writers having a conversation on Twitter one evening were debating who the best player in the Championship was at that time.  We came up with around a dozen contenders ourselves and then opened up the question to a relatively extensive follower base and, eventually, came up with a list of the top 25 voted for by our followers, released in a daily format in an advent calendar style throughout December 2011.

The well-received list was published on The Seventy Two, and now resides in the archive of the same name on the fabulous The Two Unfortunates.

One year (and-a-bit) on and we thought it would be an interesting experiment to review all of the names on the list and see where their careers had taken them.  Upon reflection the list doesn't look that bad a stab, with 10 of the 25 players now with Premier League clubs, plus at least another three at Cardiff seemingly destined to reach the top flight in May (or indeed, April).

There are of course some names amongst the 25 who have disappeared into the humdrum through an extended run of mediocrity or injury, whilst others have risen in their place.

Joe Harrison and John Verrall have once again joined forces with me to review three-quarters of the top 25, with a selection of excellent club writers filling in for the remaining seven on the list.  Throughout this week I’ll publish updates on each player, giving an insight into the progress made in the intervening 14 months.

First of all we’ll take a look at the man voted as THE best player in the Championship one year ago, and Sam Dobson takes a revised look at the man who helped drive Southampton to promotion and is now battling to keep them afloat.

Adam Lallana:  Top 25 review from 2011 
Club in Dec 2011:  Southampton                                
Club now:  Southampton
Progress made?  Promotion to the Premier League

Adam Lallana has gone from strength to strength over the past 12 months.

The wide-man played a crucial role in helping Saints secure promotion back to the top-flight, ending the 2011/12 season as strongly as he started. Lallana returned from a brief injury lay-off in February, netting big goals against Barnsley, Derby and Millwall. His gut busting displays in April against Portsmouth and Coventry typified his attitude. Lallana was as desperate as anyone to push Saints over the line. He was deservedly voted player’s player of the year at the end of the campaign.

Any doubts about Lallana’s Premier League capabilities were quickly erased after two storming displays against both Manchester clubs in August. The performances didn’t go unnoticed by England manager Roy Hodgson, who called Lallana up for the game against Ukraine in September. He sat on the bench for the duration of the 1-1 draw, but you suspect it won’t be the last we see of the Bournemouth boy in an England shirt.

Lallana suffered a slight dip in form during October, with Saints struggling badly at the foot of the table. He was criticised for not tracking back, leaving full-back Danny Fox exposed on the left. Lallana quickly rectified these faults, adding a new level of defensive awareness to his game, without neglecting any of his attacking flair.

His injury against Reading in December couldn’t have come at a much worse time for Saints, who initially struggled for creativity in his absence. Lallana made a welcome return as a second-half substitute against Man United on January 30th, making a huge impact, with Saints giving the Red Devils a real scare.

If Mauricio Pochettino manages to keep his new side up this season, it will largely be down to the efforts of players like Lallana. On his day there aren’t many teams that can live with him.

Next up is the player many would have had as number one, and a man who perhaps surprisingly is still plying his trade in the second tier, although that residency appears limited  to the rest of this season.

Joe Harrison takes a look at Cardiff's midfield maestro, their string-puller Peter Whittingham.

Peter Whittingham:  Top 25 review from 2011 
Club in Dec 2011:  Cardiff City                                
Club now:  Cardiff City
Progress made?  Still in the Championship (1st)

To my mind, it was a scandal of Leveson-esque proportions that Peter Whittingham did not top the original list we compiled a year ago. That may be a bit of a stretch, but many, including FourFourTwo magazine, felt that Whittingham’s stunning performances for Cardiff over a number of years made him the best player outside of the Premier League last season.

His eye for goal from midfield, stunning set pieces and excellent vision marked him out as a class act, and his impact continued to be huge on a Bluebirds team that once again ultimately fell short in the play-offs.

This year, now playing for the Red Dragons, Whittingham finally looks set to be part of a team heading for promotion, with his side having built a seemingly unassailable lead atop the division. From a personal perspective though, this has been a less impressive season from the midfielder, with fewer goals and not quite the same virtuoso performances that carried Cardiff at times last season. This is partly because Cardiff have a far better team, with a number of expensive attacking players brought in to share the burden or perhaps even take it from Whittingham, who has moved into the deeper role he operated in at times last season, by which his manager hopes he can control and dictate games, but also means he is naturally further from the opposition’s goal. 

It could also be argued that Mackay’s more direct, aggressive and physical style is serving to stifle some of Whittingham’s technical gifts. Whatever reason for this slight dip, it is one he is perfectly capable of ensuring is temporary, and if he finally does make it back to the Premier League this summer, few would argue he doesn’t deserve it.

Today's instalment finishes with a look at a player who only stayed for one season at this level, as he did a few years ago for Newcastle, with a significant goal scoring contribution  once again helping his new side to an immediate bounce-back promotion to the Premier League.

Kevin Nolan:  Top 25 review from 2011
Club in Dec 2011:  West Ham United                                
Club now:  West Ham United
Progress made?  Promotion to the Premier League

One of the few names to generate real debate a year ago - and certainly the only one to so amongst fans of his own club - Nolan had proven his worth nonetheless with a series of important goals, even if his all-round contribution is perhaps open to question.  A career history of a goal every four games is comparable with all but the very best scoring midfielders and a valuable asset for any manager to have up their sleeve.

13 league goals last season from midfield, including three which broke the deadlock in hard-fought 1-0 wins and earned crucial points for the stuttering, but ultimately successful Hammers.  

Those that would openly question his value at a higher level were quickly muted this season as five goals in the first 11 Premier League matches helped West Ham settle back in at the top table - two of those goals again the only goals in narrow 1-0 victories.

This happy knack of being able to break a deadlock makes Nolan pivotal and it's perhaps telling that a lean spell for him since that bright beginning has coincided with a run which once again leaves the East-enders in a dangerous position.  When he's not scoring goals it's easier for fans to again question his value to the team, but like any striker who "does nothing" but can score regularly, it's a hard decision to leave such a threat out.

The series is now complete. Find the final part, and links to the first four articles, here

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