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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.



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





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