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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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.