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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.

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

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