Football League 2017/18 Review: The Five Best Managers

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 11 May 2018, 16:38

It's been yet another chaotic Football League campaign in the frenzied managerial merry-go-round.

There have been a plethora of comings-and-goings, memorable moments and furious rants, and now our man Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) takes the opportunity to look back on the season and pick out five gaffers that have mastered their craft.

John Coleman (Accrington Stanley)

Turn the clock back to May 2016. Accrington Stanley were denied automatic promotion by Stevenage, with whom a 0-0 draw saw them hit the woodwork three times in the second half before Bristol Rovers’ late goal elsewhere saw them miss out on third through goal difference.

In the play-off semi-finals, they were beaten by eventual winners AFC Wimbledon - who had finished the league campaign with 10 fewer points - after Billy Kee’s goal against the Wombles earlier in the season was strangely ruled out by the half-time whistle. Simply put, that 2015-16 Stanley side was one of the best ever League Two teams not to win promotion and the fact they missed out felt like an injustice.

Naturally, the club’s budgetary disadvantage meant key players like Josh Windass, Matt Crooks, Tom Davies and Piero Mingoia all left; to some this spelt the end of their adventure. John Coleman though, had other ideas.

It took him and assistant Jimmy Bell a transitional six months at the start of 2016-17, when Stanley weren’t quite getting the results performances had deserved, but since a 2-0 loss at Portsmouth in February that season, they have won 39 out of a possible 64 league games; a 60% win ratio.

That return is remarkable for a club with what chairman Andy Holt, who has provided excellent leadership off the field, confirmed to be the second-lowest budget in League Two. What Stanley’s squad lacks in depth, it makes up for in consistency and pride in a coherent playing identity.

Burnley loanee Jimmy Dunne, who spots danger remarkably quickly for a 19-year-old, has developed rapidly alongside the more experienced centre-back partner Mark Hughes. Kayden Jackson, unwanted at Grimsby, has the athleticism and willingness to run in behind that compliments the hold-up qualities of the ever-reliable Billy Kee, who completes a strike-force that has reached a combined total of 42 goals.

While plenty of people take credit for Accrington Stanley’s inspirational title win, it would not have been possible without Coleman’s hunger to push the boundaries of expectation.

Nuno Espirito Santo (Wolves)

Neil Warnock might not feel quite the same way, but Nuno Espirito Santo’s passion has made him a breath of fresh air to the Championship.

He is loved by Wolverhampton Wanderers fans who, more than anyone, deserve the excellent football they have witnessed this term.

Two of the three managers who preceded Santo, a revered figure at Molineux after the 2017-18 title win, were Kenny Jackett and Paul Lambert.

Jackett retains some goodwill due to swift the re-building work he did during his first two seasons in charge while Lambert oversaw a good FA Cup run, but both tenures fizzled out; their final few home games in charge saw around 20k fans watch mostly uninspiring encounters.

How many fans, back then, would have guessed that the team would soon cruise to the Championship title, playing a fluent possession-based 3-4-3 system led by ‘ball-playing centre-back’ Conor Coady?

Very few. Although Coady’s commitment has never been in question, his career trajectory suggested he would retire in 10 years’ time with the reputation of being a standard Championship ball-winner.

Since Santo moved the Liverpudlian into a back-three, given him the confidence to take time on the ball and be selective with his passing, he has not only played the best football of his career, but played it in a way he never previously expected.

Coady’s development and evolution epitomizes Santo’s enthusiasm and desire for technical excellence.

Has the investment from Fosun International and the connections with super-agent Jorge Mendes helped Wolves? Of course it has; and the signings of Ruben Neves, Helder Costa and Willy Boly, all of European pedigree, have been huge.

Santo’s coaching though has been equally important; he has given Wolves a coherent strategy that has been key to their success; for that, he deserves every plaudit that comes his way.

Neil Warnock (Cardiff City)

It is fair to say that Neil Warnock will never be universally liked. His accusation of Nuno Santo lacking ‘a bit of class’ for forgetting to shake hands in post-match celebration after last month’s 1-0 defeat to Wolves seems rather hypocritical from a man who has, himself, seen fit to re-write many rules of managerial etiquette.

And yet, what Warnock has delivered on the field cannot be questioned. When he took over at Cardiff City back in October 2016, they were second from bottom, had failed to score in 64% of their games and were yet to beat a side outside the bottom three.

His first act was to bring in centre-back Sol Bamba, who made an instant impact: a man-of-the-match performance in Warnock’s first game in charge, a 2-1 home victory over Bristol City. That Severnside Derby performance set the template for progression; power throughout the side and balls into the box at any opportunity, be that open play, set pieces or even Aron Gunnarsson’s long throws.

Cardiff managed a top half finish that year and, thanks to excellent summer additions, they have won automatic promotion this term. Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, a free transfer from Walsall, has kept 19 clean sheets this season, although centre-back Sean Morrison’s leadership has also been key to that.

Winger Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, a free-transfer from Rochdale, has added much-needed pace and quality down the right flank while Callum Paterson, signed on a Bosman from Hearts to play at right-back, has proved influential in midfield.

Credit for the development of these players must go to the wily campaigner who leads them, his passion for the game being just as strong now as it was when he started managing at Gainsborough Trinity in 1980.

Love Warnock or hate him, you cannot ignore him.

Paul Hurst (Shrewsbury Town)

An honourable mention should go to Paul Cook and Tony Mowbray, who have managed expectations superbly to lead promotions at Wigan and Blackburn respectively and deserve every credit.

Paul Hurst may or may not guide Shrewsbury Town to promotion, but regardless of the outcome of the play-offs this month, he gets onto our list. He inherited a side struggling at the foot of the division, lacking confidence, quality and a coherent playing identity: Hurst has given them all of those things.

Salop’s high-intensity pressing that starts from loanee Carlton Morris up top, allows them to win the ball in good areas and threaten in the transitional phases. When they need composure, attacking midfielder Jon Nolan rarely comes up short and excels at linking play together; he seemingly enjoys the best football of his career when working under Hurst.

The same can be said of Aristote Nsiala, whose aerial power is complimented by the intelligence of centre-back partner Mat Sadler.

The Shrews have had to face challenges: key ball-winner Abu Ogogo has picked up the occasional injury while attacking left-back Junior Brown had a longer-term lay-off, though Omar Beckles’ composure as a centre-back allowed him to fill the latter void with relative ease.

The team would have suffered a damaging third straight defeat in December, when they were losing by one goal at MK Dons, but Shaun Whalley, who has been a shining light on the wing all season, curled the ball into the far corner out of the blue in a moment that felt defining.

Shrewsbury have both the work ethic to keep out the opposition – with 11 home clean sheets this season – and the ability to open up the opposition when the moment comes.

Gareth Ainsworth (Wycombe)

Back in 2015-16, Wycombe Wanderers were cost a place in the play-offs by two things. Firstly, a lack of creativity: they only scored more than once in one game after the turn of the year. Secondly, a dreadful finale, which saw them take three points from their final seven games.

At that time, there were question marks about their one-dimensional style of play, which relied so heavily on full-backs Michael Harriman and Joe Jacobson’s crossing from deep. Was this the time for Gareth Ainsworth to try something different?

On the contrary. Target man Adebayo Akinfenwa, whose substitute appearances had been crucial to AFC Wimbledon’s play-off success, publicly encouraged managers to ‘hit me up on WhatsApp’ after victory at Wembley and Ainsworth made him his marquee signing for the summer.

‘Da Beast’ top scored for the Chairboys in 2016-17, before being a pivotal cog in this season’s promotion winners, who have scored an impressive 79 goals; 34 more than they managed the season before Bayo joined.

Ironically, the style of play hasn’t changed at all: Wycombe still get balls into the box at any opportunity. The difference though was that while two seasons ago, they didn’t have a striker with both the physicality to hold the ball off defenders and the intelligence to bring others into play, qualities Akinfenwa has in abundance.

Ainsworth’s main man has given Wycombe not a Plan B, but the tools to perfect Plan A.

Managers Departed

Last man down

Graham Westley
Graham Westley
(Stevenage)
16th February
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