Five EFL managers who have surprised us in 2020

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 30 December 2020, 15:32

Rather than name the five best EFL managers in 2020, we thought we would pick out the five who have most enhanced their reputations.

Honourable mentions go to the usual suspects – Neil Warnock, Gareth Ainsworth, John Coleman and Michael Flynn et al for their continued brilliance – but EFL pundit Gabriel Sutton picks five names that were less established this time last year.

Steve Cooper

Steve Cooper has built on the identity Graham Potter left him 18 months ago.

Potter, on a low budget, built a smooth, possession-based side with young players and delivered competitive results in 2018-19, with Swansea City just missing out on the Play-Off places.

Cooper has taken the Swans on further, securing 6th spot last season and initiating a strong promotion push this term, with his side entering New Year 2nd in the Championship.

It may be fair to say that the rotation of movement under the current incumbent is not quite as fluid, but the South Wales outfit are stronger in other ways.

The 41-year-old has elite contacts from his time managing England Under-17s to World Cup glory so, after attracting Marc Guehi, Connor Gallagher and Rhian Brewster to the Liberty Stadium last season, he has used his relationships once again this year.

Cooper brought Guehi and Freddie Woodman back to the SA1 club whilst adding Morgan Gibbs-White, though the first half of the Wolves loanee’s stint with the Swans has been affected by injury.

Gibbs-White’s absence means Cooper is yet to settle on the ideal third forward to join the speedy Jamal Lowe and the technical Andre Ayew in his side’s front three, though Yan Dhanda has shown flashes of potential in a withdrawn role.

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Swansea Manager: Steve Cooper

Ayew and centre-back Ryan Bennett are the only players over 27 to have started in Boxing Day’s 2-0 win at QPR and yet, while defensive vulnerability is often associated with young sides led by a former youth coach, this Swansea outfit has been solid and reliable.

Cooper’s troops conceded just 12 goals in 21 games prior to Wednesday’s hosting of Reading which shows, under his management, Swansea have the talent and mobility that naturally comes with a young side, without suffering the normal pitfalls.

Michael Appleton

Some Lincoln City fans were not sure about Michael Appleton initially.

The Imps had started their first season back at this level strongly before legendary brothers Danny and Nicky Cowley left for Huddersfield, making Appleton – who has perhaps a different outlook on the game – something of a stepfather figure.

The former Leicester assistant started slowly and January recruitment did not instantly improve Appleton’s side, who won eight times in 26 league games.

Outsiders wholly familiar with Appleton’s previous successes – and the fact he needed a transitional season at Oxford before delivering his best results – had perhaps more faith in Lincoln’s manager than his own fans.

When lockdown hit, Appleton along with the management and recruitment team used the interlude to do some extra scouting – to their credit, they found an obscure gem in Lewis Montsma.

The FC Dordrecht recruit has not only been an excellent centre-back with class in possession, he has also posed a goalscoring threat both in and outside the box making him, remarkably, Lincoln’s second top goalscorer with eight.

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Lincoln Manager: Michael Appleton

Often assisting Montsma with set pieces is Lincoln’s top goalscorer, Jorge Grant, who has brought lots of quality from the left and enjoyed his best season for two years under Appleton’s guidance, after underwhelming spells with Mansfield and Luton.

Appleton trained with David Johnson at Manchester United’s academy as a youngster and the striker has since had a son, Brennan Johnson, who has joined Lincoln on loan from Nottingham Forest.

Johnson has starred wide of focal point Tom Hopper in Appleton’s 4-3-3, showing his ability to drop in and link play but then burst forward and stretch defences in the other direction, making him a hard player to read.

Appleton consistently improves individuals and, while at Oxford, he produced numerous players who have since gone on to operate in the Premier League – thanks to his work, there may well be a few future stars at Sincil Bank, too.

David Artell

David Artell may be the most underrated manager in the EFL.

The former centre-back’s achievement in leading Crewe Alexandra to promotion from League Two last season was arguably more significant than that of Ryan Lowe and Richie Wellens, who accomplished the feat with bigger budgets at Plymouth Argyle and Swindon respectively.

And yet, when it comes to Championship jobs, Lowe has already been linked with various posts and to a lesser extent Wellens before he took the Salford job, while Artell is rarely mentioned in the same conversation.

This may be for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, the characteristics of the board Artell has been working with means he was given a reasonable if not generous amount of time to build a competitive side.

While Lowe and Wellens delivered instant success, the Alex endured three four-game losing streaks in 2017-18, Artell’s first full season in charge and were 18th at Christmas 2018.

Secondly, handling the media is a bigger facet of Championship management – while Lowe and Wellens are driven, charismatic speakers, Artell has a slightly looser style, which may not translate quite so well to a different level.

Thirdly, much of the conversation around Crewe is the potential of their young talent.

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Crewe Manager: David Artell

Right-back all-rounder Perry Ng, deep-lying playmaker Ryan Wintle as well as the dream left-sided duo of Harry Pickering and Charlie Kirk are all talked about as having top flight potential.

Goalkeeping distributor Will Jaaskelainen and vibrant midfielder Tommy Lowery follow that quartet closely on the conveyor belt, along with Luke Offord and many others.

With so much young talent on display, there is seemingly a conversation every week about which player could make the step up, to the point at which the manager’s involvement eludes the airtime.

And yet, Artell inherited each of those players when they were at a far earlier stage of development and deserves great credit for not only coaching each of them to new individual heights, but also improving the team collectively by establishing clear patterns of play.

It is a massive achievement for Crewe to have not only won promotion in 2020, but to find themselves entering New Year 9th in their first season back in League One with nine wins in 20 – shot data suggests those results are nothing more than they and Artell deserves.

The former Gibraltar international may never get the recognition his work merits and, likely, will have to take Crewe into the Championship to get a chance of managing there.

It’s a credit to Artell’s work, though, that the possibility of Crewe ending their 15-year 2nd tier exile is no longer a mere pipe dream. 

Chris Beech

When Rochdale won promotion from League Two in 2013-14, then spent three consecutive seasons on the coattails of the League One Play-Offs, the name on everyone’s lips was Keith Hill.

On possibly the third-tier’s lowest budget, the Dale boss was performing miracles to make Championship football seem a faintly realistic possibility for a club that had spent much of its history in the fourth-tier.

Remembering just one name, rather than a whole coaching team, suits us as casual observers, but it may not reflect the complexity of the situation – and perhaps, just as important as Hill was the man whose name few outsiders spoke.

Chris Beech was assistant during that time and, since the duo parted, Hill has struggled to endear himself to Bolton and Tranmere fans, while his former right-hand man is flavour of the year at Carlisle United.

Beech re-organized the Cumbrians last season and have maintained that solidity this year, as Aaron Hayden has formed a strong centre-back partnership with Rhys Bennett.

Carlisle have also been a joy to watch going forward, where the intelligence of Lewis Alessandra has complimented the searing pace of Omari Patrick and Josh Kayode.

The latter’s long throws and midfielder Callum Guy’s deliveries have made the CA1 outfit a threat from dead ball scenarios, with defender by trade Jon Mellish finding form to vindicate his midfield role.

Beech may deserve credit for Carlisle’s excellent form, but who knows? Maybe it’s all down to assistant Gavin Skelton?

Derek Adams

The fact Derek Adams is currently succeeding emphatically at Morecambe might not be an utter surprise, given that the Scot led Plymouth Argyle to promotion from this level in 2016-17.

In fact, three of the former Ross County’s boss’ four seasons in Devon went very well, with a League Two Play-Off Final appearance the year before they went up and a respectable 7th-placed finish the year after.

Adams’ reputation, though, took a significant hit in his final term in charge of Argyle.

His side leaked 78 goals in his 45 games in charge that year and failed to score 16 times, often playing long to a striker in Freddie Ladapo who is not a target man.

When Adams was criticized for his decisions, he banned local press before presiding over a run of five consecutive defeats.

Such a painful experience was always likely to be a learning curve, but Adams’ previous achievements with Argyle should not be forgotten – and he returned to Morecambe matured, revitalized and rejuvenated.

The Glaswegian kept the Shrimps up comfortably last term thanks to some excellent January recruitment, before turning the low-budgeted Lancashire outfit into promotion contenders.

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Morecambe Manager: Derek Adams

It helps Adams that his current side has a reliable target man in Cole Stockton who, unlike Ladapo in his previous job, wins the initial duels to bring goalscoring midfielders like Adam Phillips and Aaron Wildig and potent wide forwards like Carlos Mendes Gomes into play.

Alex Kenyon and/or Yann Songo’o bring athleticism and protection at the base of midfield, as Toumani Diagouraga offers a more technical presence, while Sam Lavelle is a maturing young captain at the heart of defence.

It has happened before that Morecambe are near the top of League Two at certain stages of the season, but this feels different.

Firstly, the LA4 outfit are in the top seven going into New Year, when in previous seasons they have dropped off much earlier. 

Secondly, shot data suggests Morecambe have by no means smash-and-grabbed their way here, even if anomalies of heavy defeats to Cambridge and Crawley have distorted their goal difference.

The Shrimps are rightly in the mix – and Adams deserves all the credit coming his way.

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