Five League One and Two Managers to follow in Dean Smith’s Premier League footsteps

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 05 October 2020, 13:29

Sunday night was a dream for Aston Villa boss Dean Smith, who inspired his boyhood club to thrash English football’s dominant force 7-2, bagging seven for the first time in 25 years.

Smith, though, needed to cut his cloth at Walsall for five years before moving to Brentford and then taking the Villa job – which shows that lower league clubs play a huge role in developing this country’s managerial talent.

Who in League One and League Two, yet to manage in the top two divisions, can follow in Smith’s footsteps?

We examine five candidates...

Richie Wellens

Richie Wellens has done an extraordinary job at Swindon Town.

When he first took charge of the Robins in November 2018, they were languishing 17th in League One and because of local distrust of Lee Power, there was scepticism that the chairman had taken the cheap option on a manager who had relegated Oldham.

Look a little closer at Wellens’ ‘Tics tenure, though, and his side would have finished 13th had the 2017-18 season started when he took charge.

The former midfielder gets his teams playing attacking football and Swindon have lit up League One with their incisive, free-flowing moves in 3-1 and 4-2 home victories over Rochdale and Burton respectively, looking a huge threat in transition.

Jack Payne has thrived in four of his last five stints at this level and brings craft in an attacking midfield role while Matt Smith, on loan from Arsenal, has started the season superbly since joining on loan from Arsenal.

Along with young wide talents in Jonny Smith and Jordan Stevens, Swindon have a proven poacher in Brett Pitman, who can be relied upon to take on the goalscoring mantle left by Eoin Doyle.

Wellens will want to iron out some defensive issues from the first four games but he will also be extremely pleased with how dangerous his side have looked going forward.

The Mancunian motivator has got Swindon back on an upward trajectory and could do likewise for any fallen Championship club.


Swindon Manager: Richie Wellens

Ryan Lowe

Most managers only need to win one promotion from League Two to get a shot at League One, but deeply sad circumstances at Bury meant Ryan Lowe needed to repeat the trick.

The Liverpudlian led Plymouth Argyle to a top-three berth, playing some great football in a possession-based 3-1-4-2 setup in the process.

Lowe had the credentials to convince Lewis MacLeod, a respectable Championship performer with Brentford, to join the Devoners and agree a loan deal for left-sider Jerome Opoku, outstanding at this level last season for Accrington Stanley.

George Cooper, meanwhile, is a technical but enigmatic attacking midfielder who Lowe converted last season into a left wing-back; Cooper clearly enjoyed that new role enough to want to rejoin his manager again this season.

Lowe’s knowledge of League Two will help him higher up the pyramid, as evidenced by the acquisition of Panutche Camara – not a massively exciting signing from Crawley on paper, yet the Bissau-Guinean has impressed in the early weeks by bringing boundless energy in midfield.

Lowe has both the innovative ideas to appeal to Championship chairmen, but also the man-management qualities to inspire players on an emotional level and that could be a fantastic combination.


Plymouth Manager: Ryan Lewis

Michael Duff

Sean Dyche leaving Burnley seems a long way off, so it’s possible that by the time the ‘Ginger Mourinho’ does seek a new challenge, Michael Duff will have progressed sufficiently as a manager to be a viable replacement.

The Northern Irishman has a great relationship with Dyche, having worked as Burnley Under-23s boss prior to taking the Cheltenham job.

After a 10-game winless run at the start of his reign, Duff has done an excellent job in Gloucestershire, turning the Robins from relegation candidates into promotion contenders.

Cheltenham suffered Play-Off heartache in last season’s Semi-Final with Northampton, but have bounced back well with comfortable wins over Tranmere and Leyton Orient and look to be among the top seven too.

Honest and down to earth, Duff has built a 3-5-2 outfit possessing enough quality on the ball to open teams up with some excellent patterns of play, but also enough height and physicality to carry out the raw fundamentals.

The former centre-back uses the loan market very wisely, too and after discovering the likes of Owen Evans, Jacob Greaves and Jake Doyle-Hayes last season, he has struck gold once again with West Brom’s Finn Azaz, who has delivered several bright games in midfield.

If Duff can get Cheltenham promoted this season, bigger clubs may sit up and take notice.

Michael Flynn

Few EFL pundits had Newport County finishing in the top half of League Two this season let alone challenging for promotion.

After a regressive but still respectable 2019-20 campaign in midtable, many had almost forgotten the value of having an excellent manager.

Michael Flynn has worked miracles at Rodney Parade by inspiring the great escape in 2017, masterminding a Play-Off finish in 2018-19 and outperforming budgetary rank each season.

Perhaps one thing that has dissuaded Championship clubs from gambling on Flynn has been the direct style of football he has been associated with; the Pillgwenlly-born boss’ game plan had often revolved around Jamille Matt knock-downs for Padraig Amond.

This year, though, Matt has left for Forest Green and while the arrival of Ryan Taylor means the Exiles have the option to go direct, they play on the floor a lot more.

Flynn has successfully converted midfield controller Matt Dolan into a ‘quarter-back’ flanked by impressive Swansea loanee Brandon Cooper and stalwart Mickey Demetriou, while Liam Shephard looks an excellent addition at right wing-back and Scott Twine has brought quality too.

The 39-year-old, who excels at bringing people together and creating a siege mentality that has allowed his side to record numerous cup upsets, already has experience in professional management and a lot of potential to improve.

Simon Weaver

Harrogate Town have been on an extraordinary journey under Simon Weaver.

The boyhood Sheffield Wednesday fan works, unusually, with his father, Irving, who took over as chairman in 2012 – Simon had been in charge for three years at that point – with the club encountering financial problems.

Simon Weaver has progressed the club through the divisions and the Sulphurites have surged into the fourth tier playing aggressive, high-octane, pressing 4-4-2 football, which has helped them attain five points from a tricky opening four games as well as a creditable EFL Cup display at West Brom.

Target man Mark Beck is Town’s obvious reference point from deep but his strike-partner, Aaron Martin, is also a handful with his athleticism and persistence.

The duo can make life very difficult for centre-back pairings and sides that do not play three at the back often have to tuck their full-backs in deeper for extra protection which can disrupt their overall game plan.

Beck and Martin’s work allows wide midfielders George Thomson and Jack Muldoon to pick up scraps with their clever movement while Josh Falkingham and Lloyd Kerry patrol the midfield.

It has got to the stage where, because so few managers at a higher level play with two physical centre-forwards – it is so unfashionable – that nobody there is used to dealing with such a strategy and thus it could be surprisingly effective.

The trick to succeeding in modern football is being able to spot trends before they arise and if playing out from the back is the current norm, then maybe the way to gain leverage is to have a manager who will keep two imposing figures up top hassling and harrying.

Weaver could be an appealing outside option for higher placed clubs who are looking for ways to get ahead of the curve.

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Graham Coughlan
(Mansfield Town)
27th October
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