Football League 2018/19 Review: The Top Five Managers

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 08 May 2019, 10:00

2018/19 has been a great season for managerial brilliance in the EFL.

Many of the automatically promoted teams – Norwich, Sheffield United, Luton, Barnsley and Bury – achieved their goals without necessarily going on a massive summer spending splurge.

This shows that not only have those clubs recruited smartly this season, they also have very good coaches at the helm.

This piece celebrates the best of the bosses from the campaign – but with extra emphasis on crediting managers who were not quite as highly-regarded in pre-season as they are now.

We must therefore give honourable mentions to Chris Wilder, Marcelo Bielsa, Kenny Jackett, Lee Bowyer, John Coleman, Gareth Ainsworth, Michael Flynn, Paul Tisdale and Danny Cowley – all of them have done superbly but we already knew their capabilities.

Here’s our Top Five…

5. Wally Downes

Perhaps the most likeable thing about Wally Downes is that he is more committed to Wimbledon than he is to being a manager – he took the job not to seek control of a group, but to help the club he loves.

When Downes arrived in early December, his last experience as a number one had been an unsuccessful 2004 stint at Brentford – some would say his only qualification was being the one who fostered the Crazy Gang mentality during his playing days.

With the club desperate to have a Wimbledon legend lead the club back to its spiritual home of Plough Lane in 2020, was this an overly sentimental gesture?

The odds were stacked firmly against Downes, who inherited a side joint-bottom of League One with a meagre 14 points from 20, having scored just 14 goals.

Remarkably, he and Glyn Hodges kept Wimbledon up on goal difference: the West Londoners accrued 36 points from 26 after the change, top half form.


The 57-year-old has built a 3-5-2 outfit that is compliant with the shift in modern football: high-pressing from the front, attacking wing-backs in Toby Sibbick and Steve Seddon, with technicians like Anthony Wordsworth stepping onto second balls.

And yet, simultaneously, he has further connected the club with its core values: homegrown defenders like Will Nightingale and Paul Kalambayi provide the battling spirit that is a prerequisite for any Wimbledon side throughout the ages.

For Downes, the only way is up.

4. Grant McCann

Doncaster Rovers showed brief flashes of potential under Darren Ferguson last season.

For three-quarters of their games, the football was slow, pedestrian and one-dimensional: but then for 20-minute bursts, they would suddenly pick up the tempo and top marksman John Marquis would come alive.

What Grant McCann has done since replacing Ferguson in the summer is maintain the possession play whilst demanding longer spells of high-tempo football.

He has made adventurous tweaks: for example, every midfielder must now have a high level of technical ability, which means that Donny switch play with more assurance.

Benjamin Whiteman conducts from the base, evergreen James Coppinger opens play up with those dinked crosses and clever through balls, while Liverpool loanee Herbie Kane has been excellent from the left of the central three.

There has also been an injection of pace in wide areas, with Mallik Wilks from Leeds proving an inspired loan signing and Kieran Sadlier beginning to thrive on the left of the attack - Marquis remains potent as ever with 21 league goals.


To make it slightly sweeter for McCann, the team his side pipped to the final Play-Off spot was the club that sacked him - Peterborough United.

3. Daniel Stendel

Most head coaches taking over a club that has just been relegated would demand a full overhaul, but Daniel Stendel has almost gone the other way.

The squad that went down was a young group of players with potential to improve – and they had some pedigree for League One.

What Stendel has done is develop the players he has, whilst introducing a very well-co-ordinated 4-2-2-2 setup.

Cauley Woodrow and Mike-Steven Bahre are on paper the strikers – Woodrow has been excellent with 16 league goals – but both have the selflessness to drop into deep areas, vacating space for wide forwards Jacob Brown and Mamadou Thiam to drive into.

Barnsley have a strong midfield, too, with Alex Mowatt’s tenacity, control and sweet left foot combined with the effervescent energy of Cameron McGeehan: intense closing down as well as unpredictable movement and rotation in transition makes the Reds a difficult side to handle.

Liam Lindsay and Ethan Pinnock, meanwhile, have formed an excellent centre-back pairing that has kept 21 clean sheets – no professional team in England has kept more shut-outs than the Tykes.


Although promoted Barnsley will not return to the Championship with the same resources as many of their competitors, they will have a clear playing identity to believe in and that could give them a significant advantage.

2. Ryan Lowe

Ryan Lowe has shown every single quality that any manager could ever need in his first full season in the role.

Following a bottom-placed finish in League One, he has helped transform the mood in the camp from one of dejection and apathy to one of spirit, togetherness and belief – a process that, alone, some fans might have been happy to see from this season.

He has also shown tactical innovation.

After the 2017/18 horrors, it would have been tempting to trot out a ‘back-to-basics’ mantra and enforce tight gaps between units to attempt a solid start.

Instead, we have seen a modern 3-4-1-2 setup with full-backs at centre-back, a winger in Nicky Adams at wing-back, two number 10s in Danny Mayor and Jay O’Shea albeit with the latter a bit deeper and two strikers – normally Nicky Maynard and Dominic Telford.

The system has come together beautifully but it was a huge risk – credit goes to Lowe for not only having the idea, but also the audacity to execute it, because he would have been criticised for square pegs in round holes had results gone awry.

The last thing Lowe and the squad deserved in April, therefore, was the failure to pay wages – and major question marks arising about the club’s future, ongoing issues which remain of huge concern.

Lowe could not in any way reprimand his players at that point, so he had to show another side to his management: empathy, humility, loyalty and strong human qualities that were essential to leading players who were being treated unfairly by the club.

It was great that, despite all the club has and will continue to face, Lowe, players and fans could celebrate promotion.


1. Daniel Farke (and Stuart Webber)

Before Stuart Webber and then Daniel Farke hitched up in Norfolk, there were three main problems at Norwich City.

Firstly, they overinvested, secondly, they had no clear playing identity and thirdly, they were perceived as a secretive club perhaps reluctant to engage with supporters.

All three issues have been addressed emphatically by Webber, who has held everyone employed by the club to higher standards and whose refreshing honesty – he says what he thinks rather than what he thinks people want to hear - has re-energized natives.

Although the club listens to supporters in certain aspects, it has also shown a calm confidence in its plan for progression on and off the field.

When results were slightly uninspiring last season, Webber looked at what Farke was doing day in, day out on the training ground and concluded much of the groundwork was correct.

Farke, meanwhile, remained a composed presence – he does not show huge emotions after a goal, purely due to the importance of the team staying focused on the rest of the game.

Although the way the football has been executed this season has improved slightly, in terms of the speed and intensity, the style itself has not changed.

Norwich have scored a stunning 31 goals in the last 15-minutes of matches this season – and almost all of those goals have come from patient build-up play, with the team waiting for angles and openings to present themselves and holding onto the ball if they don’t.

The club’s devotion to youth development has been well-documented – Max Aarons, Jamal Lewis and Ben Godfrey have been revelations in the back-four – but there has also been a commitment to improving senior players.

The likes of Marco Stiepermann and Mario Vrancic were not uniformly rated for much of last season, yet through outstanding coaching they have grown to become mainstays in a title-winning team.


Norwich’s success proves, more than anything else, that if you truly, truly believe in something – then stick with it.

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Mark Cooper
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11th April
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