Are You Experienced? Old Pros in the Championship
The January transfer deadline is less than a week away now and message boards everywhere are heralding a cry for more experience to be added to Championship squads. The judicious addition of a central defender with a Premier League background or a proven striker could be enough to convert pretenders into serious challengers. An extra injection of class could elevate a team above the hoi polloi scrambling to avoid the drop into League One.
It’s held that the examples of Charlie Austin and Dwight Gayle are untypical. What your club needs to collect that fabled £90 million is a wise old head – or preferably several. Jason Roberts’ signing by Reading a year ago is the one that people remember but how often does the parachuting in of a famous name pay dividends and how do clubs in possession of a bevy of old pros compare with those who rely on youth or other methods? Just ask Derby County – they added Danny Mills, Laurent Robert, Robbie Savage and Alan Stubbs in the 2007-8 transfer window.
A study of current Championship squads provides a salutary lesson. The sparing addition of new blood can be of benefit, but more often than not, it can upset a squad’s equilibrium. A barrack room lawyer mentality can emerge to undermine the manager, especially if he is younger and less experienced than the newcomers, while an existing group of men happy to sit on their lengthy fat contracts can create dissent in the dressing room – water poisoners as the management speak of the day will label them.
Another over-arching reason why the assembly of too many egos is a bad idea is money. Even where the players are performing, the wages may be equivalent to the annual GDP of a small Pacific country. Hence, ignoring the potential of younger stars and those operating lower down the pyramid can have far reaching consequences further down the line – Preston North End and Coventry City are two teams which have paid the price for issuing too-long contracts and too much respect for exalted reputations.
In the main, those clubs that rely on an old pro recruitment policy find themselves in far more of a tangle than those who deploy alternative methods. There are exceptions of course and modifications include where a manager has called upon players he knows and trusts (Neil Warnock is the primary exponent of this) or where strong regional or municipal affiliations exist (step up Craig Bellamy and Jonathan Woodgate). More on these specific cases later.
In analysing which of the Championship 24 have embraced or avoided an old pro policy, I have generally disregarded players under the age of 25 (although several among these can be as diffident and attitudinally challenged as their elders) as well as that group which undeniably falls into the old pro category but which have enjoyed most of their careers below the top tier.
Hence, the former assemblage would number both permanent and temporary signings such as Jay Spearing, David Ngog, Conor Sammon and Adam Hammill while Jon Stead is perhaps the uber-example of the latter. Some old pros are doing well and this article is by no means designed to tar all footballers over a certain age with a poor reputation, but I am attempting to take an overall view and to assess whether the hiring of the old pro is the panacea most fans seem to think it is.
Stats have been garnered from Soccerbase and predate Christmas.
The addition of Jonathan Greening, the author so far of five appearances, has seen Barnsley, one of the division’s less wealthy concerns, go down the route tentatively and an encouraging win at Millwall does provide sign of hope. Greening, however, had a generally wretched time of it at Nottingham Forest, from whom he still collects his wages, and the Tykes’ experience with Marlon Harewood, another Tricky Tree of yore, should provide a warning to Keith Hill.
Harewood has netted once in seven starts and has arrived from the bench on ten further occasions – so is providing little value for money. He has contributed more, however, than Mido, still only 29 and one of the zaniest Football League signings of all time. The Egyptian has turned out once as a substitute and received his customary yellow card.
It is probably fair to be softer on those for whom relegation is comparatively recent and whose list of employees largely dates back to Premier League days. That said, the Blues had a year to attempt to get their financial house in better shape but were hampered by the likes of £6 million Nikola Zigić hanging on like limpets.
Everywhere you look at St. Andrews, you see old pros – from Stephen Carr to the ‘poisonous squirrel’ Paul Robinson; from the newly acquired Papa Bouba Diop to Newcastle cast off Peter Lovenkrands.
Some still continue to do the business – Marlon King has netted 13 in 23 and the still relatively youthful Curtis Davies managed a place in the Championship team of the year last season. Therein lies Lee Clark’s conundrum – the club’s financial situation requires that these worthies (along with Darren Ambrose who has just 3 appearances this season) be shed from the wage bill but a slip into the third tier cannot be contemplated. Clark responded by throwing in the youngsters against Burnley recently.
Newly relegated, so parachute payments will have tempted them into keeping their stars, we have witnessed before how a bright start can dissolve come winter as a team is dragged down to the standard around them. The headline signing of Jordan Rhodes signalled an intention to part company with the old lag model but a few are continuing to linger – notably Morten Gamst Pedersen, at Ewood for over eight years now, hometown man David Dunn and gnarled Frenchman Gaël Givet.
That said, the arrival of Danny Murphy hardly exhibited blue sky thinking while Nuno Gomes and the younger Colin Kazim-Richards and Simon Vukčević suggested that Rovers had no intention of hanging about and taking a risk by doing things the responsible way. The slide has therefore been worrisome.
Several players have stuck with the Tangerines throughout their recent adventures, most notably Ian Evatt and Alex Baptiste, while the club have generally taken youth as their watchword – Matt Phillips and one of this winter’s most impressive youngsters Tom Ince are illustrative of their preferences.
The exception is Phillips’ namesake Kevin of course and while Blackpool will be more than satisfied with his attitude and contribution to the cause over the course of his time at the club, this year has seen him used more fleetingly. Indeed, the west Lancashire outfit are still coming to terms with the turmoil wrought by Ian Holloway’s departure and are ever more likely to look abroad to bolster a squad that still has the talent to challenge.
Massively unfortunate in that two of last year’s most striking emerging talents Stuart Holden and Chung-Yong Lee have suffered major injury problems, Owen Coyle’s sacking exacerbated Bolton’s problems.
Put simply, many of the existing members of staff have failed to convince us a Premier League challenge can be launched and Darren Pratley and Chris Eagles have spent most of their careers in the Football League in any case. Stephen Warnock and Keith Andrews, the latter fresh from reasonably useful performances at Euro 2012, do fall into the old pro grouping but the Trotters have generally avoided adding too many old timers to those the club already need to pay. Dougie Freedman’s job is a rebuilding one and to date, he’s just about engineered an improvement.
Brighton and Hove Albion
Just as those descending from the top flight can be saddled with a wage bill of gargantuan proportions, those emanating from less exalted climes have no such issues. Witness how Norwich and Southampton’s hungry squads prospered and witness also Brighton and Hove Albion’s hugely encouraging season and a half back at this level.
Where money has been spent, it has been on the up and coming, even if Craig Mackail-Smith remains a qualified success at best, and the Seagulls call upon experience only when truly needed. Hence, the unfussy goalkeeping of Tomasz Kuszczak has been a boon and returning hero Dean Hammond has been re-recruited. Even Wayne Bridge, whom one might have expected to fall into the prima donna breed, has buckled down. Let’s remember that the former Chelsea man was more sinned against than sinning when it comes to internecine disputes.
Derek McInnes’ employment of Jody Morris might just be one of the worst examples of how old pros can add little to a club, as well as endangering his own reputation – one that clings by a thread despite the Robins having the best of a 1-1 draw at Ipswich immediately before Christmas. Aside from that, however, the denizens of Ashton Gate have been busy attempting to secure final planning permission for a new stadium, a process which we outlined in a recent post.
Jon Stead’s Premier League days are a distant memory even if he pretty much epitomises the underperforming seasoned professional and it’s amazing to contemplate how the togetherness of the Gary Johnson era has given way to such a ragbag environment. George Elokobi arrived after a decent enough EPL year but sustained a nasty injury on this first appearance. City need home grown talent to come through while the financial climate remains uncertain.
Eddie Howe left the Clarets in the lurch somewhat recently but a point on his favour is that he didn’t saddle the club with underachievers. Jason Shackell and Ross Wallace have both been around the block a bit and I would argue that the latter deserves to have spent more of his career in the top flight than he has managed. With Charlie Austin banging in the goals, Sean Dyche is unlikely to be tempted to get ahead of himself – remember Chris Waddle and Ian Wright at Turf Moor?
Cardiff are leading the way with a round 50 points and Craig Bellamy’s importance to the Bluebirds’ continues to be emphasized – his unerring strike against Leicester providing victory when the home team had dominated.
One wouldn’t expect Bellamy to be a shy and retiring presence in the dressing room but with Malky Mackay providing a firm hand, his experience and ability to conjure something from nothing is the icing on a gateau very much baked with Football League ingredients.
Peter Whittingham may be as equally important as the former Liverpool man and he started out at Aston Villa but he, Kevin McNaughton and Jordon Mutch have carried out most of their best work outside the top echelon to date and Cardiff largely rely on players on the rise rather than those whose best days are behind them. Ditto Heiðar Helguson after making minimal impact at QPR while stalwart striker Robert Earnshaw is yet to feature this campaign.
One wouldn’t expect too many Premier League journeymen to be grazing in the Valley after the root and branch changes conducted by Chris Powell in 2011. Having gotten rid of an entire team, the accent is very much on unproven players and if 2012-13 has so far had its dicey moments, the élan with which the Addicks swept to the League 1 title is evidence of the soundness of this approach. Ricardo Fuller alone, a man not unaccustomed to a few bust ups, is the exception, having netted in a quarter of the matches he has played, while Rob Hulse is a confirmed Championship boy.
Tipped by all and sundry, this writer included, to drop into League 1 this year, Palace have proved everyone wrong with some thrilling displays and it’s not only been about Wilfried Zaha.
The arrival of Danny Gabbidon for the Londoners’ most recent fixtures has been an exception as the combination of underrated foreigners (Julian Speroni, Jonathan Parr and Mile Jedinak), lower league campaigners (Owen Garvan and Glenn Murray) and eye catching youngsters (Zaha and Yannick Bolasie) has propelled the Eagles to the heady heights of a serious promotion challenge. Ian Holloway has carried on where the departing Freedman laid off and theirs is one of the most heart warming tales of the season so far.
I have had it in mind for a while now to pen a piece on Derby’s slow progress under Nigel Clough but it would be an appreciative study. In these days of chronic overspending and the demand for instant gratification, the sustainable way that the Rams have gone about their business has been admirable – especially given the temptation to spend big given the club’s incredible crowds.
But memories of the Lionel Pickering era loom large and the impact of that 11 point season and the signings I mentioned above won’t go away and although there must be fans who wish for a quicker return to the main table than looks likely currently, most are simply happy to still have their boss while Forest lurch from one disastrous HR decision to another. Hence, Pride Park is mercifully free of fanciful dans.
The Terriers will be reasonably happy with their first year back at Level 2 for some time, especially given the upping sticks of Jordan Rhodes a few weeks into proceedings. For now, they are just about sticking to their principles and it’s youth that has helped them achieve solidity in mid table.
This analysis falls down when attempting to assess Jermaine Beckford’s likely impact. A well-known player for sure, he failed to make the grade at Everton and struggled at Leicester too. Where he did create havoc was for Leeds in their nadir days and there have to be doubts about his potential now. Otherwise, Huddersfield are pretty free of the tendency to panic buy and Simon Grayson’s track record of nurturing local produce should stand them in good stead.
If ever a manager might be suspected of harbouring old pro tendencies, it’s Steve Bruce although to balance that, a career at Manchester United will have made him aware of Premier Leaguers’ true qualities. Hence, his addition to Abdoulaye Faye after a successful season for the Senegalese man mountain at West Ham was astute while elsewhere, he has relied on the emerging talents of James Chester and Sone Aluko along with the odd oldtimer surviving from the previous regime – Liam Rosenior and Robert Koren have already earned their corn. For some reason, Bruce has a reputation in the game as an iffy manager – he’s doing a lot to prove that theory wrong this year.
The Tractor Boys are one of the year’s car crash stories and one of the case studies that provide this analysis with much of its credence. Paul Jewell’s habit of bumbling around the Premier League relegation zone with a range of clubs always threatened to lead him into poor decision-making and so it proved.
Jason Scotland and Michael Chopra constitutes a strike force that never made it in the Premier League, even if both perhaps deserved greater opportunity, while the autumn acquisition of Nigel Reo-Coker, the name at the top of every message board thread devoted to available footballers at the time, has not produced the results one might reasonably expect.
Reo-Coker has played seven times including appearances in the 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace and 6-0 reverse at Leicester and another Premier League geriatric Danny Higginbotham also turned out in both games. Ipswich desperately need to switch the focus back to youth – whether wizened old Mick McCarthy is the man to achieve this is debatable of course.
Although Leigh Bromby is yet to make an appearance this season, his fellow survivors from Sheffield United’s unlucky, Tevez-blasted Premier League season in 2006-7, Michael Tonge, Paddy Kenny and Michael Brown are all still relying on Neil Warnock for employment.
Warnock was chipper after the completion of the club’s long overdue takeover was followed by an excellent 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough but the uncertainty that started when Garath McCleary came to Elland Road and scored four in March was given a further dose of the jitters by a second half capitulation against the same opponents on Boxing Day.
For a Leeds providing house room to the aforementioned ex-Blades, the returning Danny Pugh, veteran East Anglian Adam Drury, Football League perennial David Norris and El-Hadji Diouf looks a lot less strong than the Leeds of Robert Snodgrass, Johnny Howson and Bradley Johnson. Performances have been good in places but Warnock’s combative style, reliance on old methods and deference to those he knows might lead to ever diminishing returns.
The excesses of the Sven Göran Eriksson era have given way to the far more sensible stylings of Nigel Pearson and hence, Leicester City are making a good fist of a promotion challenge when 2011-12 was supposed to be their year.
My fellow blogger Lloyd remarked on seeing them crumble to defeat at the Madejski Stadium in the Spring that there were too many Foxes with too high opinions of themselves – from superannuated Sean St. Ledger to Danny ‘I used to play for Man United’ Drinkwater.
So Pearson deserves credit for turning things round – even David Nugent is threatening to help people forget that goal against Andorra while Paul Konchesky’s up and down career is perhaps once again at the point that we dare to suggest he is quite good again in public. Leicester have their old pros but the group’s no nonsense management has helped the potentially damaging effect of this dissipate.
Boro have treated us to two waves of the fat and overpaid in recent years – first the Gareth Southgate vintage; and then a mini-version with a Scottish hue, led by Gordon Strachan and almost as expensive. The remnants of the latter clan are still with the club and this season has seen the Teessiders flirt with these tendencies.
Tony Mowbray no doubt felt that the fall off in form after a promising start in 2011-12 should not be repeated this and that the presence of Andre Amougou (née Bikey) Jonathan Woodgate, Grant Leadbitter and Ishmael Miller will stiffen resolve.
Leadbitter, to give him his due, has never offered less than 100% and Miller is still young – although such as been his chequered progress since being touted as a wunderkind at Manchester City that one perhaps doubts his possession of ‘all the attributes’ will ever be enough.
You wouldn’t expect Kenny Jackett to get involved in any of this nonsense, even with his former club Watford enduring such a remarkable changeover in personnel. Nor has he – quietly tweaking a team that had started to run out of steam last year with the addition of a couple of smart loan signings; Chris Wood most notably.
Danny Shittu has come in and done a job and Darius Henderson remains crucial to the Lions but the main thrust of their excellence has come from the upwardly, not downwardly mobile.
Thrown into turmoil this week, Forest have helped themselves to a brimful of old’uns on several occasions since it became apparent how distant the glory days were. Hence, the squad remains peppered with ex-Prem men of varying experience.
If Andy Reid has blossomed once more as a returning hero and Danny Collins has added strength to the backline, Greg Halford, Alan Hutton and ex-£7 million pound man Jermaine Jenas evoke expectation of an episode of ‘I Love 2005’. Injury has also hampered the progress of a man who didn’t quite cut the mustard for West Brom in Simon Cox while Henri Lansbury could eventually be in the next wave of old pros who have shuttled from club to club in search of a long lasting home.
Given that one Alex McLeish has now taken over at the City Ground, don’t expect a halt to these trends.
Posh, like Millwall, are too tiny and survive on gates that are too low to be able to tempt the big boys – so Darren Ferguson has done well to unearth another gem in Dwight Gayle, even if his sides fail to appreciate the importance of defending.
The club are bottom but a 3-0 win over Wolves following on from that amazing 5-4 defeat of Bolton augur well – the window could be used usefully and the addition of a central defender with rock hard sensibilities and leadership qualities would constitute the correct way to go about importing experience.
Led by another old dog in Dave Jones, one might expect Wednesday to scour the scrapheap, especially given their past overspending. So it has come to pass with Jay Bothroyd, two years after donning an England shirt, joining the Owls and posting a miserable 1 goal in 14 matches.
If you are being generous, there has always been more about Bothroyd’s game than poaching and his Indian Summer at Cardiff came about due to his fine link play. The answer he does not appear to be, however, and nor, we can say with near certainty, will be Mamady Sidibe; a desperation loan signing from Stoke if ever there was one.
Then we have David Prutton, currently out on loan at Scunthorpe, never as good as when he first donned Forest red and never the completer of more than a 100 games for any of his subsequent teams – 9 yellow cards says it all while two rated kids of yore, Chris Kirkland and Stephen Bywater are among Hillsborough’s goalkeeping fraternity.
This season’s Watford Football Club is the Black Swan of this and any other analysis. So unprecedented has the newfound policy to base growth on the sharing of loanees with Granada and Udinese that we really need to sit back and assess how it’s all worked after a couple of seasons – while refreshingly, it’s the stated aim of the Vicarage Road hierarchy not to rush things.
So don’t expect Gianfranco Zola to make a bid for Darren Bent or Kevin Nolan any time soon. Nor, somewhat more sadly, can John Eustace expect to add significantly to the two games he has featured in so far in 2012-13, both victories by the way. Ditto Nyron Nosworthy who has made 8 appearances.
Boxing Day’s horror show 3-0 defeat at home to Peterborough put considerable pressure on Ståle Solbakken and Adam Bate recently reflected on what a nightmare twelve months it has been at Molineux in When Saturday Comes’ review of the best and worst of 2012.
A large contingent of those who helped Wolves to promotion have stayed with the Old Gold all the way through their Premier League sojourn including Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Karl Henry, Kevin Foley and Richard Stearman and it could be that when the long contracts expire, the midlanders will be looking to freshen up.
Others also linger from the Premier League including Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt, Nenad Milijaš and Ronald Zubar while acquiring Jermaine Pennant is unlikely to instil the mental toughness needed.
In summary, A Wayne Bridge or a Craig Bellamy can work wonders but too much change to a squad can create a drastic imbalance. I’d argue therefore, that the careful addition of an old pro in a position of weakness can work – but wholesale revamping of an XI, even a struggling one, rarely leads to improvement.
There are plenty of exceptions across the leagues but a major note of caution needs to be sounded when the recruitment of experienced Premier League players is contemplated. I recall the club I support tempting Les Ferdinand and Martin Keown to the Madejski Stadium a few years back and it was only when they were replaced by younger players that Reading started to improve. Nor did the change of focus do any harm to club finances – the role of the old pro is one more subplot in the struggle to keep football league clubs working within their means.