Ten for 2010: The best Football League teams of the year
Christmas swiftly approaches. It seems like a fitting time to reflect on the calendar year in the Football League and take a look at the teams that have excelled over the last twelve months. Some of those listed have suffered dips in form at some stage or another, but nearly all have managed notable achievements.
Rochdale have struggled to adapt to life in League One following promotion, but the fact they were promoted at all is enough to merit a place on this list. Keith Hill’s challenge now is to make sure Dale can compete in the second half of a gruelling campaign. Time to keep the faith at Spotland.
9. Newcastle United
It’s back to the intense media spotlight of the top flight for Carroll, Nolan et al. They slummed it for a few long months back at the start of the year and, for that, they squeeze into the top ten here.
I am one of those that believe Chris Hughton did a superb job in leading the Magpies to the Championship title at the first attempt and that not just anyone could have achieved what he did with the club. Mike Ashley may beg to differ.
Reading had managed just five league wins in the opening five months of the 2009/10 season. It all turned around for the Royals with a victorious FA Cup third round replay at Liverpool and the appointment of Brian McDermott in place of Brendan Rodgers.
From New Year’s Day onwards, Reading won 15 of their 28 games to stage an unlikely late bid for the play-offs, ending in a similar position to their current status – four points off the top six with a game in hand. The difference this time being that McDermott’s men can build on their start rather than being forced to play catch-up.
After going so close in 2009, Kenny Jackett’s Millwall returned to Wembley this year to gain a place in the Championship by seeing off Swindon Town in north London.
Without millions to spend, Jackett has quietly made the most of a restrictive budget to mould an extremely hard-working side that often make for decent viewing. Steve Morison gets most of the plaudits but most members of a threadbare squad are deserving of praise for their strong start to this season.
6. Cardiff City
Ooh, controversial. Where on earth do Cardiff City fit in the jigsaw of praise for Football League teams in 2010? I don’t think even their own fanbase can truly decide. Is Dave Jones doing a good job? Or is he constantly one defeat away from some harsh abuse?
A bit of both, perhaps. Even on these very pages, the jury is still out. Infuriatingly inconsistent but irresistible when the mood takes them, Cardiff have unquestionably been entertaining for the duration of this calendar year. Promotion in May 2011 appears to rely heavily on either the fitness of Jay Bothroyd or the arrival of a fitting auxiliary.
5. Leeds United
Most teams in this list have achieved their spot through promotion. Leeds United seemed to attempt to do all in their power not to regain their place in the Championship after a terrible start to 2010. Well, a glorious start at Old Trafford followed by an alarming slump on league duty anyway.
It is clear that the Leeds limp over the League One finishing line is now well and truly behind Simon Grayson’s side. They have even managed to discard a series of disappointing setbacks already this season to sit second in the league table on Christmas Day.
There were plenty of neutrals and opposition supporters queueing up to laugh at Leeds during their hiatus in the third tier. Well, they’re not laughing any more. Despite a lack of investment, Leeds are well positioned to make a long-awaited return to the top flight.
4. Norwich City
Rarely has a single defeat been mentioned so much in the context of such an otherwise successful league campaign. But this was no ordinary defeat. Norwich City were meant to be the big cheeses in League One. The generals. The big fish in a small pond. And then Colchester United turned up on the opening day at Carrow Road and trounced them 7-1.
Norwich were written off by some. Bryan Gunn was certainly given no hope of turning things around. While the former was a far too reactionary response, the latter was almost indisputable. More established managers than Gunn have been dismissed on the back of that kind of humiliation.
Instead, it was then Colchester manager Paul Lambert who stepped in and put the Canaries on the right track. Worthy champions and a Championship top six tilt later, Norwich are unlucky not to be higher in this list. Their relative wealth of resources mean they will have to settle for fourth. The ongoing feelgood factor at Carrow Road will be more than ample comfort.
3. Exeter City
In the summer of 2008, Exeter City were looking forward to re-establishing themselves as a League Two club. With Christmas 2010 fast arriving, the other St James’s Park side are well and truly in the play-off picture in the third tier instead.
Paul Tisdale is another manager who could be said to have performed miracles on a shoestring budget. League One is packed full of clubs with far more illustrious recent histories than anything Exeter can boast but no matter.
Staying up last season was an accomplishment to be proud of. To be where they are at the moment in the league table is nothing short of superb. Let it not be forgotten that Exeter City’s staff and supporters had to cope with the sad passing of their striker Adam Stansfield in August. Their performances so far this season have been a fitting tribute.
2. AFC Bournemouth
Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth actually began 2010 with three straight defeats. I was present for their first game of the calendar year, a 2-0 home reverse at the hands of Northampton Town. Howe’s side were flat, uninspiring and any other adjective you may care to use to describe a team that really didn’t look like League Two promotion contenders.
That the Cherries end the year as League One promotion contenders tells you everything you need to know about the job that Howe is carrying out on the south coast. In fact, Bournemouth go into Christmas two points ahead of much-lauded Southampton despite a relative paucity of funding.
Fellow newly-promoted outfits Rochdale (18th), Notts County (19th) and Dagenham and Redbridge (22nd) are currently demonstrating that not every side rides onwards on a wave of optimism to even greater heights in the division above. Bournemouth deserve a hell of a lot of credit.
The most impressive Football League achievement this year is an accolade that must go to a Premier League club. They are Football League in all but status, you could argue, but that would be to denigrate their success. Blackpool are living the dream and long may it continue.
Ian Holloway constantly belies his reputation as merely a bit of a character. Holloway is an incredibly astute football manager, learning from his mistakes and giving Tangerines supporters something that would have been beyond their wildest dreams before his arrival at Bloomfield Road.
I’ve written about Holloway and Blackpool already this season for In Bed With Maradona, an article that sums up both my disbelief and respect for what they have done – and what they are still, somehow, doing.