The 25 Best Players in the Championship - as voted for by you: Part 19 of 25
From the outside looking in, there has been a quietly efficient quality to the first half of West Ham United’s return to the Championship. Despite the presence of big names like Sam Allardyce, John Carew and Robert Green, the Hammers have merely chugged along unremarkably – winning enough games to stay second in the table for the majority of the campaign so far but not pulling away from the pack as they could have done. Like Newcastle did. There is still time for that though and Paul Binning knows just the player to help West Ham recreate the Toon Army’s title win.
Kevin Nolan (West Ham United)
There are very few players ever to have played in the Championship who have made over 300 Premier League appearances and with more than 50 top flight goals under their belt, not to mention a couple of UEFA Cup campaigns and a League Cup final. There is only one who can currently count those achievements on his CV at under 30 years of age. He is theoretically in the prime of his career, so the first question to ask when discussing Kevin Nolan’s place in this list has to be why he is even eligible?
Nolan’s move to West Ham in the summer was a surprise and one which instantly made the Hammers firmer favourites for the title with many, but it was not totally without precedent. Two seasons ago, Nolan decided to trade the captaincy at Bolton Wanderers for the challenge of keeping Newcastle United in the top flight. That mission, of course, ended disastrously and following the worst six months of his career, Nolan felt enough of an obligation to stay and restore the Geordie giants to what they feel is their rightful place at the top table. He achieved it in spectacular fashion, with 18 goals forming the backbone of a title-winning campaign.
A largely successful return season, including a legendary hat-trick in the Tyne-Wear derby, suggested Nolan was back in the elite for good. But when his former Bolton manager Sam Allardyce came calling, Nolan deserted what appeared at the time to be a sinking ship on Tyneside and headed for the capital with the task clear – to ensure the side from Upton Park were only blowing bubbles in the second tier for one season.
So why drop down again? Does Nolan just enjoy scoring lots of goals? Does he relish the easier games at this level? While some would say Nolan lacks ambition, his Newcastle move must have been made with the assumption that relegation would be avoided and with an instinct that he was progressing from his long stint at the Reebok where Bolton were perennial over-achievers. Meanwhile West Ham, with Big Sam in charge, are ‘the big club’ of England’s second division at present and having seen what Nolan did two years ago, clearly view his expensive five-year contract as a gamble worth taking.
Nolan obviously shares this view. For him, this campaign is another chance to show a gap still exists between the two divisions. This tall, strong, hard-working midfielder drifts easily just behind the forwards and is always a goalscoring threat. Whether he’s striding forward and meeting a cross on the volley or curling in a loose ball on one of his gut-busting runs from the middle of the park, Nolan is one of those players who can single-handedly pick a team up and drive them forward in times of struggles. His goals often arrive almost unexpectedly, given how adeptly he picks the perfect moments to time his runs and arrives in the danger area without a defender in sight.
His style and shape suggest a particular combative type of footballer but while most would call Nolan a central midfielder, he tends to be more flexible and although lacking the creativity of a typical number ten, has played in the hole successfully throughout his career. What he lacks in dexterity, he makes up for in sheer bloody-mindedness and goals – with 35 goals in the past two and a half seasons putting his strike rate up there among the best forwards.
This is critical for a manager as it means that switching between 4-4-2 at home where you can afford a more expansive style and 4-5-1 for the tougher matches away from home, as many like to do, is made simple by having a player who will ensure a lone forward doesn’t get isolated. Despite Nolan’s uncharacteristically inconsistent start to the season, perhaps unsettled by the brief presence of Scott Parker, this adaptability will become crucial during the promotion run-in.
Nolan’s considerable leadership skills will also have attracted Allardyce. He inspired Bolton to their best ever finishes in the Premier League and a League Cup final before offering Newcastle that strength in the centre of the pitch they were woefully missing as they slumped from the top flight. During their single season flirtation with the Football League, Nolan was often the voice alongside manager Chris Hughton’s insistence that there was still hard work to be done. Even as the Toon stretched well clear of the pack, Nolan never allowed his peers to relax.
Similarly, his comments on joining the Hammers pulled no punches and made it instantly clear to his colleagues that shirking would not be accepted. By making the statement that “the least we should accept is promotion… anything else will be an unmitigated disaster”, he was sending a message to his highly-paid and potentially lackadaisical team-mates that they were now the side others would target and that they would have to work hard every single week to ensure a successful campaign in the Championship.
Nolan thrives in that kind of environment. The chance of an England call-up may have passed him by, but he will undoubtedly want to see out his career where he feels he belongs and another successful goalscoring season is looming for a player who continues to impress at every level.
Who else did you vote as one of the 25 best players in the Championship? Read about the rest so far here.