The 25 Best Players in the Championship - as voted for by you: Part 1 of 25
It’s December. Time to crack out the advent calendars. The Seventy Two is no different, although sadly there is no chocolate on offer here. Instead, we will be counting down to Christmas by bringing you the 25 best players in the Championship – as voted for by you. Key point – this will be in no particular order until Christmas Eve, although we will save the player with the most number of votes until last. Thanks for all your votes, let’s kick things off…
Kevin McNaughton (Cardiff City)
With the honourable and glorious exception of its Brazilian exponents, writes Joe Harrison, full-back is probably the least glamorous position in conventional formations. It is the traditional home of the rubbish kid in school, sent to the cold, barren wilderness of left-back to keep him out of the way. It is also a position often seemingly dismissed by managers as it has become an adopted home for centre-backs liked by the boss but unable to break into the first choice pairing.
In recent years, wingers are regularly moved back so that they can bomb forward, canny gaffers having spotted Dani Alves on TV and thought “it seems to work for a Brazilian at Barcelona, surely our underwhelming winger signed on a free from League 2 can do a similar job”. This crowbarring in of other players has an effect – just witness on one weekend’s football viewing how many goals or chances are created by a full-back being out of position, or could have been prevented if the full-back had covered properly.
Now it may just be because it’s my Dad’s preferred position (“you always get a game if you say you play full-back” – wise words), but in these days of repositioned centre-backs resembling beached whales and converted wingers looking faintly confused, trotting back over half-way as their defence is yet again exposed by the chasm they’ve left behind, I think there is an understated beauty to a full-back who actually knows how to play his position properly.
This brings us – as conversations on understated beauty so often do – to Kevin McNaughton. A proper full-back. A full-back no winger seems able to get the upper hand on and one centre-backs must adore playing with, as for years he has served as a safety net, retrieving errors from other Cardiff City players. McNaughton has all the attributes needed to be an excellent defender, as well as all those needed to become an instant fans’ favourite. Brave, exceptional positional sense, fit, deceptively strong, a consummate professional, amusingly grey hair, connoisseur of miraculous goal-saving tackles, an indomitable personality and very quick. Now in his sixth season at Cardiff with over 200 league appearances to his name, it would be hard to find a player more universally liked within a fanbase than Super Kev and his qualities and popularity led him to the much-coveted Seventy Two Readers’ Player of the Season last time out.
Perhaps part of McNaughton’s charm is that he has never been perfect. While using that term to describe his defending often doesn’t feel like a huge stretch, his ability on the ball has never quite reached the same standards. He has scored only two goals in his entire Cardiff career (one from a goalkeeping error, the other an uncharacteristically stunning volley at Hereford during Cardiff’s run to the FA Cup Final), while his distribution also leaves a lot to be desired. His pace and determination regularly take him almost the entire length of the pitch until cross, shot or decision let him down. He also once, while under no pressure, attempted a backheel during a home game against Coventry – the ball ended up out for a Coventry throw, with McNaughton face down on the turf as fans laughed before chanting his name.
A warning to Championship rivals though: after initially struggling somewhat with Malky Mackay’s desire to play full-backs higher up the pitch, McNaughton has adapted. He has learnt to maintain his defensive excellence while pushing on and now even his attacking play is improving, as he is becoming involved in goals quite regularly. Considering it is already surprising that no Premier League side has tried to sign him, the fact McNaughton is still improving is great news for Cardiff City, but perhaps less so for the rest of the Championship.
Who else did you vote as one of the 25 best players in the Championship? Read about the rest so far here.