Top 5 Unheralded Managers in the Football League

Alexander Rodchenko - Lilya Brik (1926)
Image available under Creative Commons © Cea.

With the managerial merry-go-round operating at warp speed over the Christmas break, and the recruitment seemingly limited to just Michael Appleton and Sean O’Driscoll, we thought that it was time that some of the lesser-touted managers of the Football League received some attention. Many readers will no doubt want to nominate other deserving individuals, but, to get things started, here is our list of five gaffers achieving great results with limited resources.

1)      Kenny Jackett – Millwall

During live coverage of Swansea’s victory over Chelsea in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final last week, the commentator made the curious statement that Jackett had `started the revolution’ that had led the Swans to their present exalted status. Curious for two reasons: first, because Jackett’s style is more Edmund Burke than Thomas Paine; and second, because his achievements are usually overlooked by the mainstream media.

The point is, however, worth making. Although his tenure in South Wales ended just short of promotion, and contemporary critics marked him down as a limited tactician, it could be argued that Jackett brought sorely needed stability to the club and created the forward momentum capitalized upon by his successors. A subsequent spell as a coach at Manchester City brought recognition among his peers, which led to Millwall’s recently arrived chairman to seek him out for the vacant manager’s job in November 2007. The club then was in serious danger of relegation to League 2. Five years later, it sits 7th in the Championship, despite having one of that division’s lowest budgets.

Initial misgivings among supporters, based mostly on negative perceptions of his latter years at Swansea, have almost entirely disappeared, as Jackett’s qualities have become abundantly clear: a willingness to persevere with younger players and to coach improvement, rather than seek quick fixes; the ability to find talent and value in parts of the transfer market that other clubs have neglected; and a commitment to incremental change, in his own methods as well as in his personnel.

2)      Ronnie Moore – Tranmere

At 59 years of age, you can kind of see why Moore is overlooked by the bigger clubs. But Tranmere’s continued defiance of the pre-season predictions might be tempting a few to look at little closer at his CV. If they do so, they will be reminded that this season isn’t a one-off. Moore’s first spell at Rotherham took the Millers into the second tier and kept them there; an achievement that has weighed heavily upon his successors (including, briefly, himself) as the club over-extended in the perhaps mistaken belief that it now belonged in the upper echelons of the Football League. A reputation as an unreconstructed/good old-fashioned (delete as applicable) advocate of `hoof-ball’ has also put potential suitors off, a spell at Oldham reportedly ended as a result of the locals’ disapproval of his methods.

However, a closer look at this year’s Rovers side would suggest that those judgements were not entirely accurate. The emphasis at Prenton Park following Moore’s second coming is on pace and youth. Coaching and the installation of self-belief has turned a squad of loan signings and supposed cast-offs into League 1’s leading side, with Abdulai Bell-Baggie and Liam Palmer particularly impressive. Moreover, a look at his career statistics suggest that Moore is also disproving another cliché: this old dog has improved his win ratio with every job. It seems that going back isn’t such a bad idea after all, if you’ve learned some new tricks along the way.

3)      Steve Davis – Crewe Alexandra

Davis is the third person to attempt the seemingly impossible task of replacing one of the Football League’s all-time greats, and has made a much better job of it than anyone would have predicted. A highly successful period as manager of Nantwich Town – winning the FA Vase and two promotions in five years – suggested some ability. However, it was as assistant to Gudjon Thordarson that Davis first rejoined the Railwaymen, in 2009. The time spent as understudy, first to the unsuccessful Icelander and then to Dario Gradi, was well spent, perhaps if only to learn from the mistakes made during the club’s prolonged transition. When Gradi resigned the first XI leadership again in late 2011, Davis took charge of a side in the bottom half of League 2 and, improbably, led them to play-off victory over long-time promotion contenders Cheltenham. Even more impressive, he now has them in the top 10 of the division above, within three points of the play-off positions.

The most striking aspect of this achievement is that it was done without any significant turnover of playing staff. Instead, Davis kept faith with the academy system, supplemented his squad with a few shrewd signings, and brought a handful of new ideas to the training ground. Too many clubs throw out good practice with the bad when effecting a change of management. Davis’ success proves that continuity isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.

4)      Gary Rowett – Burton Albion

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in tipping Burton for the drop this year. Thankfully for Brewers’ fans, I had underestimated their young boss’ abilities. Not a mistake I will make again. The third consecutive ex-Ram to take charge at the Pirelli, Gary Rowett has quietly steered his side into contention for automatic promotion; Albion lying in 6th place, just 3 points below 3rd place Exeter, at the time of writing. Some might suggest that his place on this list owes a lot to good luck. Certainly, to find himself at a club with a record of supporting young and inexperienced managers is quite handy. But, as his former superior, Paul Peschisolido, discovered last year, that support must be earned through results. And results have been very good for Rowett.

Since taking over on a temporary basis in March last year, Rowett has won some 40% of games played, while making the most of the squad’s attacking talent. The likes of Calvin Zola, Matt Paterson, Billy Kee and Jacques Maghoma give Burton a threat that isn’t so obvious in some of their League 2 opponents. Perhaps not surprisingly given the availability of those aforementioned talents, suggestions persist that he is a little too fond of `route one’, and he will have to sharpen his thinking if he is to move up the leagues. Starkly contrasting home and away records also point to a little tactical naivety. Though, a manager of the month award in December 2012 suggests that he is beginning to make an impression.

5)      John Still – Dagenham and Redbridge

It is quite astonishing that John Still remains in charge at Dagenham. In a positive sense, of course. He has taken the Daggers from the Conference to League 1, built several teams along the way, developed and sold on several unknown players, and yet remains undisturbed by bigger clubs. Their loss, though, is the Daggers’ gain, as Still’s side – like Burton – defy expectations of a difficult season. To be placed 13th in League 2 at the mid-point is a great achievement, especially as striker Dwight Gayle (another of Still’s non-league picks) moved on to the Championship in late 2012.

Perhaps his methods are a bit too straight-forward for many clubs. A direct and conventional tactician, maybe, but Still’s man-management skills and assessment of a player are not abundant commodities in the Football League. Trust in young players, a natural modesty and a clear love for football. In short, Still represents everything that supporters desire from their manager. Sadly, as this week of the long knives has shown, club chairpeople and chief executives rarely see things the same way.

As a kid, Stanley undertook an odyssey around the football grounds of London and North Kent before alighting at Millwall. Despite the efforts of Jason Dair and many others, as an adult he decided to move closer to the arena erroneously known as the New Den and is now a proud season-ticket holder.

Comment With Facebook

comments

7 Comments on "Top 5 Unheralded Managers in the Football League"

  1. Lloyd says:

    Good stuff, Stanley.

    For starters, I didn’t know that Jackett has been at Millwall since 2007; that’s pretty impressive these days.

    I’d add Martin Ling at Torquay and Paul Tisdale at Exeter; both have very little to play with, but spend their clubs’ money wisely and have tended to engineer better results than they probably should.

    Elsewhere in League 2, Mark Yates is doing a similarly fine job at Cheltenham, although I’m not sure he’d be classed as ‘unheralded’ — most people with a passing knowledge of the division will know about him.

    And, finally, how about Edgar Davids?!

  2. billmapguy says:

    Great article, Stanley, I am really pulling for Tranmere to get back to the second division.

  3. Tom says:

    Some excellent candidates above. As a Walsall fan, I’d add Dean Smith. Lowest budget in League One according to reports and yet we’re punching way above our weight – six wins in our last seven and ended Bournemouth’s 16-match unbeaten run relatively comfortably yesterday. Playing some great football too.

  4. Stanley says:

    Some good names mentioned above, especially Tisdale and Yates. Tisdale has been getting the most out of a small budget for quite some time now.

    Tom: great case for Dean Smith. He was on the shortlist for the post. To have Walsall up to 10th is a phenomenal achievement, particularly if those reports about the budget available to him are correct.

    Don’t think that Davids has been in the job long enough to be judged, but it’ll be fascinating to follow his progress at Underhill for the rest of the season.

  5. Dave says:

    It has to be Ronnie Moore for me. I think Tranmere are having an excellent season.

    The interesting thing for me about Kenny Jackett, is how well he will deal with the loss of Chris Wood. Virtually every manager has to deal with the loss of a star player, whether injury or transfer. Will the system change, will more goals come from midfield or will he find someone to fill Wood’s boots?

    I’m also an admirer of Still too.

    Stanley, why have the likes of Appleton and Saunders got big jobs ahead of these?!

  6. John Mc says:

    Some great picks – especially agree with Jackett and, this season at least, with Moore and Davis who have been superb. Good shout for Dean Smith in the comments too – he’s working wonders with absolutely nothing at Walsall.

    I think Tisdale had his moment – didn’t he turn down a Champ job when Exeter were riding the crest of a wave? Fair play to him for that but do wonder if he has it in him to build that ‘second team’ at Exeter.

    I dearly hope League One’s longest serving manager was on the shortlist. People know I get quite upset when he gets ignored – four years in L1, improving year on year and two Wembley trips at brasso Carlisle United. Gregory Abbott.

  7. Stanley says:

    Don’t worry, John, Greg Abbott was on the shortlist. Although CUFC are a bit lower down the table than they would like this year, Abbott’s record over the whole of his tenure is worth celebrating. If I remember correcty, Tisdale was reported to have turned down both Southampton and Swansea at different times. He’s clearly happy with the way Exeter are run, and his loyalty is admirable. The rebuilding job has begun quite well this season, so I’d say he deserves more time to build that team.

    Dave: Thanks for your response. I am led to believe that Kenny Jackett doesn’t employ an agent. That might go some way to answering your last question.

    On Chris Wood, it is a big concern for all Millwall supporters right now. It would be unfair to say that we were a one-man team, but his impact was much greater than the 11 goals he scored. His hold-up play gave the whole team a boost and allowed us to retain possession in our opponent’s half for long periods of a match. Jackett has been trying to get a replacement in since the beginning of the month, but players of that quality are generally out of Millwall’s price range. Saturday’s poor showing against Burnley highlighted the need for a target man, though. Darius Henderson’s fitness cannot be relied upon, and loanee Nathan Tyson has picked up a serious injury already. In my opinion, the problem lies in the quality and fitness of the strikers available – Andy Keogh apart – and a change of system won’t mitigate that. I’m hopeful of a short-term signing at least. One bright not is that Wood’s goals have eased any worries about relegation, which gives Jackett some time to plan an overhaul of his forwards in the summer. Over the past four years, he has brought Steve Morison, Darius Henderson, Andy Keogh, Harry Kane and Chris Wood to the club, so I don’t doubt that he’ll get it right again.

Got something to say? Fill your boots.