Will the Football League lose another great entertainer?
The Football League has already lost the jewel in its crown. Next Monday, it may lose the next best thing. Adel Taarabt has lit up the Championship this season, conjuring increasingly improbable goals and assists from his bag of tricks to propel Queen’s Park Rangers to the title. He is now gone. It is just a question of whether Scott Sinclair joins him in the Premier League.
Regardless of the result at Wembley, Sinclair probably deserves another shot at the top flight – either in Swansea colours or those of another club. He has scored 24 times this season from a wide position, his 19 league goals just one shy of the sum total of his two nearest competitors for the accolade of leading goalscorer at the Liberty Stadium. It isn’t just the quantity of his strikes but their overwhelming quality. A team goal against Leeds United, a long-range thunderbolt at Leicester and numerous mazy dribbles stack up well, but the maziest dribble of them all was arguably the most impressive individual goal scored in the Championship this season.
Sinclair collected the ball on the halfway line, very close to the left flank he has occupied for the majority of the season. Drifting diagonally across the pitch despite the close attention of numerous Nottingham Forest defenders, he ended up gliding away from Paul Konchesky and angling his shot into the bottom corner of the net. One imagines Taarabt rising from his seat at home to applaud.
This was not always destined to be the season of the great entertainers. It began with the old guard arriving in the second tier and raising the profile of the division at a time when it had just lost its biggest arena, Newcastle United’s St James’s Park, back to the Premier League. David James and Edgar Davids were in the twilight of their respective careers, while Craig Bellamy was a younger thirty-something who was widely viewed as still being a top-notch top flight player. All three added spice to the forthcoming Football League calendar.
James had a low-key season with mid-table Bristol City after the Robins struggled at first, while Davids was soon gone from Crystal Palace after failing to show anything of the engine for which he was once famed. It could even be said that Bellamy failed to consistently hit the heights expected of him, despite some explosive moments which lit up the Championship.
If last season showcased the rise of the goalscoring midfielder – with Kevin Nolan, Graham Dorrans and Charlie Adam all central to their respective team’s promotions to the Premier League – then this year has been all about burly centre forwards and the great entertainers that thrive off their workrate. In the former category, we slot Grant Holt, Danny Graham and Luciano Becchio. In the latter, the aforementioned Taarabt and Sinclair along with the likes of Wes Hoolahan, Max Gradel, Jimmy Kebe and Lewis McGugan.
To differing extents, they are all flair players who may have been under-appreciated in previous seasons or by other managers. The problem for the Football League is that the entertainers either improve their teams to such a degree that they win promotion or catch the eye to such a degree that the top flight comes calling for them anyway. Taarabt and Hoolahan have already sealed their spots among the big boys next season, while Gradel has been linked with a move away from Leeds United and McGugan may draw interest from the English elite as well after Nottingham Forest’s play-off semi-final exit.
That leaves Sinclair and Kebe. Reading’s exciting Malian attacker is now 27 years old and has already played in the Premier League for the Royals, but will miss the Wembley showpiece through injury. Perhaps this is Sinclair’s time to shine. We have already seen what a drop into the Championship and extended periods of playing time can do for young English talent – just take a look at Andy Carroll.
Sinclair appeared to have lost his way during the various loan spells he spent away from Stamford Bridge, the death knell signalled by an unspectacular stint at Wigan Athletic last season. But now, with the possibility of an international tournament to look forward to in the summer with England Under-21s, he has fought his way back into contention for a future spot in the national side thanks to a Welsh club with an Irish manager and a Spanish philosophy.
That tiki-taka football that Swansea aim to replicate unquestionably suits Sinclair as much as his presence augments the danger posed by their team as a whole. His threat in wide areas adds an extra dimension to the attack, something that the Swans clearly lacked last season. If he goes on the outside, Sinclair has the pace to beat the vast majority of full-backs. If he cuts inside, he has the perfect Championship midfield with whom he can play one-twos to advance further upfield. The use of three central midfielders means that Sinclair’s defensive duties are lesser than they would be in a four-man midfield and teams are reluctant to double up when marking him, knowing that Swansea’s slick passing can pick light numbers off in other areas.
Even in the Championship, Sinclair is not unstoppable. Nottingham Forest did a fine job of restricting his effectiveness in both legs of the play-off semi-finals with a pair of fine performances from young full-back Brendan Moloney. The problem was that they couldn’t then stop the likes of Fabio Borini, Stephen Dobbie and Nathan Dyer, who were instrumental to the Swans’ triumph.
Reading will have to be wary of all four at Wembley, but it is Sinclair who has the greatest goalscoring pedigree and he is the man that Swansea will look to for inspiration going forward. The stage is set for one of the Championship’s great entertainers.