The EFL managers who deserve a shot at the big time


A new crop of young British coaches are pushing for their chance to manage in the Premier League and at the top end of the Championship.

The ranks of homegrown talent have been boosted by the success of the Elite Player Performance Plan, which has seen £1.6 billion pumped into clubs throughout the EFL and Premier League since 2012.

While the primary objective has been to produce better players, it has also swelled the ranks of coaches working at English professional clubs from 250 to 800 and produced some exceptional individuals, who are heading for the country’s big clubs.

Nine managers have been identified by Analytics FC, including Leam Richardson (pictured above), who have made a significant improvement to their teams in attack or defence

Sportsmail has worked with Analytics FC, a group of analysts who have developed a statistical model to measure the impact of coaches, to identify the best young talent coming through.

And the results are surprising. The list of nine coaches includes a man who started out charging £2 per session for children on public pitches, a lad who once ran football sessions for the local council, ex-players who have seen tea cups fly and devotees of Pep Guardiola.

One, David Artell, has even been sacked, despite Crewe fans insisting he produced one of their best-ever teams.

All of the coaches have a clear philosophy and unbelievable ambition to deliver it, all they need now is a chance at the top level.

‘Investment into academy football in terms of coach development, is off the scale,’ said Jeremy Steele, chief executive of Analytics FC.

‘The pathway is much clearer and the talent is there. These coaches have taken teams and made them better. They deserve a chance in a higher league. They have earned a shot.’

The Analytics FC model assesses every action during a game and calculates the impact it has on the probability of scoring or conceding a goal at any moment, thereby allowing the analysts to determine percentage improvement, or decline in a team’s attack and defence since a coach took over.

Analytics FC grades managers' performance by their impact in attack and defence

Analytics FC grades managers’ performance by their impact in attack and defence

Nathan Jones

Age: 49

Club: Luton Town

Finished: 6th Championship; lost in play-off semi-final

Tenure: May 2020 – present

Attack improvement: 90%

Defence improvement: 90%

Nathan Jones has transformed Luton Town’s fortunes – twice – despite operating with a playing budget that is dwarfed by rivals at the top end of the table.

He has used every tool at his disposal to deliver success, however unconventional, including setting fire to the ping-pong table when he felt a competitive table-tennis culture among his players was detracting from the day job.

Jones’ managerial career has been eventful and largely very successful. In December 2015, he took over from Luton legend John Still with the team 17th in League Two and in danger of slipping back into the mire that is the super-competitive National League.

Nathan Jones proved his worth at Luton Town, despite a disparity in wealth in Championship

Nathan Jones proved his worth at Luton Town, despite a disparity in wealth in Championship

Jones reinvigorated the Hatters in his first managerial appointment, comfortably securing the club’s league status in his first season and then using smart recruitment to help deliver promotion and subsequently a strong campaign in League One.

But Jones was tempted away in January 2019 to manage underperforming Stoke City. He could not lift the malaise that had settled on the Bet356 Stadium since relegation from the Premier League and the Welshman was sacked within 11 months after a miserable spell in charge.

The Stoke episode shows that not every coach, however talented, is suited to every situation.

Meanwhile, Jones’ old side, who had won the League One title after he abandoned them, were struggling too, and he returned with Luton in 23rd place in the Championship, six points from safety.

Jones guided Luton to safety on the final day of the season, losing just one of the last nine games.

Luton have enjoyed an exceptional season, finally losing out in the Championship play offs

Luton have enjoyed an exceptional season, finally losing out in the Championship play offs

This season, Jones has kicked on with Luton, producing an exceptionally well-drilled team built on variations of a defensively solid 3-5-2 system. Out of possession, Luton employ a high press and in possession, play forward quickly and pick up second balls.

He has produced an energetic, hard-working team who look a good bet for another promotion push next season, despite the financial disparities of the Championship.

Luton were knocked out of the play-offs by Huddersfield Town, who reported a wage bill of £24M in their latest accounts, double the Hatters’ £12M. However, Bournemouth, who finished second, reported a wage bill of around £50M in the same period.

Matt Gray

Age: 40

Club: Sutton United

Finished: 8th, League Two

Tenure: May 2019 – present

Attack improvement: 90%

Defence improvement: 50%

Matt Gray has already done something no one else has achieved – guide Sutton United into the Football League after 123-years.

That was in 2020-21. And this season the famous giant-killers have raised their game again, and established themselves in League Two, missing out on the play-offs by one point to Mansfield Town.

Gray took over at the Gander Green Lane for the 2019-20 season and finished a respectable 15th in the Covid-affected season.

Sutton United manager Matt Gray has been unfazed by the step up to League Two this season

Sutton United manager Matt Gray has been unfazed by the step up to League Two this season

He then led Sutton to the National League title, seeing off professional outfits like Wrexham and Stockport County, with a part-time squad that trained three mornings a week, brought their own food, washed their own training kit and never stayed overnight at away games, even when they were at Torquay or Hartlepool.

This time around, Sutton have turned professional, but by his own admission, Gray has kept it simple sticking with a solid 4-4-2 formation, while developing a flexible squad who can drop into and out of different positions. He has used 25 players throughout the campaign.

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A sign of Sutton’s fluidity is that three midfield players have top scored with eight goals apiece.

Sutton have kept it simple and excelled, finishing eighth just one point outside the play offs

Sutton have kept it simple and excelled, finishing eighth just one point outside the play offs

‘I’ve done nothing differently this year in terms of my information to the players. It’s very clear, very simple,’ Gray told Football London in January. 

‘Basic, if you like. At the start of the season we wanted to still be an EFL club at the end of the season. That would be a huge achievement for everyone connected to the club.’

Gray picks his players on character and they have proved to be a dependable bunch, who share the boss’s ambition to climb higher up the pyramid.

Liam Manning

Age : 36

Club: MK Dons

Finished : 3rd League One, lost in play-off semi-final

Tenure: August 2021 – present

Attack improvement: -20%

Defence improvement: 50%

Liam Manning started his coaching career in the grassroots game, charging youngsters £2 per session.

Now, he is a hot property in English football.

A self-confessed workaholic, Manning graduated from public pitches in his early twenties to run the Ipswich Town academy, then coach West Ham United U23s, before heading Stateside, to become the director of coaching at New York Red Bulls.

From there, he was recruited by Belgian second tier side Lommel SK, where he masterminded a rapid ascent up the table in his first season, before he was tempted to Stadium MK to replace Russell Martin.

MK Dons boss Liam Manning has had an unusual route for an English football coach

MK Dons boss Liam Manning has had an unusual route for an English football coach

Some journey – and he is still only 36.

At MK Dons, the Norwich-born coach had the challenge of following Martin, who had forged a big reputation for his fluid, passing game that saw the Dons record a staggering 65 per cent possession in all matches in 2020-21 season.

While easy on the eye the approach did not always deliver results and MK Dons finished 13th with 65 points, having scored 64 and conceded 62.

Manning has come in, retained an attractive possession game, but significantly tightened up the defence, while making the Dons’ attacks more productive.

He has done an exceptional job. This season, MK Dons won 89 points, scored 79 goals and only let in 44 on their way to a play-off semi-final defeat to Wycombe Wanderers.

Manning has cleverly adapted his approach using 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 variations, which allows him to adopt a front five in advanced positions, with two holding midfielders screening the defenders.

With a fit young team, (the average age of the starting 11 is the second youngest in the league) the Dons look for overlaps to create crossing opportunities.

But the workaholic boss has built on Russel Martin's foundations and shaped a super team

But the workaholic boss has built on Russel Martin’s foundations and shaped a super team

They operate a fierce counter-press in advanced areas, defending from the front. In addition, Manning has taken a more pragmatic approach to the build up, too.

Analytics FC identify a style where they play short, inviting pressure and are happy to look for longer balls forward to gain good position in the opposition half.

Even so, MK Dons enjoyed 59 per cent throughout the season, the second highest figure in the league, behind Ipswich.

‘My biggest thing is players making good decisions,’ Manning explained to the i this season. ‘We have to teach them to make the right decision in the right moment rather than having a set way of doing anything.’

James Rowberry

Age: 37

Club: Newport County

Finished: 11th

Tenure: October 2021 – present

Attack improvement: 65%

Defence improvement: 75%

James Rowberry is living the dream, managing his home-town club, Newport County, for whom his dad, Stephen, was a player and where he was a mascot as a child.

But he may not be at Rodney Parade for too long.

Rowberry is a well-known and highly respected coach in Wales, where he has held various positions within the Welsh FA and done eight years working his way up the ranks at Cardiff City.

Newport Town manager James Rowberry was a mascot for the Exiles when he was a child

Newport Town manager James Rowberry was a mascot for the Exiles when he was a child

He started out coaching football on a part-time contract with Newport Council, and went on to become the youngest coach to ever earn his UEFA Pro Licence – at 29.

From there he became a coach educator at the Welsh FA, counting Marcel Desailly, David Ginola, Patrick Vieira, Jens Lehmann and Sol Campbell, among his students.

In a fascinating interview with Wales Online two years ago, Rowberry revealed Vieira arranged for him to have his stag do in a Madrid nightclub owned by another World Cup winner, Christian Karambeu. 

At Cardiff, he rose from the academy to first team coach under the caretaker management duo of Danny Gabbidon and Scott Young, before going on to work with Russell Slade, Paul Trollope, Neil Warnock and Mick McCarthy.

Now he is a hugely respected coach in Wales in his first senior management role

Now he is a hugely respected coach in Wales in his first senior management role

And despite only being seven months into his first management job, his reputation is growing. He was linked with the vacancy at QPR after Mick Warburton’s departure was confirmed last month.

Rowberry took over at Newport in October, when Michael Flynn, another local lad and former Exiles player, resigned. Flynn had done a good job, reaching two League Two play-off finals and enjoying some spectacular cup wins in his four years.

But Newport had hit a little slump at the beginning of last season when Flynn called it a day and ultimately Rowberry was his permanent replacement.

The number crunchers believe he has improved the team at both ends of the pitch, which features a deep build up in possession and high press. The summer transfer window will give him a chance to shape Newport’s set up next season. A lot of bigger clubs will be watching.

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Leam Richardson

Age: 42

Club: Wigan Athletic

Finished: Champions, League One

Tenure: March 2021- present

Attack improvement: 80%

Defence improvement: 80%

Leam Richardson has often preferred the number two spot before taking the reins at Wigan Athletic and powering the Latics to the League One title.

For the best part of ten years, Richardson was happy to play second fiddle to Paul Cook at Accrington Stanley, Chesterfield, Portsmouth and most recently, Wigan.

But when Cook left the DW Stadium at the beginning of the 2020-21 season, amid the financial turmoil of administration, to become the manager at Ipswich, Richardson finally declined the offer to join him

Leam Richardson chose to be a number two for a long time, but is proving to be a top boss

Leam Richardson chose to be a number two for a long time, but is proving to be a top boss

The Latics were now playing in League One as a result of a 12-point deduction. John Sheridan came in as manager, and quickly left, leaving Richardson in charge. This time he was offered and accepted a permanent position.

The key thing was the former right back, who clocked up 234 league appearances, kept Wigan up, by one point. And this season he has smashed it with his team amassing 92 points, going up as champions and the boss himself picking up the EFL’s League One manager of the season award.

With an exodus of players as a result of the financial upheaval, Richardson’s greatest achievement may have been to rebuild his squad, bringing in 20 players before the season, on free transfers and loans.

Wigan's tight-knit robust team won League One this term and are headed to the Championship

Wigan’s tight-knit robust team won League One this term and are headed to the Championship

He has knitted a mixture of youth and experience together into a resilient bunch, who enjoy good possession, circulating the ball as they probe for openings, while Will Keane, brother of Everton centre back, Michael, has fired them to the tile with 26 league goals, alongside Callum Long with 15.

Richardson likes to counter press and win the ball back quickly, which helped establish Wigan as the most formidable opponents in League One.

Ian Evatt

Age: 40

Club: Bolton Wanderers

Finished: 9th, League One

Tenure: July 2020 – present

Attack improvement: 30%

Defence improvement: 75%

In a decade as a player, racking up 534 appearances for six clubs, Ian Evatt saw it all.

From flying teacups, to players pinned up against the wall or an arm around the shoulder, he has experienced every style of football management.

Now, Evatt is putting all that experience to good use with Bolton Wanderers in League One.

Jim Smith’s man-management at Derby, Roy McFarland’s defensive systems at Chesterfield and Ian Holloway’s focus on self-belief at Blackpool have shaped Evatt, but his biggest inspiration is Pep Guardiola, whom he has studied throughout his short managerial career, he told the Coaches Voice website.

Ian Evatt stuck to his possession-based game in the National League and Leagues One and Two

Ian Evatt stuck to his possession-based game in the National League and Leagues One and Two

‘He has been a big, big influence on me… For me, he is the best ever,’ said Evatt.

‘Yes, there is lots of tactical detail, but his work ethic goes underestimated. He is a genius, but he isn’t a genius by chance. He works harder than anybody else and benefits from that.’

Such is Evatt’s devotion to the Manchester City boss’s approach, he turned National League Barrow into ‘Barrowcelona’ in his first permanent management job.

Evatt knew that the received wisdom was that you can’t play a possession-based game in the fifth tier, but he did. And once he had perfected the system – a 3-5-2 – and the personnel, Barrow won the National League title.

That brought a move to Bolton, where he has stayed true to his possession-based philosophy, but it was a difficult start to the 2020-21 season with the Trotters, who found themselves 21st in League Two.

However, Evatt tweaked the set-up to a back four, made some useful additions in January and Bolton took off, gaining a remarkable automatic promotion to League One.

Bolton put in a good performance in League One after promotion last season, finishing ninth

Bolton put in a good performance in League One after promotion last season, finishing ninth

And in the third tier Evatt has stuck to the task, finishing ninth on 73 points.

‘But next season I think everyone’s going to be looking at us and expect us to be in that top six, myself included,’ he told the Manchester Evening News at the end of last season. ‘So bring it on. I enjoy pressure, I think I work best under pressure so let’s do it.’

Inevitably, following Neil Critchley’s departure from Blackpool to become Steven Gerrard’s assistant at Aston Villa, there has been speculation that Evatt could fill the vacancy at his former club.

David Artell

Age: 41

Club: No club [sacked by Crewe Alexandra]

Finished: League One, Relegation

Tenure: Crewe Alexandra January 2017 – April 2022

Attack improvement: 80%

Defence improvement: 75%

The extraordinary aspect of David Artell’s inclusion in a list of successful football managers, is that he has recently been sacked.

Artell was at the helm of Crewe Alexandra for five years, which began with a Houdini act to avoid relegation from League Two in 2017, after warning his players that ‘relegation means oblivion… in the Conference North on £200 a week with a job as a milkman.’

The former Gibraltar international and Crewe captain, oversaw two seasons of progress before winning promotion in the Covid-affected 2019-20 season, when Artell was named League Two Manager of the Year, by the League Managers’ Association.

David Artell produced a top team at Crewe Alexandra, but the best players were sold

David Artell produced a top team at Crewe Alexandra, but the best players were sold

Crewe appeared to consolidate in League One with a 12th place finish, but last season the requirement at Gresty Road to continually develop players and then sell them on seemed to catch up with the Railwaymen.

Over the course of two seasons, five promising youngsters departed and another ended up in a protracted contract dispute.

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‘He came into a desperate situation at the foot of League Two and took the club on a journey,’ former Crewe player, Peter Morse told BBC Stoke. ‘They did not soar up the leagues, but it was progress all the time.

Crewe's model is to develop talents and sell them on and the Railwaymen were relegated

Crewe’s model is to develop talents and sell them on and the Railwaymen were relegated

‘Until the point came, of course, they sold the players that got them out of trouble and into League One, and then it was difficult.’

Artell, who cut a fiery figure on the touchline, was described as ‘the best manager we have had since Dario Gradi’ by Mark Birtles, of the Railwayman podcast after the boss’s sacking in April, once relegation was confirmed with four games to go. 

‘[He] built one of the best Crewe sides I have seen,’ added Birtles, a fan of 30 years, writing on CheshireLive.

‘My own thoughts are that he has been made a scapegoat and there are other people within that football club who really need to feel ashamed of themselves.’

Neil Critchley

Age: 43

Club: Blackpool [now left to be assistant manager at Aston Villa]

Finished: 16th Championship

Tenure: March 2020 – June 2022

Attack improvement: 30%

Defence improvement: 60%

Neil Critchley was tipped for promotion – and it has come quickly.

After a successful two years in charge at Blackpool, Critchley has been poached by Aston Villa to become assistant to Steve Gerrard.

Blackpool had been broken for a long time before Critchley arrived at Bloomfield Road Since the one season stay in the Premier League in 2010-11, the Seasiders dropped down to League Two, but at the same time supporters and the club became divided during the ownership of the Oyston family.

Neil Critchley has transformed Blackpool on and off the pitch, earning him a move

Neil Critchley has transformed Blackpool on and off the pitch, earning him a move

In March 2020, Critchley left his role as head coach of Liverpool U23s to replace Simon Grayson, with Blackpool marooned mid-table and uninspiring in League One.

They have never looked back. In his first full season, Critchley inspired a promotion push, which culminated in a play-off final victory over Lincoln City.

This season, back in the Championship, Blackpool finished 16th, 23 points above the drop zone.

Critchley has taken his experience of coaching players at the super-elite level up the M6 and down the M55 to Blackpool.

Critchley left Blackpool this summer to join Steven Gerrard as his assistant at Aston Villa

Critchley left Blackpool this summer to join Steven Gerrard as his assistant at Aston Villa

Analytics FC highlight the wing play he employs to unlock opposition defences by creating overloads, not dissimilar to Liverpool, or Manchester City.

Liverpool deploy Andy Robertson, Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota, Mo Salah, and Trent Alexander Arnold as a front five when they attack, and while the names may be less familiar at Blackpool, the principle is the same.

And as the Blackpool fan site, UpTheMightyPool, has gleefully pointed out, Manchester City, Chelsea and England have all used a similar structure. 

But there are no delusions of grandeur. The Blackpool lads put a shift in, too

‘Humble, hard-working, intense and passionate,’ is how Lancs Live Blackpool reporter, Sean McGinlay, described Critchley’s former team, in which each player has been checked out through multiple character references before he is signed.

Steve Morison

Age: 38

Club: Cardiff City

Tenure: October 2021 – present

Attack improvement: 50%

Defence improvement: 60%

An 18th-place finish in the Championship does not necessarily scream ‘potential’ to a football club chairman looking for an up and coming manager to take their team to the next level.

But Cardiff City’s owner Vincent Tan is confident he has the right man for the job in Steve Morison and sees plenty of potential in his 38-year-old rookie boss.

The Analytics FC statistics back up Tan’s assessment. They confirm what he has seen on the pitch since Morison, an all-action centre forward in his playing days, took over from Mick McCarthy in October 2021 on a deal that lasted to the end of the season.

Steve Morison (in his playing days with Wales (above)) has steadied the ship at Cardiff City

Steve Morison (in his playing days with Wales (above)) has steadied the ship at Cardiff City

Cardiff were third bottom of the Championship on 11 points and on a run of eight straight defeats when McCarthy was sacked and Morison, the club’s U23 coach, stepped up.

So, a comfortable finish to the season and 53 points, 16 clear of the drop, was welcome progress. Morison has changed the team’s approach, with less emphasis on set pieces and physicality and more possession of the ball and creativity going forwards.

Announcing a contract extension until the end of next season, Cardiff’s website declared the move was in response to ‘drastically improved performances’.

Goals per game have gone up from 0.85 under McCarthy to 1.12 with Morison and goals conceded have come down.

Cardiff chairman Vincent Tan has been impressed with improved results and performances

Cardiff chairman Vincent Tan has been impressed with improved results and performances

Morison has been credited with making the Cardiff City Stadium a more positive environment for the players and fans and did some smart business in the January transfer window, bringing in a clutch of loanees, who have given the team more options attacking down the flanks and up front.

He has even experimented with the system, shifting from a back three to trying a four towards the end of the season, an approach that may have contributed to a slightly disappointing finish.

Morison has been candid about the need to change the Bluebirds’ style, but he has been conscious of the need for results, too. In the summer he can shape the team he wants.



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