The EFL’s Championship team of the year is difficult to find fault with. You can argue the toss in a few positions – Matt Ritchie, Kyle Bartley and Luke Ayling are three players who I’d see as unlucky to be missing – but there are no ridiculous choices.
The point of most interest was probably the selection of Huddersfield’s David Wagner as manager of the year. Again, there’s no scandal behind that decision. Wagner was always going to be in the list of contenders because Huddersfield have clicked from the first day of the season. I can hardly remember the last time the club were this close to the Premier League and that speaks volumes.
We should speak highly of Chris Hughton’s work at Brighton too. There’s this general assumption that Brighton were always going to be in the mix for automatic promotion again but missing out so narrowly last season must have been hard to deal with. Situations like that often cause hangovers and it’s to Hughton’s credit that he found a way to stop his squad moping or going backwards.
But the more I think about it, the more I reckon that Garry Monk is manager of the year. That’s not a slight on anyone and it doesn’t diminish the impact of coaches like Wagner or Hughton but you have to put this into context and consider the prospects each of them had when the season began.
If we’re being honest about Monk, who seriously expected him to make it to Christmas? Did many people think he’d survive through the autumn, particularly after a poor start?
Massimo Cellino has the most itchy trigger-finger going and the only protection Monk had against it was his own ability and his own conviction. Where Wagner’s concerned, he’d already had half a season to cast his eye over everything and start making changes.
It’s fair to say he had a boardroom above him with total confidence in him and, whatever anyone says, I do think Jurgen Klopp’s high opinion of Wagner helps. Names don’t come much bigger than Klopp’s and when he’s fighting your corner people are liable to cut you more slack. That’s not to say Wagner’s needed much slack but I doubt he’s ever felt that horrible creep of uncertainty about what the people upstairs were thinking about him.
Beyond that, Wagner has had complete support at Huddersfield. When it comes to transfers, I kind of doubt he’s ever been told ‘no’ – which, of course, is how it should be, within reason. But it seems to me that Monk has had to fight harder to get himself into the position where authority is his and where Leeds United feel 100 per cent compelled to back him. Even then, it couldn’t be said that the club threw money his way in January. Making a success of his squad has, I feel, been a bigger job than any other in the Championship.
I speak to managers and coaches regularly and I think Huddersfield knew what they were sitting on this season. Internally I think they realised that Wagner was very clear in his methods and that their squad would suit those methods. I’m not saying they knew they’d be fighting for a top-two finish but a relegation battle was always out of the question.
At Leeds, I’m not so sure there was the same level of confidence. Monk had his reputation and we all thought it was a good appointment when Cellino made it but up until this season you genuinely wondered if it really mattered who was in the job. It seemed to drag everyone down and I don’t accept the argument that Monk going to Elland Road was a free hit for him.
Fair enough, if a manager fails at Leeds then they can blame issues behind the scenes and stick the club’s name on their CV but look at what’s happened to the previous incumbents. Uwe Rosler went to Fleetwood to get his career going again and Steve Evans is at Mansfield. Brian McDermott and Neil Redfearn aren’t in managerial jobs and David Hockaday vanished without trace. Much as it went wrong for Garry at Swansea in the end, I’m one of the people who thinks they’d have been better off sticking with him.
His reputation as a good young coach was very much intact when they sacked him and he was taking a punt on both Leeds and his stock when he decided to take this job on.
Over the course of the season he’s shown fire when he needed to show fire and restraint when he needed to show restraint. He’s handled the politics brilliantly and he’s tamed a club where at times the madness has been phenomenal.
Management can be pretty overwhelming in the easiest of circumstances. Dougie Freedman told me recently how managers spend 75 per cent of their time dealing with people they don’t want to be dealing with and 25 per cent of the time focusing on what needs to be done. The nice part, the release of actually being on the training pitch, is only a small part of the job. That Garry’s got it right in so many respects at a club where so many other coaches couldn’t is, to my mind, the definition of manager of the year.
n Upcoming Sky-televised Championship fixtures include:
Friday, March 31: Derby County v Queens Park Rangers (Sky Sports 1, 7.45pm kick-off).