League One 2022/23: Top Five Managers of the Season
In the first segment of a three-part series, EFL expert Gab Sutton talks us through his Top Five Managers of the 2022/23 League One season...
5. Ian Evatt
Back in January 2021, Bolton were as low as 19th in League Two and 10 points off the top seven, despite lofty expectations.
A 2-0 win over Leyton Orient, though, catalysed a run of 16 wins in their final 22 league games, which catapulted them up the table and into the top three, sealing their fate with a 4-1 thumping of Crawley on the final day.
Perhaps Ian Evatt was fortunate that the standard of competition in the automatic promotion race was not as high as it was the year before, when Swindon, Crewe and Plymouth Argyle wouldn’t have let anyone that far off close the gap.
Perhaps he was fortunate, too, that Football Ventures stood by him, when many owners in their position would have given in to pressure from a section of supporters.
Either way, the stars have aligned and given Evatt the space to prove himself an excellent manager, leading Bolton to a ninth-placed finish last season, then a top six spot this year: continual progression.
Evatt and the recruitment team have acted smartly in the transfer window: for instance, many were concerned at how Marlon Fossey would be replaced, after the Fulham loanee starred in the second half of last season, but Conor Bradley has been an inspired addition at right wing-back, on loan from Liverpool.
If Trent Alexander-Arnold moves into midfield, Bradley’s Anfield career may open up a notch!
James Trafford has also been a fabulous signing in goal, on loan from Manchester City, while Eoin Toal, on the right of a three-man defence, brought ball-playing excellence – at least before an unfortunate injury.
Indeed, injuries at the back have threatened to derail Wanderers’ season, especially with the resurgence of Peterborough under Darren Ferguson, but Evatt has been able to find a way without star defender Ricardo Santos, at the back-end of the campaign.
Bolton have an appealing mix of the playmaking talents of Aaron Morley and the industry of Kyle Dempsey: they can play, but they can also look after themselves in a battle.
Perhaps the best signing they have made in the last 12 months is tying Evatt to a three-year contract, so it’s been a productive season for the Trotters, regardless of events this month.
Led superbly by Sharon Brittain, this is a financially stable club with a plan, a galvanized fanbase, a manager who has only known success, a team that looks capable of growing together, and boundless potential.
Their rise has been thanks to so many, but Evatt has been right at the heart of it.
4. Dino Maamria
When Dino Maamria took interim charge, after the sacking of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Burton were already six points adrift with just one point from their first seven games.
2022/23 looked at best a relegation dogfight, and at worst, an audition for Maamria to earn the chance to lead the club into a rebuild in League Two, so potent was the early damage.
Early victories over Exeter and Forest Green inspired some hope, but the path to escaping trouble wasn’t a completely linear trajectory for the Brewers.
They had one win in 11 between October and December, then after back-to-back wins at the end of 2022, suffered crushing 5-0 and 4-0 defeats to Morecambe and Shrewsbury respectively, which landed them back in the relegation zone in mid-January.
A high-line caught Burton out in those encounters, but the return of key defender Sam Hughes inspired another resurgence, along with some excellent January business.
Goalkeeper Craig MacGillivray, defender Jasper Moon, left wing-back Zac Ashworth, midfielder Mark Helm and striker Dale Taylor all made an instant impact, as Maamria’s side secured three successive wins over Oxford, Fleetwood and Exeter.
From that point onwards, the East Staffordshire outfit never went more than two games without a win, and only went more than once without one on two occasions, as they steamed out of trouble.
In fact, from the point Maamria took charge, Burton have accrued a whopping 55 points from 39 games: only the top six, Derby and Wycombe have accrued more in that timeframe.
On top of that, the Brewers looks a far more enterprising, and unpredictably creative side than was seen last season, as well as having the battling qualities any Dino team will always possess.
In 2021/22, Burton got enough points for comfortable survival through set piece proficiency (see Morecambe) and pouncing on errors (see Accrington Stanley), but it became clear early on that when they faced solid, compact opponents who do the basics well (see Shrewsbury), they ran out of ideas.
This season, teams have had to work so much harder to keep them out: there are technicians like Terry Taylor and Helm getting on the ball in midfield, there’s Deji Oshilaja breaking into the box, there’s Tom Hamer and Ashworth getting into more advanced positions, there’s Charlie Kirk and Jonny Smith creating from wide, there’s the threat of Victor Adeboyejo, latterly Dale Taylor, turning and getting a shot away.
In an incredibly tough league in which Burton are financial minnows, Maamria has built a team that are not only hard to play against, but hard to stop, and even during Autumn and early winter’s barren run when there were a lot of draws, the shot data was highly compelling.
Maamria has worked wonders at Burton, and while he will have to replace 3-4 key players this summer, if he can recruit super smartly again this summer, the Tunisian will feel his side can challenge for a top half finish in 2023/24.
3. Kieran McKenna
Of the names on this list, Kieran McKenna has perhaps the greatest long-term potential as a manager.
The Irishman has certainly benefited from the financial advantages of managing a League One powerhouse in Ipswich, at a time when their ownership situation is strong, and there’s no question that helps.
On the flip side, the former Manchester United coach consistently improves individuals.
Cameron Burgess, Leif Davis, Wes Burns and Conor Chaplin, to name four, have progressed significantly under McKenna, with Davis being this writer’s choice for Player of the Year in League One!
Burgess, for instance, wasn’t quite so highly rated at Scunthorpe, and after a year in League Two with Salford, a good season at Accrington Stanley earnt the Aberdeen-born defender a high-profile move to Portman Road in 2021 – but it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Ipswich kept just four clean sheets in 22 matches before McKenna took charge in December of last season, at which point many questioned whether the left-footer would quite make the grade – especially after the 2-0 FA Cup loss at Barrow.
McKenna has worked his magic with the 27-year-old, who has become a regular this season due to February’s injury to George Edmondson, bringing a different physical dimension to a back-line that shortly afterwards went on a run of 13 clean sheets in 15 games.
That astonishing run of nine consecutive wins to nil was the difference for Town between looking downwards at the Play-Off scramble, and securing automatic promotion at Sheffield Wednesday’s expense, with a fantastic 98 points.
Burgess’ progress, though, is one example that highlights the quality of McKenna’s coaching, which will make such a difference in the Championship.
There’s no pressure on Ipswich to push for a second promotion – midtable consolidation will do – but it’s hard to ignore the sense of opportunity opening up.
Do Ipswich have, right now, a top six Championship squad ‘on paper’? Of course not – only Davis and Chaplin have successful experience at the level.
Outside the top spots, though, it’s been an extremely open league for the last four seasons, with an average of 70 points being the required target: the equivalent of 20 wins, 10 draws and 16 defeats, which doesn’t feel completely unrealistic for a team that looks as complete as this one does.
In that timeframe, Barnsley, Huddersfield and twice Luton have reached the Play-Offs on low budgets, whereas Ipswich will have the capital to add quality where needed because of the size of their fanbase.
With McKenna’s ability to consistently improve players, the future’s looking up for the Tractor Boys.
2. Michael Duff
When Michael Duff took charge last summer, Barnsley felt almost like a broken club.
Tarn had just been relegated with a whimper from the Championship, and the club was still finding its way in terms of ownership, after Patrick Cryne’s passing in 2018.
There had been some positive steps in terms of Paul Conway and Chien Lee being removed from the board of directors, but the latter still had shares, so the solution felt compromised and supporters remained a little on edge, not helped by one or two PR blunders.
With all that in mind, it looked like a rebuilding season in prospect for the Reds, with trust needing to be repaired, not to mention the team.
While it was broadly acknowledged at the time that Duff was an outstanding capture - after his incredible, record-breaking work at Cheltenham - it has perhaps still surprised a section of supporters the scale and speed of the transformation.
That speaks to two things: the first being Duff’s ability to elevate individuals to new levels with the quality of his coaching.
Having struggled desperately last season, defensive lynchpin Mads Andersen, ball-playing defender Liam Kitching, athletic wing-back Jordan Williams and physical front-man Devante Cole have all been outstanding in this campaign and would be a different proposition in the Championship next time around, under Duff’s guidance.
League One Promotion Odds
The second is the strength of recruitment: Harry Isted, Bobby Thomas, Adam Phillips, Luca Connell, Nicky Cadden and James Norwood have all been excellent additions in the previous two windows.
Connell, especially, has been arguably the best midfielder in a league that has Barry Bannan in it, looking an inspired acquisition with his energy, tenacity and class.
The Celtic recruit has been the hub of this Tarn team, but everywhere one looks, there’s relationships and partnerships that have evolved with a wonderful synergy and understanding.
The left-sided combination play between Kitching, Kane, and Cadden has been a key feature of Barnsley’s game this season, but because Connell, Kitching and Andersen are all excellent long-range passers, they can easily switch the play to the right.
On that side, Bobby Thomas has been a steady presence, supporting from behind, allowing Jordan Williams to use his athleticism and drive to bolt down the flank, where he can combine delightfully with Adam Phillips, who brings fantastic movement and is highly productive in the final third, with some 17 goal involvements.
When Williams attacks the flank, Phillips can break into the box to carry a threat; conversely, Phillips can overload the flank, allowing Williams to break into the box at an angle, and cut the ball back for one of the strikers.
The whole team works like clockwork, and while it may have taken a couple of months for Barnsley to start to look like a Duff team, the pace at which they’ve reached this level of smoothness from scratch is quite stunning.
Up The Duff!
1. Steven Schumacher
The boyhood Everton fan, offloaded at Goodison Park in 2004 without playing a game for the club, could be set to face the Toffees as a manager in the Championship next season.
It’s a potential fairytale story for Steven Schumacher, who has led Plymouth Argyle to their first title since 2003/04, with the Devonians back in the second tier after a tumultuous 13 years away.
In the early 2010s, the Green Army were fearing for the future of the club but James Brent then stabilized things off the field before John Sheridan did the same on it, then Derek Adams led them to three progressive seasons – including promotion - prior to a setback of relegation in 2019.
That, though, was Simon Hallett’s first full summer as majority shareholder, and the Argyle owner has done wonders for the club.
Hallett has brought honest, transparent leadership to Home Park, and he’s delegated brilliantly with the outstanding appointments of Andrew Parkinson as CEO, Neil Dewsnip as Sporting Director, and Jimmy Dickinson as Head of Recruitment – among others – making Argyle one of the smartest and best run clubs in the country.
Ryan Lowe has benefited from that structure when he managed the club to promotion in 2019/20, then a streaky-but-safe maiden League One campaign, before leading Argyle into contention in 2021/22.
After Lowe departed for Preston North End, eyebrows were raised when the Liverpudlian was replaced by his assistant, but Schumacher has brought continuity and the ability to put his own stamp on things.
Argyle are a better-rounded, more adaptable outfit under Schuey, which allowed them to finish on as many as 80 points last season, then get to a stunning 101 in this campaign.
Schumacher has managed the squad cleverly, too: a core of 18 players have started a double-figured number of league games, and none have started more than 33.
With a willingness to rotate and impact games with substitutions, especially in attack, the team have scored a whopping 41 goals in the last half hour of matches: more than any other team in League One.
Schumacher has also overcome obstacles: the injury to goalkeeper Michael Cooper, who had been so crucial to their form for much of the campaign, and had played a part in them outperforming their underlying numbers – a loss that could so easily have proved telling, yet Callum Burton stepped in and worked wonders.
The loss of Dan Scarr, and his aerial dominance, could have been hugely problematic in defence, yet Schuey found a way of making a rear-guard of Nigel Longwijk, James Wilson and Macauley Gillesphey work without him.
Agile forward Morgan Whittaker was recalled from Swansea in January, having had 16 goal involvements in 25 games, and needed to be replaced, but the addition of Callum Wright was crucial.
After impressing at Cheltenham last season, the Blackpool recruit has brought balletic skill and an eye for goal, scoring four times, assisting the same number, in 20 appearances – starting only half those games.
Bringing the vision of a clear system and style of play, the pragmatism to make tweaks to Ryan Lowe’s template, and the adaptability to respond to circumstances and find solutions, this really has been the complete job from Schumacher.
Of course, his job is made so much easier by the structure he’s working in – Schuey would be the first to say that – but what a job he’s done.
Deservedly Manager of the Year!