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Sat 28 May16:00
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League Two 2021/22: Top Five Managers of the Season

Rob Edwards

As we eagerly await the outcome of the Football League play-offs, EFL expert Gab Sutton gives us his Top Five League Two Managers of the Season...

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Barnsley
Blackburn Rovers
Burnley
Charlton Athletic
Crawley Town
Forest Green
Queens Park Rangers
Paris St Germain

5. Paul Simpson (Carlisle)

Some outsiders might raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of a manager whose side finished the season 20th, but we think it’s important to give those who do well in different types of jobs the recognition they deserve.

Carlisle looked a rudderless ship under Keith Millen and were plummeting towards the non-league abyss, but as soon as Paul Simpson came in, the place lifted.

That’s partly because the Cumbrians legend inspired the club to back-to-back promotions in the mid-noughties, but also because he delivered instant results: six wins in seven made fears of the drop a thing of the past.

Simpson has also had joy by being creative with the formation, opting for a 3-1-4-2 whilst converting wide men Jordan Gibson and Brennan Dickenson into wide number eights (or Mezzalas, if looking for a modern term).

This was a risky move, seeing as Gibson and Dickenson can be enigmatic and if they did not pull their weight, it would risk leaving the number six – Callum Guy when fit – overwhelmed at the base of midfield.

The pros, though, have outweighed the cons and Gibson and Dickenson have given Carlisle the creativity they need, while moving Omari Patrick into a central role has proved an inspired switch.

Patrick’s pace and power has been a crucial part of Carlisle’s resurgence, but while a wide role under the previous regime confined him to just one side of the field, the central, second striker role allows him to attack in transition wherever the game opens up.

With Simpson at the helm, demanding assurances of improvements on structural issues like recruitment in order to sign a permanent contract, Carlisle can hope for a better future – especially if Dean Henderson’s sale at Manchester United gives them a sell-on fee that can allow for further positive boardroom changes.

Football Tips
Darrell Clarke (Port Vale)
Darrell Clarke (Port Vale)

4. Darrell Clarke...and Andy Crosby (Port Vale)

Some things are bigger than football.

Darrell Clarke was granted compassionate leave by Port Vale in February, after a family bereavement, and phased back his return in April.

Andy Crosby did a wonderful job in the interim period and, after a 1-0 win at Hartlepool, Vale were five points clear in the automatic promotion race with four to play.

In the aftermath of that victory, which Clarke had watched from the stands, the gaffer went on the pitch and dragged Crosby over to the fans, pointing at his assistant to ensure he was given the recognition he deserved.

While Clarke had been absent, fans still sung “Darrell Clarke’s Black and White Army”, rather than Andy Crosby’s, out of support – to do otherwise might have felt almost like disloyalty to the existing manager – yet Clarke wanted Crosby to get the recognition he deserves.

It was a beautiful moment when, with Clarke’s blessing, fans sung Andy Crosby’s name at Victoria Park – even if the 49-year-old looked keen not to stand on ceremony, with promotion still to be won.

And, promotion is still to be won, as a defeat the following week to Bristol Rovers – who ultimately got third at Vale’s expense – was the first of three consecutive losses, which left the Burslem outfit needing their win at Exeter to book a Play-Off spot.

Vale have the added incentive to finish the job for their manager, after what he’s been through in recent months, but there is so much for them to be proud of.

They are a club united on and off the pitch, and will rise again under Clarke’s guidance.

Matt Taylor (Exeter City)
Matt Taylor (Exeter City)

3. Matt Taylor (Exeter City)

After two near-misses on the top-seven sandwiched a Play-Off Final humiliation against Northampton, Matt Taylor has finally taken Exeter over that dotted line.

The Grecians might have missed out on the title courtesy of that final day defeat to Port Vale, but automatic promotion is a fabulous achievement for the fan-owned club and the former centre-back has been a crucial part of that accomplishment.

In some ways, Taylor had a tough act to follow in Paul Tisdale – another City icon (if not universally revered on Well Street by the end) – but he’s brought his own values to the role:

Honest, straight-talking, the ability to sum up a match concisely and accurately in a way that typically resonates with fans, and a little bit more outward emotion – albeit channelled in a controlled way.

Plus, while natives were clamouring for marquee signings after the club received significant add-ons from the Ollie Watkins deal, Taylor was measured when he came to recruitment and was not afraid to look beneath the surface.

The primary example is Timothee Dieng: having been part of successive relegations with Southend, the midfielder’s stock was low, but after doing some due diligence and receiving positive references on the Frenchman from trusted people, Taylor took the chance.

Dieng has since been arguably Exeter’s Player of the Year, bringing a physical, destructive presence in midfield whilst popping up with 13 goals, second top scorer one behind Matt Jay, often nodding home crosses from Jevani Brown, Josh Key or Pierce Sweeney at the back stick.

Taylor’s success has made him a favourite for the Charlton job - more on that below - a move to the capital would bring different challenges because, although he would be working with a far bigger budget, he would be working within a comparatively questionable footballing structure and – being a City icon – would have to prove himself all over again.

Rob Edwards (Forest Green Rovers - now Watford)
Rob Edwards (Forest Green Rovers - now Watford)

2. Rob Edwards (Forest Green Rovers)

It’s for Forest Green Rovers fans to decide how much of Rob Edwards’ achievements this season have been tarnished by the manner in which the head coach has left for Watford.

On the one hand, it’s understandable that chairman Dale Vince feels aggrieved that the Hornets have gone behind his back to negotiate with Edwards on a deal, and that the former England Under-16s coach was complicit in that.

On the other hand, Edwards now has a job that sees him not only managing in a higher division, but also with a brilliant opportunity to work towards getting into the Premier League, with the possibility of pitting his wits against Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola by 2023-24 – and it’s hard to say whether that chance would have come his way if he had not spoken to Watford underhandedly.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the move, there is a reason why the Hertfordshire club have been willing to take a chance on a coach that was, this season, working three divisions lower than them.

Edwards has built his success on a high-pressing 3-4-1-2 strategy, with emphasis on pushing the wing-backs extremely high up the pitch and being the main source of creativity, with the number 10 tasked with supporting the front two against the ball and the midfielders providing the control and balance.

Wide centre-backs, typically Udoka Godwin-Malife and Baily Cargill, do not overlap so much as support play from behind and provide strength in one-on-one duels, covering for the middle centre-back, often Jordan Moore-Taylor.

Watford get a lot of stick for changing coaches regularly, but if they do give Edwards a little bit of leeway, he could take them on to brighter things.

Matt Gray (Sutton United)
Matt Gray (Sutton United)

1. Matt Gray (Sutton United)

With Rob Edwards poached by Watford and Matt Taylor attracting interest from Charlton, it seems harsh in some ways that Matt Gray has no suitors from higher up the pyramid – despite delivering a promotion challenge on a fraction of the budget.

After winning the National League title last season, another hugely impressive achievement with limited resources, Sutton United only just became a full-time club last summer and are still adjusting to life in the EFL off-the-field.

Despite this, they have had no troubles adapting on it, and only missed out on the Play-Offs on the final day, playing at the highest level in the club’s 124-year history.

Gray has been a staunch 4-4-2 disciple, favouring a compact eight-block out of possession and, if Omar Bugiel is playing, they will look to play the ball into his chest or feet in transition as a trigger for the wide men – two of David Ajiboye, Will Randall and Enzio Boldewijn – to join in with the attack.

If Richie Bennett is starting rather than Bugiel, they will look for the target man’s head to flick on to Isaac Olaofe or Donovan Wilson – although it could be argued that the latter has a better relationship with OB.

With Ben Goodliffe forging a sturdy centre-back pairing with Louis John and Craig Eastmond bringing invaluable experience in midfield, Sutton have built their success on a tight-knit squad and the spirit of the collective.

We’re not saying Gray is the new Pep – but we are saying he’s our League Two Manager of the Year!

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