The budding stars of tomorrow: 20 best players outside the Premier League
Our third annual ranking of the talent outside the top division reflects the growing emphasis on youth and the burgeoning quality of Scottish football. By Glenn Moore, Football Editor
Thursday 10 January 2008
Mark Beavers, John Bostock, Luke Freeman, Owen Garvan, Dan Gosling, Chris Gunter, Lee Hills, Aaron Ramsey, Sean Scannall, Ben Tozer.
The above players, all teenagers, are largely unknown to Premier League supporters, but not to the elite's scouts. Three – Gosling, Gunter and Tozer – have already moved within the transfer window, others are expected to follow.
The extraordinary aspect is that this trio are the only players transferred from Football League clubs to Premier League clubs in this window so far. In last year's window 13 players moved up the leagues, none of them a teenager.
It appears Premier League clubs are now looking abroad, or to each other, when buying seasoned pros, only raiding the domestic game for very young talent, potential they can shape and develop.
Joe Royle, who has worked in both leagues, believes this reflects a Championship that "looks so ordinary". Royle, who managed Oldham, Everton and Manchester City and Ipswich, added: "This year nobody seems up-and-coming."
Royle's view is not an isolated one. This is the third year of The Independent's survey of the best players outside the Premier League. Usually a few stand out. In 2006 it was Phil Jagielka, Andrew Johnson, Steve Sidwell and Theo Walcott. Last year it was David Nugent and Gareth Bale. This year ... nobody.
The Independent has canvassed a wide range of managers, players, pundits and agents asking who were the best players under 30 outside the Premier League. Close to 100 players were nominated but no single name kept cropping up. Most regarded West Bromwich Albion as the best team, but there was no general consensus as to which midfielder made them tick.
Another factor putting off Premier League clubs is the failure of players to make the step up. Of the 13 who moved last January only Matthew Upson and David Dunn are Premier League fixtures. In addition, such big summer signings as Nugent, Curtis Davis, Robbie Earnshaw, Diomansy Kamara and Michael Chopra, who collectively moved for deals that could total £30m, have made minimal impact.
As a result, Premier League managers have eschewed the Championship preferring to look overseas and to the Scottish Premier League. The hottest property on the market is Rangers' Alan Hutton, who has already rejected an £8m move to Spurs. The likes of Scott Brown, Kris Boyd, Aiden McGeady, David Murphy, and Scott McDonald are also being watched. Shansuke Nakamura, Scotland's player of the year, would ordinarily be considered too, but his age, 29, is against him.
In recognition of planned border raids The Independent has this year expanded the survey to include SPL players. Hutton is the clear No 1 while Brown and Murphy also make the 20, with McDonald very close. It could be argued that more SPL should be included. But there are no guarantees. Barry Ferguson failed in England, Stiliyan Petrov and Craig Beattie are struggling, Shaun Maloney is a fringe player and Kenny Miller has scored three League goals this season.
The Premier League is tough, with an emphasis on pace and power. Michael Mifsud, although scoring against Blackburn and Manchester United, does not make the cut. The Maltese is 5ft 5in. Players who are short and slight have to be exceptionally skilled, such as Alexander Hleb, or very quick, like Shaun Wright-Phillips, to thrive.
Chris Kamara, who in his roles as Sky Sports pundit, and chairman of panels choosing the Coca-Cola managers of the month, and Powerade players of the month, follows the Football League as closely as anyone, said: "Look at what has happened to Chopra and Kenwyne Jones. Chopra scored a lot of goals [at Cardiff] last year and started well at Sunderland but he is slight. He needs the ball in the box. At Sunderland the strikers are not getting that, they need to create their own chances. Jones, who is 6ft 2in, quick and powerful, can do that." Kamara disagrees with Royle, arguing: "There are a hell of a lot of good players in the Championship who Premier League clubs could go for."
In all, players from 12 Championship teams feature. Coventry (Mifsud), Blackpool (Wes Hoolahan), Hull (Boaz Myhill), Burnley (Kyle Lafferty, Chris McCann) and Plymouth (Peter Halmosi, David Norris and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake) might also have done so – such, Kamara would argue, is the breadth of talent in the Championship.
Five of the 2006 list are now England caps. So maybe Premier League managers should forget about racking up the air miles, and take another look closer to home. Click here for the full list in pictures.
1. Alan Hutton (Rangers)
Age: 23 Position: Right-back Nationality: Scottish (full international) Value: £8m Interested: Tottenham, Manchester United, Newcastle.
A modern full-back with attacking instincts who is also good in the air. His £8m valuation by Tottenham has split opinion in Scotland: some feel cash-needy Rangers should snap Spurs' hand off, others think waiting a few months will see his value up to eight figures. What is in no doubt is that Hutton was the SPL's most improved player by a streak in 2007. No less a judge than Sir Alex Ferguson, who watched him first-hand when Scotland played Italy in November, said he was "exceptional", adding: "He has come from nowhere and looks as though he'll be a superstar once he gets that little extra bit of experience." Italy's Christian Panucci gushed that Hutton was "quick... two good feet... good mentality... I have no doubts he could play in Italy". Most encouraging to any prospective buyer is that he saves his best for the biggest games: Scotland matches against France, Ukraine and Italy, and Champions League games versus Stuttgart, Lyons and Barcelona. Won his first cap in 2007 but integral to the Scots already.
2. Michael Kightly (Wolverhampton Wndrs)
Age: 21 Position: Winger Nationality: English (U21) Value: £2m Interested: Aston Villa, Tottenham, Portsmouth, Everton.
Released by Tottenham as a schoolboy, then, after a stint at hometown Basildon United, played for Southend. Attracted attention when later at Grays Athletic. In November 2006 Mick McCarthy took a chance and now has a £2m-rated player. Quick with the ball, skilful and a maker and taker of goals, he was soon capped at Under-21 level. In the first year of a four-year deal and in no hurry to leave, but Wolves, and his resolution, will be tested if they do not go up this year.
3. Joe Ledley (Cardiff City)
Age: 20 Position: Midfield Nationality: Welsh (full) Value: £4m Interested: Everton, Tottenham, Wolves.
Left-sided midfielder who can also play in the centre or at left-back; capped at every level before making his full international debut at 18. Locally born, he wants to play for Cardiff in the Premier League and recently turned down Wolves to pursue that aim. He will make it, even if Cardiff do not.
4. Jonathan Greening (West Bromwich Albion)
Age: 28 Position: Midfield Nationality: English (U21) Value: £2m.
Plenty of Premier League experience, with Middlesbrough as well as Albion, without causing much of a stir, but now playing a more central role and producing the best football of his career.
5. Marlon King (Watford)
Age: 27 Position: Forward Nationality: Jamaican (full) Value: £5m Interested: Fulham.
Injury meant he missed most of Watford's season in the Premier League, having scored the goals that took them there. Back to fitness and scoring again. Quick and strong, with a nose for goal.
6. James Beattie (Sheffield United)
Age: 29 Position: Forward Nationality: English (full) Value: £4m Interested: Middlesbrough.
The Blades have struggled but Beattie has justified his £4m fee and leads the goal charts. Confidence player, who scores in bursts. Nearing 30, but he should get another shot at the top flight.
7. Zoltan Gera West Bromwich Albion)
Age: 28 Position: Midfield Nationality: Hungarian (full) Value: £1.5m Interested: Bolton, Middlesbrough.
Classy wide player who would have been a Premier League fixture but for injuries. Chips in with goals. Decent in the air for a winger. Out of contract this summer.
8. Scott Brown (Celtic)
Age: 22 Position: Midfield Nationality: Scottish (full) Value: £5m.
Commanded a record fee between Scottish clubs, £4.4m, when moving from Hibs last summer. This tough dynamic midfielder is putting a hot-headed past behind him to excel for club and country.
9. Jonathan Walters (Ipswich Town)
Age: 24 Position: Forward Nationality: English (Irish U21) Value: £2.5m Interested: Newcastle, Wigan.
Striker successfully converted to the right flank by Jim Magilton. Ex-Blackburn trainee, who was also released by Bolton. Signed from Chester for £150,000 plus add-ons last January.
10. Ricardo Fuller (Stoke)
Age: 28 Position: Forward Nationality: Jamaican (full) Value: £3m.
Craig Brown, who brought him from Jamaica to Preston, regards him as the best in the division when fit. Powerful in the air and on the deck, with a decent shot and football brain. A handful for any defence.
11. Brian Howard (Barnsley)
Age: 24 Position: Midfield Nationality: English (U20) Value: £3m Interested: Everton, Wigan, Derby, Tottenham, West Bromwich.
Won youth caps as a striker but was released by Southampton. Swindon gave him another chance and he has reinvented himself as that coveted beast, a central midfielder with a scoring instinct.
12. Marvin Elliott (Bristol City)
Age: 23 Position: Midfield Nationality: English Value: £1m Interested: Portsmouth, Charlton.
At 19 he played in the 2004 FA Cup final for Millwall, at left-back with the brief to mark Cristiano Ronaldo. A hard-running midfielder, whose promise is being cleverly developed by Gary Johnson.
13. Ben Watson (Crystal Palace)
Age: 22 Position: Midfield Nationality: English (U21) Value: £2.5m Interested: Reading, Derby, Bolton, Sunderland.
Been promising for a long time but must feel like an elder statesman among Neil Warnock's kids. Good passer, Premier League experience, and a fine set-piece delivery.
14. David Murphy (Hibernian)
Age: 23 Position: Left-back Nationality: English Value: £1.5m Interested: Birmingham, Wigan, Rangers.
Born in Hartlepool, began his career at Boro, signed for Hibs in 2004. A creative left-back who does not allow his defensive duties to suffer as he marauds.
15. Wayne Hennessey (Wolves)
Age: 20 Position: Goalkeeper Welsh: (full) Value: £2m Interested: Everton.
Given his chance when the excellent Matt Murray was badly injured and took it spectacularly. Improving all the time; already Wales' No 1.
16. Andy Reid (Charlton)
Age: 25 Position: Midfield Nationality: Irish (full) Value: £2m.
No one doubts he has the talent, but does he have the drive to realise it? Capable of running a game in the hole, but leaves a hole when the opposition have the ball. Lovely left foot. Time still on his side.
17. Gary Naysmith (Sheffield Utd)
Age: 29 Position: Defender Nationality: Scottish (full) Value: £1m Interested Birmingham.
Experienced left-back but has been plagued by injuries. Dropped a division in the summer as £1m makeweight in the deal that took Phil Jagielka to Bramall Lane.
18. Heinz Muller (Barnsley)
Age: 29 Position: Goalkeeper Nationality: German (youth) Value: £1m Interested: Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Blackburn.
Giant 'keeper who has made a big impact since signing from Norwegian club Lillestrom in the summer. Left for Norway at 26, having struggled to hold down a regular place in Bundesliga 2. Has £1m sale clause in contract.
19. Akos Buzsaky (Queen's Park Rangers)
Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Nationality: Hungarian (full) Value: £1.5m.
Talented but as yet inconsistent attacking midfielder who could become the fulcrum of QPR's well-financed bid for Premier League status. Joined Rangers from Plymouth this month as contract expired in summer.
20. Filipe Teixeira (West Bromwich)
Age: 27 Position: Midfield Nationality: Portuguese (capped at U21) Value: £1.5m.
With Greening, Gera and Robert Koren, who almost made the 20, makes up Albion's talented midfield quartet. French-born Portuguese, who played with Ronaldinho at Paris St-Germain.
Best of the Rest: Others who are shining away from the Premier League limelight
TEN TEENAGERS TO WATCH:
Mark Beavers (Sheffield Wednesday, 18); John Bostock (Crystal Palace, 15); Luke Freeman (Gillingham, 15); Owen Garvan (Ipswich, 19); Dan Gosling (Plymouth, 17, deal agreed to join Everton); Chris Gunter (ex-Cardiff, now Tottenham, 18); Lee Hills (Crystal Palace, 17); Aaron Ramsey (Cardiff, 17); Sean Scannall (Crystal Palace, 17); Ben Tozer (ex-Swindon, now Newcastle United, 17)
THE BEST OF THE REST LEAGUE ONE:
1 Jermaine Beckford (Leeds Utd
2 Kris Commons (Notts Forest)
3 Kevin Amankwaah (Swansea City)
1 Keith Andrews (MK Dons)
2 Jason Puncheon (Barnet)
3 Aaron McLean (Peterborough)
1 Stuart Fleetwood (Forest Green Rovers)
BEST LOAN PLAYERS
1 Ryan Shawcross (Man Utd, on loan to Stoke)
2 Ishmael Miller (Man City, on loan to West Bromwich)
3 Fraizer Campbell (Man Utd, on loan to Hull)
BEST VETERANS (30+)
1 Kevin Phillips (West Brom, left)
2 Dean Windass (Hull City)
3 Paul McKenna (Preston)
Upwardly mobile: How the Classes of 2006 and 2007 have fared
The Class of 2007:
Thirteen chosen as the 20 best outside the top flight last year are in the Premier League. Of the rest, Freddy Eastwood has moved to a bigger club in the Championship and Matt Murray has been injured. Zoltan Gera and Ben Watson reappear while Boaz Myhill was close to his third successive selection. All six Best of the Rest players have moved upwards: From League One Billy Sharp (Scunthorpe, now Sheffield United), Lee Trundle (Swansea, now Bristol City) and Matty Jarvis (Gillingham, now Wolves); from League Two Izale MacLeod (MK Dons, now Charlton), Jermaine Easter (Wycombe, now Plymouth); while Ian Roper was promoted with Walsall.
1 David Nugent
(Preston NE) Joined Portsmouth in the summer.
2 Gareth Bale (Southampton) Joined Tottenham in the summer.
3 Gary McSheffrey (Birmingham City) Promoted with Birmingham.
4 Freddy Eastwood (Southend Utd) Still Championship. To Wolves in summer.
5 Curtis Davies (West Brom Albion) Loaned to Aston Villa in the summer as precursor to transfer.
6 Giles Barnes (Derby County) Promoted with Derby last summer.
7 Robert Earnshaw (Norwich City). Transferred to Derby in the summer.
8 Jason Koumas (West Brom) Transferred to Wigan in the summer.
9 Grzegorz Rasiak (Southampton). Still in Championship. Still at Southampton.
10 Matthew Upson (Birmingham City) Transferred to West Ham last January.
11 Michael Chopra (Cardiff City) Transferred to Sunderland in summer.
12 Matt Murray (Wolves). Still in Championship at Wolves.
13 David Dunn
(Birmingham City) Joined Blackburn last January.
14 Zoltan Gera (West Bromwich) Still in Championship. Still at West Bromwich.
15 Greg Halford (Colchester) Joined Reading in January, now at Sunderland.
16 Anthony Stokes (Sunderland) Promoted with Sunderland.
17 Tom Soares (Crystal Palace) Still in Championship. Still at Palace.
18 Boaz Myhill (Hull City). Still in Championship. Still Hull.
19 Lee Cook (QPR) Transferred to Fulham in the summer.
20 Ben Watson (Crystal Palace) Still in Championship, at Palace.
The Class of 2007:
Of 13 Englishmen in the 2006 list, five have since been capped by England: Andrew Johnson, Theo Walcott, Joleon Lescott, Ashley Young and Nicky Shorey. Only Johnson was an full international before. Dean Ashton would have been capped but for injury. Of the 20, 14 are now Premier League players including the top nine. Of the rest, Danny Webber played in the top flight last season, Owen Garvan should do and Boaz Myhill might. The 2006 survey listed 20 players "bubbling under". Of these 15 have since played in the Premier League, including Rob Green, Dave Kitson, James Harper and David Nugent.
1 Phil Jagielka (Sheff Utd) Transferred to Everton during the summer.
2 Andrew Johnson (Crystal Palace) Joined Everton in summer 2006.
3 Steve Sidwell (Reading) Promoted with Reading in 2006; transferred to Chelsea last summer.
4 Theo Walcott (Southampton) Joined Arsenal in January 2006.
5 Cameron Jerome (Cardiff City) Joined Birmingham summer 2006.
6 Kevin Doyle
(Reading) Promoted with Reading in 2006.
7 Dean Ashton
(Norwich City) Joined West Ham in January 2006.
8 Kenny Miller (Wolves) Joined Celtic in 2006, Derby last summer.
9 Joleon Lescott (Wolves) Transferred to Everton in summer 2006.
10 Danny Webber (Sheffield Utd) Championship. Promoted with Sheffield United in 2006, then relegated last season.
11 Lee Trundle (Swansea) Then League One. Now Championship. Transferred to Bristol City last summer.
12 Ashley Young
(Watford) Transferred to Aston Villa last January.
13 Bobby Convey (Reading) Promoted with Reading in 2006.
14 Nigel Quashie (Southampton) Joined West Brom in January 2006, then to West Ham last January.
15 Mark Kennedy (Wolves) Still Championship. Joined Crystal Palace in 2006.
16 SEOL Ki Hyeon (Wolves) Joined Reading in 2006, Fulham last summer.
17 Matty Fryatt (Walsall) Then League One. Now Championship. With Leicester City.
18 Nicky Shorey (Reading) Promoted with Reading in 2006.
19 Boaz Myhill (Hull City) Championship, still with Hull.
20 Owen Garvan (Ipswich) Championship, still at Ipswich.
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