Monday, April 7, 2008

Manager of the Year

Out of the 20 managers currently in charge of Premiership teams, I’ve narrowed the list down to five for my personal “Manager of the Year” award for the 2007-2008 season. I’ll trim it down further to three on Wednesday, and announce the winner here on Friday. Your comments and feedback are definitely welcome; if you’re a fan of a particular team and/or manager, let me know why you think your guy should win. If I didn’t include someone who you wanted to see amongst the “quarterfinalists”, take me to task for it and tell me why I made a mistake.

The five candidates are in no particular order; I haven’t yet determined my “semifinalists” and winner:

1. Roy Keane (Sunderland): After taking charge early in the season last year at Sunderland and proceding to win the Coca-Cola Championship, Keane has led the Black Cats to almost certain safety in England’s top flight this campaign. Many people believed that Sunderland, as is the case with most Championship teams that come up to the Premiership these days, would go straight back down, but that doesn’t appear like it will happen. His team has defied expectations and this is a man who, despite a well-earned reputation as a fiery player during his day, has been calm, level-headed, and optimistic all year, even when things weren’t going well.

When you look at his roster, there is only one player, striker Kenwyne Jones, who could possibly earn significant playing time at a bigger club, but Keane has molded this patchwork group together and he’s got his team in 13th place right now. An impressive road victory at Aston Villa is probably the signature win of the season, but triumphs in North East derbies against Newcastle and Middlesbrough in a couple weeks’ time would be huge for Keane and Sunderland.

2. Juande Ramos (Tottenham): Ramos inherited a team that was in the relegation zone and was really suffering both from fitness issues and player apathy. He’s turned that around and then some, beating London rivals Chelsea to win the Carling Cup, which represented Spurs’ first trophy in nine years, and reaching the Round of 16 in the UEFA Cup before being eliminated on penalties by PSV Eindhoven.

Spurs have also gradually climbed up the league table into 11th place, and are only five points behind West Ham. With the start that this team had, a top-10 finish looked nearly impossible but Ramos has created a new era and mentality at Tottenham. His players have said that Ramos’ strict focus on fitness and diet, two things not really valued in English culture, has really had a huge impact, and aside from that one blip after the winning the Carling Cup final in which some of his players were caught drunk in public by the media, it’s a team with a completely different outlook than the one they had under Martin Jol, who had taken them as far as he could.

Yes, the talent has been there in the form of guys like Berbatov, Keane, Lennon, Jenas, and others, but it takes a special manager to harness that talent and turn it into success on the field, especially since he has a roster full of players that have been extremely moody and inconsistent in the past.

3. Martin O’Neill (Aston Villa): O’Neill has done incredible things with the England U-21’s…excuse me, Aston Villa, and has a team that will further develop and contend for a Champions League spot in the future. With that said, they’re in 7th place at present and have already exceeded last season’s win total (11) by three so far this year with five games still to play, and are definitely going to improve on last year’s 11th place finish.

What’s remarkable about O’Neill is that he’s been successful with the Birmingham-based club without spending a whole lot of money (although he has apparently been given a sizable war chest to spend this summer), and has one of the smallest (in number, not size) first team rosters in the Premiership. Only 16 field players have started a league game for the Villains this season and of those 16, nine have started 20 or more matches in the Premiership and 12 have started over ten or more games.

With all that said, I think the most telling thing about O’Neill and how much he means to his team can be shown when one of his players scores a goal. O’Neill jumps for joy nearly 26 feet off the ground and is the first to run to the touchline to hug, high-five, and celebrate with his players. He praises them in public and will support them to the end, but is also the first to criticize them a little bit when necessary and push for the extra gear that he knows these young players have.

4. David Moyes (Everton): The Scotsman and his team operate in the shadow of city rivals Liverpool, but Moyes has done a fantastic job with the Toffees this season and they could make another appearance in the UEFA Cup next year if the standings end up the way they currently are. They reached the Round of 16 this season before bowing out to Fiorentina in penalties, and got to the semifinals of the Carling Cup before losing to Chelsea.

Moyes has guided his team through injury problems (Leighton Baines, Tim Cahill, Mikel Arteta, etc.), and extended absences due to the African Cup of Nations (Joseph Yobo, Yakubu, and Steven Pienaar). This is another squad with some very serviceable, useful players, but no one that would really feature for any bigger teams in Europe, and Moyes has done very well to get the best out of them. The club’s eight road wins are tied for the third-most in the league.

Upcoming games against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Aston Villa will be huge for Everton and their quest to remain in 5th place, but you can count on Moyes having his team prepared and ready to play.

5. Arsène Wenger (Arsenal): Although it looks like Arsenal will fall short in both the Premiership title hunt and Champions League, one can’t discount what Wenger has been able to get out of a largely inexperienced team. There are some older, veteran players on the roster, but not all of them play significant minutes and it’s no secret that the Gunners’ fate hinges on their young guns.

Wenger has been criticized by many, myself included, for coddling his team in the media and never calling anyone on his roster out, but he knows exactly what he’s doing and the puppet strings are in the right hands with the Frenchman. This is a team that had legitimate aspirations for a double earlier in the season, and yes, perhaps it was a bit of a flash in the pan, but Wenger has kept his team more than competitive all season. They haven’t lost yet at the Emirates and have only been beaten twice in the league this year, which shows a lot of discipline and hard work, and that can be attributed directly to the players’ respect and desire to play for Wenger.

As I said, this list will be cut to three on Wednesday. Did I miss someone? I don’t think so, but if you think I did, let me know; I want to hear you.

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