Manager and Player of the Month Awards - January 2024
On icy pitches and in freezing dugouts, who knuckled down to their New Year's tasks and warmed up the cockles of EFL fans in January?
Ali Maxwell, Huw Davies, Sam Parry
The New Year has ushered in fresh and changed expectations for clubs across the EFL. In the Championship, there is a denser pack of teams vying for the play-off spots and battling for survival. The League One automatic promotion places are tight. And in League Two, eight teams are two wins or fewer away from the final play-off position.
A good run at any time can transform your season. We may not have arrived at the “business end” quite yet, but between ambitious managers and ruthless EFL owners, we have seen no fewer than eight managerial departures in January: Andy Crosby, Darren Moore, Matthew Taylor, Troy Deeney, Michael Flynn, Luke Williams, Wayne Rooney and Matthew Etherington. We bid them farewell, and in Luke Williams’ case, croeso. For the clubs they leave behind, what matters now is what comes next.
However, the future is of no concern to us today. These monthly awards are a window into the short-run successes of players and managers across the EFL, and we’ve got plenty to discuss. From a striker with more than 650 appearances to their name, to a 19-year-old right back with just 20.
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Mark Robins — Coventry City
Although it ended with a 2-2 draw at home to Bristol City and was followed in February by a 2-1 defeat to Norwich, January was a magical month for Mark Robins.
His Coventry side won 3-1 away at Middlesbrough and beat runaway leaders Leicester by the same scoreline, either side of a 6-2 romp past Oxford in the FA Cup. Victory at Hillsborough, where Sheffield Wednesday had won four of their previous five home games, moved Cov into the play-off places for the first time (though they’ve since dropped to 7th). No Gyök, no Hamer, no problem.
And Robins’ excellent work in January could impact more than just this season. Coventry’s climb up the table, and the buoyancy of Robins’ team even after a forced squad rebuild, makes them a more attractive proposition for players considering their next move. The club were able to show greater ambition in the transfer market as a result of those results. Would Coventry have won the race for Ephron Mason-Clark’s signature if Robins had them in 13th? Quite possibly not.
The move to a back four – as requested by sections of the fanbase – has been a success, creating the conditions for the electric form of Ben Sheaf, the exciting evolution of Tatsuhiro Sakamoto, and for Cov’s rise from the bottom five to the top six. That tactical switch wouldn’t have been an easy decision for Robins to make, either, even if it did finally come about on the back of four straight defeats, because it meant that after talismanic captain Kyle McFadzean had to be dropped, then released into the arms of Blackburn.
Robins’ next job is to ensure that the defeat to Norwich was just a blip. Coventry have a fairly friendly February fixture list – no letting up now.
Daniel James — Leeds United
Leeds won all four fixtures in January, and Dan James scored or assisted in each of them – five contributions in all, to his team’s nine goals. He has now netted 10 goals this season, when his previous best tally for a season is four, and with half a dozen assists as well, he is starting to shake off criticisms about a lack of end product. And, to be fair, those criticisms were justified: for a while, James looked less of a threat once he had the ball than when he was trying to win it.
Not any more, though. The 26-year-old looks much more settled in a team that’s good for the level, and may even have benefited from the expectation on him to be more than a counter-attacking speedster and pressing machine, because his improved output isn’t a fluke. Leeds’ stature in the league, being favourites in most games, has helped James to develop his lock-picking skills.
He’s also showing more composure with his finishing. With a little help from the fantastic FotMob, we can see the difference between now and 2021/22, his only previous full campaign with Leeds. Two years ago, he was shooting ‘safely’ and finding the target but also the goalkeeper, by putting the ball at an easily saveable height. This season, James has been placing his shots low and with greater precision, finding the corners more regularly – even though, playing on the right, he now tends to be cutting awkwardly across goal rather than inside onto his favoured right foot.
This right-sided role suits him better than one might have expected, given his past propensity to attack by carrying the ball from the left wing into central areas, and it was clear to see in January. As well as putting him in the right place for a headed goal against Preston (he scores a few of them for a guy who’s 5ft 7in), it revealed something we, even he, may have forgotten: Dan James has a mean cross on him.
Ironically, this career-best form has coincided with James no longer being a guaranteed pick in Wales’ starting XI, having started 35 consecutive competitive games for his country, beginning with his debut, between March 2019 and November 2022. That is also testament to the winger’s impressive fitness and availability – the best ability, as we’re always being told.
With a Euro 2024 play-off ahead as well as Leeds’ promotion push, James has a huge couple of months ahead, and he’s going into them in form.
Jon Rowe — Norwich City
I learned a new footballing phrase last week, from Jack Hancock — @HancockAnalysis on Twitter — who writes with great insight and passion about Portsmouth FC and wider football:
Game-breaker. As Jack explained it, this is a “player who can muster a goal, an assist, a chance out of absolutely nothing”.
I’m always up for adding to my football lexicon, and here’s a chance to practice:
Jon Rowe is an absolute game-breaker.
His goal against Hull City put Norwich 1-0 up in a tight game. Seven perfect touches. A trivela finish to make Ricardo Quaresma and Wes Burns proud. A standout moment.
It was another incredible piece of finishing, which Rowe has demonstrated all season. 13 goals in all competitions -- five with his right foot, five with his left, three with his head.
Overperforming your xG — i.e. consistently scoring high difficult goals — feels like a natural trait of a game-breaker. Per Fbref, only Morgan Whittaker has scored more goals above his non-penalty xG number than Jon Rowe.
Players like this turn tight games into points won. They make managers look smarter, they make fans feel better, they lift teams higher their natural performance level.
In January, a strong month of recovery for previously-wobbly Norwich, Rowe showed vision and creativity to set up Josh Sargent for an equaliser against Southampton, he put Norwich ahead against Hull, and settled their game against West Brom with the 2-0 goal.
A cracking month, and the second NTT20.COM gong of the season for this confident, audacious young attacker.
Richie Wellens — Leyton Orient
As Richie Wellens opened his presents on Christmas Day, Orient had recorded one win in 10 league games. Two days previously, they had been 3-0 down away at Bolton inside 20 minutes, losing 3-2. Never the shy, retiring type, Wellens said after the game:
“I would love to be their manager with that squad, I would win the league with that squad! But we are where we are and our supporters need to be patient and go through the process.”
Four weeks later, Orient beat Bolton 1-0. In the last week of December, they had logged back-to-back clean sheets against Charlton (1-0) and Wycombe (0-0), to build a foundation.
Beating Cambridge 2-0 on New Year’s Day built confidence.
But beating league-leaders Portsmouth and second-placed Bolton, without conceding a goal, made this a special run. A draw away at a revived Reading is nothing to sniff at.
Wellens has been pragmatic this season, tweaking formation and personnel to give his team the best chance at surviving and thriving in League One following promotion, rather than being ideological and stubborn in his style and set-up.
In January, he sorted out the defence and — with the help of some big saves from Sol Brynn — reaped the rewards. Their attack, fuelled by set-piece goals and Dan Agyei, did the necessary up front.
Now, with Agyei out long term, Wellens will have to solve another problem.
Almost two years ago, he arrived at Orient with the club 20th in League Two. With the high standards that he continues to set, it feels like Orient can continue this upwards trajectory, with January 2024 a billboard month on the journey.
League Two Champions last season? 9th in League One and climbing? It’s not outlandish at all to suggest he would win the league with Bolton’s squad.
Chris Martin — Bristol Rovers
In a month that seemed to lack vintage individual performances in League One, five goals in 360 minutes was tough to beat. And this wasn’t just any old collection of goals:
1x impudent back-heeled flick
2x thumping headers
1x smart, weak foot finish through the keepers’ legs
1x six-yard box tap in
It’s been a month of penalty box finishing at its best from one of the EFL’s great veteran strikers.
Martin, after all, scored four Championship goals in 2006/07; a time when his teammate Harvey Vale — who set up both Martin goals against Wycombe on New Year’s Day — was three years old. He has now scored 10+ goals in nine EFL seasons.
All that is in the past. What about the here and now? Martin has been the deadliest finisher in League One this season, scoring with 37% of his shots.
Having a striker putting up those finishing stats — one that also has a good touch, can handle himself aerially and has no little #nous — has been of huge value to Rovers, who signed him on a free in late September. Winners of League One Scrapheap Challenge 2023/24? The Gas.
Seventeen years after making his league debut, Chris Martin is still going strong. It’s been The Adventure of a Lifetime, and he’s not done yet.
Karamoko Dembele — Blackpool
‘Kaddy’ Dembele, who turns 21 in a couple of weeks, has been a revelation of late and seems to be improving every day. Well, every day on average – we’ve not asked Blackpool if he trained better on Tuesday than on Monday. Sorry.
Given an attacking role in central midfield, Dembele contributed a goal or an assist in each of Blackpool’s four games in January, taking him the 11 goal contributions for the season in the equivalent of 15.4 90s. He’s been helped by having two strikers to feed and two wide players to ease the creative burden, as well as two midfielders behind him to protect his attacking instincts, so Neil Critchley deserves credit for his work in getting the best from his Lambeth-born, Govan-raised Brest loanee.
As one might expect of a loanee from Ligue 1 to League One, Dembele’s technique is superb. His goals are well-taken, his through balls well-judged, and his crossing is, uh, well good. In a costly draw with Charlton, when every other Blackpool player was missing chances, Dembele took his with clinical coolness. He’s also an excellent dribbler, his speed and ball control enabling him to draw fouls more often than almost anyone else in the division.
Karamoko was the original superstar in the Dembele family, making headlines for his performances in youth-team football before his older brother, Siriki, rose to prominence with Grimsby and then Peterborough. Karamoko, six and a half years his junior, is lighting up League One in the same way. With any luck, we’ll get to see more of him in English football even after he returns to France.
Lee Bell — Crewe Alexandra
Crewe have never flown under but zig-zagged across the radar this season. Their matches average out at more than 3 goals a game. They have scored more than every other team in League Two, bar two. They have conceded the opening goal in 15 of their 30 games.
Put simply, Crewe Alex + Excitement have been familiar bedfellows in 2023/24, and the “Crewe Comeback” was a description so well-worn it risked tiring into cliche.
Sustainable play-off runs are not often built on records of loose defending. Frequently conceding the opener is a habit you want to kick. And whilst Lee Bell’s side hasn’t gone cold turkey in January, their results are the product of what happens to a free-scoring side when their manager can solve the problems of a leaky defence.
Let the record show: P5 W4 D0 L1.
Crewe 1-0 Bradford (1 Jan) - Scored First
Mansfield 0-1 Crewe (6 Jan) - Scored First
Crewe 2-1 Swindon (13 Jan) - Scored First
Barrow 1-3 Crewe (20 Jan) - Conceded First
Crewe 2-3 Salford (27 Jan) - Conceded First
Their 2.40 PPG is bettered only by Harrogate Town whose manager Simon Weaver was discounted from this award only by dint of fewer points and the context of Crewe’s wins. And context is critical.
Both Mansfield and Barrow were unbeaten at home all season until Crewe rolled into town. Unbeaten runs always come to an end. But it’s quite something that Crewe — playing away from home — ended both runs in a single month in two very different ways.
Against Mansfield, they scored the opener before resisting waves of Stags’ pressure, giving up possession and holding out for three points. Against Barrow, they were not phased after going a goal behind, turning the game into a 26-shot shoot-out, with winning efforts fired in by two academy graduates.
In January, Lee Bell has not overseen a revolution. Instead, success comes down to the work of patching up, problem-solving and piecing together. Most impressive is how Bell is seemingly able to project his no-fuss approach onto his team.
Crewe have never struggled for goals, despite being the biggest xG over-performers in League Two. The attacking players — Elliott Nevitt, Courtney Baker-Richardson and Chris Long — know their jobs as individuals and as a unit. The whole team is comfortable in almost every game state, with a remarkable ability to win from behind. But that come-back-ability never felt like a sustainable foundation for a play-off tilt. Now, through tactical tweaks and personnel changes, Bell has crafted a sturdier platform.
Crewe shifted from a back three to a back four. Captain Luke Offord has stepped out of his centre back role and into a defensive midfield position where his screening has helped tighten everything up. The timing of Lewis Billington's arrival in the side has been impressive. The Academy graduate has started every game in January at right back, and that has brought a renewed balance to the side.
All of a sudden, Crewe appears less reliant on the comeback whilst retaining the ability to win games from behind, and that could be a potent combination as we race towards May. It was certainly potent in January. On New Year’s Day, Crewe were in 8th place with 38 points to their name. Today, they are 5th on 51 points — for a club of Crewe’s size and budget, for a team stacked with young academy players, their results and league position speak to a manager operating at his best.
Jodi Jones — Notts County
When some teams have played five matches in January, the likelihood of an individual winning our Player of the Month award from a three-game sample is quite small. Still, it’s nothing like as small as the likelihood of a player making 4 assists in a single game or 6 assists in three. But that is exactly what Jodi Jones has done.
Back in 2017, Jones scored a League Two hattrick for Coventry City in a 3-0 win over Notts County. A few weeks later, he suffered an ACL injury that not only ended his season but, after two further reoccurrences, threatened his career. Now playing for and not against County, it’s cockle-warming to see Jones staking his claim to be the best player in League Two.
Left, Left, L1, R1, L1, Right, Left, L1, Left – Cheat Activated: Assist mode.
Jones’ ability to create chances at this level is near unstoppable. He tops the assists table with 17 – a full 9 more than the next best – that’s a sure-fire sign that he’s playing at least a level below his ceiling, and his form is revealing of a County side replete with the talents necessary to deceive in their flattery. In January, their results included a 4-2 loss to Tranmere, a 5-5 draw with Grimsby and a 1-1 draw with Barrow. Erm… ouch.
Activate a cheat code and your PlayStation is going to tell you “Achievements will not be awarded for the duration of this session”. For Jones, that is 6 assists and no “W” to show it for it. For County, it’s ten goals conceded in three games, and not for the first time. With cracks emerging, Jodi Jones is making light work of papering over them. Take away his goal contributions, and where would this side be? Perhaps it’s best not to answer that question.
Better instead to revel in the unbeatable, repeatable, remarkable crossing ability of our Player of the Month. The best JANUARY JONES to do it since Betty Draper in Mad Men? We think so.
Lewis Billington — Crewe Alexandra
When Crewe beat Barrow 1-3, the winning goal was scored by Lewis Billington. It was his first for the club and his first in the professional game. It happened less than 24 hours after signing a new long-term deal and around one month into his first foray as a senior player.
It is tempting to talk about the Crewe DNA — a twisting helix of academy graduates finding their feet and flourishing in the EFL. But Lee Bell’s side have proven in January that they are more than a taxi rank, and the latest cab gives them a big chance of going places.
His first professional goal was an important one. It put Crewe 2-1 up against a Barrow side that hadn’t lost at home all season. You can tally up Billington’s contribution in goals (1), assists (1), headers, tackles, interceptions, and clearances (plenty of them). However, you get a better reading of his impact if you zoom out and look at his position within the team.
Billington’s first seven league minutes of the season came in central midfield in November. And over December, Lee Bell had clearly seen enough chuck the 19-year-old into first-team action. Billington played as a right mid, left back, centre back and defensive midfielder before moving to right back on New Year’s Day. And from there, it all clicked into place.
After starting at RB in every game in January, Billington has brought much-needed balance to Crewe. His presence has allowed Rio Adebisi to take up his more natural position at LB/LWB, with the pair operating as mutually perpetuating forces. A Yin-Yang that has enabled Alex to flex between a back three and a back four. And greater tactical adaptability has coincided with Crewe’s best form of the season; form built on the foundations of a sturdier defence that is capable of both digging in and balling out – Billington has been a huge part of that.
His rise from ‘Youth Prospect’ to ‘First Team Starter’ is not remarkable. That’s the pathway for most professionals. What is remarkable is the ease with which Billington has taken to the level, arriving in the first team and fitting in like an old shoe. It is both exciting and logic-defying to see ANOTHER prospect enter the EFL from the Crewe Academy, but at this point, is anyone surprised?
Agree with our picks? Disagree? Let us know, and as ever… go well!