Manager and Player of the Month Awards - December
In the toughest month of the year for those within the game: meet the individuals who gritted their teeth and prospered, while we got stuck on the sofa and stuffed our faces.
December is a tyrannical football month. A seemingly normal schedule that escalates into a glut of festive fixtures. You look at the league table and things have shifted; teams have dropped or jumped. Some previously-held assumptions change, whilst others only strengthen.
As we look back on the top performers in December – the managers, the players and the young players of the month – let’s not forget how the tables stacked up 35 days ago when much looked so different.
Danny Röhl — Sheffield Wednesday
U wot m8? The guy whose team are in the relegation zone?! Yep, the very same.
While Sheffield Wednesday did end 2023 in 23rd (now 22nd, following their New Year’s Day win over high-flying Hull), Danny Röhl had the Championship’s third-best record across December, with arguably the Championship’s third-worst squad. That part isn’t quantifiable, but what is quantifiable is 12 points from seven games in the month, a tally bettered only by a pair of heavyweights in Leicester and Southampton, and it coulda woulda shoulda been more than 12 except two deflected goals turned a 1-0 lead over Cardiff into a harsh 2-1 defeat. Beating Blackburn, Stoke, QPR and Preston took Wednesday from one win all season to five.
That was without some key players, too, although their injuries weren’t just unfortunate coincidences. Röhl’s hard-running tactics have been successful, a far cry from Xisco Munoz’s dual pillars of vibes and hope, but they’ve taken a toll on the league’s oldest squad. Josh Windass, Michael Smith, Mallik Wilks and Dom Iorfa had all been victims of muscle injuries already under Röhl before Wednesday’s 1-0 beating of Preston on December 29th, when Akin Famewo and Will Vaulks were forced off in the first half with hamstring problems – just two weeks after Röhl had lost another three players to injury in a single game (Bambo Diaby, Callum Paterson and John Buckley, though not all to muscle strains). At least it’s a problem this transfer window can fix.
What is Röhl’s secret, other than ‘run until you die and then keep running’? He hasn’t diluted his ideals. Good tactical coaching has made Wednesday far more effective with the ball and enabled him to get a tune out of players who had been playing bum notes, such as Vaulks (30) and Marvin Johnson (33). Even Barry Bannan, born the same year as Röhl, said, “I’ve worked under a lot of managers and thought they were good, but there’s something different about this guy.” At the kids’ table, Anthony Musaba has been a revelation under Röhl while 18-year-old Bailey Cadamarteri came up with equally vital goals in December.
The 34-year-old German has matched positivity with ambition. That started with the appointment of a new Performance Manager in Sascha Lense, a coach and sports psychologist who worked with Ralf Rangnick at Leipzig and then Manchester United, where he and Rangnick must have exchanged a few concerned sideways glances. Röhl now has full buy-in from players and fans alike at Hillsborough.
We mustn’t forget the scale of his achievement. The Owls had 3 points from 11 games when he started work. There was talk in some quarters of the new manager needing to immediately prepare for League One. Every identifiable metric spelled the words ‘these are crap’. But Röhl gave fans hope, and now so much more than that. Survival has turned from impossible to possible – perhaps even likely.
Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall — Leicester City
Dewsbury-Hall is surely the current favourite for Championship Player of the Year, and he was the league’s standout player in a month where he started all seven fixtures, scored three goals and assisted another three as Leicester picked up 19 points from a possible 21.
The man with the National Trust Name is both a facilitator and goalscorer, quick in brain and body, excellent at receiving and passing the ball in congested areas. It’s fair to say that he has a very attractive role in the best team in the league: an attacking #8 that forms part of Leicester’s front five in possession, his duties are generally confined to the opposition half. Pressing high out of possession, and with little responsibility for ball progression in deep build-up, KDH plays ahead of the ball and is asked to impact play in the final third in a variety of ways.
And boy does he do that. His December goal contributions reflected his overall threat.
Leicester don’t get many chances to counter-attack, but when they do, they make them count. He streaked clear to assist Harry Winks’ dramatic winner at West Brom, and sped away to grab one for himself on the break against Birmingham. He also scored a brilliant header at The Hawthorns, finished smartly after a high turnover vs Cardiff, and swung in a beautiful deep cross for Jannik Vestergaard to score against Millwall.
All in a month’s work for Lord Kiernan of Dewsbury Hall. With 8 goals and 9 assists, he’ll surely have a double-double wrapped up in a few weeks.
Jordan James — Birmingham City
Wayne Rooney’s Blues tenure wasn’t all bad. Around 95% of it, sure. But there was a first start for 17-year-old talent Romelle Donovan and a remarkable improvement to be seen in Jordan James, the 19-year-old blossoming like a rose (or daffodil) among dead leaves and the dirty ground.
James wasn’t fully trusted by John Eustace, who gave the teenager just one of 11 possible league starts this season before his hasty sacking, even as James became a key player in Wales’ midfield. Under Rooney, he broke into the starting XI and became hard to drop, especially during a goalscoring December in which he doubled his career tally of league goals in the space of a week. James took his first goal against runaway leaders Leicester very well – the second was heavily deflected, albeit following some neat feet in a tight space – and then followed up that brace with a volley against Plymouth. He now attacks the box with greater frequency and threat.
Yet his best work comes off the ball, allowing Rob Page to play James in a more defensive role at international level, as part of an efficient double pivot with Ethan Ampadu. In Birmingham’s midfield, he’s given more freedom with the ball but remains a demon without it, running the hard yards, winning possession and pressing, pressing, pressing. He even ended a run of seven bookings in 15 games for club and country, which threatened to undermine his reliability in availability. James is growing in stature and presence, both physically and figuratively, stamping his authority on games more often.
And now he might be moving to Atalanta. What a few months it’s been for ‘JJ’ – and his January could well top his December.
(P.S. A shout-out to Morgan Whittaker, who has stepped up with seven-goal contributions in Plymouth’s last five games – but he’s 22, and turning 23 this week, so too old for our 21-and-under policy. Soz, Moz!)
Paul Warne — Derby County
To think we doubted him. Questions were being asked of Paul Warne as his side laboured in the early months, but you can’t argue with zero league losses in November and December, taking 22 points from a possible 24. In December specifically, only a 98th-minute Wycombe penalty denied Derby a 100% record.
That equaliser prompts the question: how much can Warne be blamed for County’s chronic malady of giving away spotkicks? His team conceded four goals in December: three penalties and a direct free-kick. Wycombe’s came when a simple Hail Mary was flicked into the Derby box and Joe Ward brought down David Wheeler, dealer in theatrics. In the next fixture, it was Ward again, sliding in for no obvious reason and giving Lincoln an equaliser in a match where they otherwise created nothing. Then, in the first minute against Oxford, goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith went a-wanderin’ and pointlessly clattered Mark Harris, allowing Cameron Brannagan to score from the spot before he doubled his tally from a free-kick. There’s not much Warne can really do with that, short of telling his players: ‘hey, stop it’.
The subsequent three-goal comeback against Oxford showed the best of Warne’s Derby. They battered the Yellows with a constant onslaught of balls into the box, where there were always four or five white shirts loitering like waiters listening for the call of “Service!” from a busy kitchen. The aerial barrage culminated in a set-piece winner, and if it wasn’t pretty, it was pretty effective. County can be hard to stop.
They certainly found an attacking rhythm in December. After beating Fleetwood 3-0 in the EFL Trophy, they strolled past Leyton Orient by the same scoreline (helped by a dim first-half red card for the hosts’ Brandon Cooper), then put three past Lincoln and past Oxford as well. With a relatively friendly fixture list coming up, they could put a New Year’s Day defeat to Peterborough behind them and gather the same kind of momentum they enjoyed at the Kassam last week.
Warne’s recruitment does mean there may still be a question over sustainability, especially when the season’s end approaches – players aged 30 to 34 make up some 60% of the available league minutes for Derby’s outfield players. Right now, however, he’s looking increasingly likely to do what he was tasked with doing: taking the Rams back into the Championship.
Herbie Kane — Barnsley
It was one of the most jarring interviews of the season so far, and not just because no-one ever expects Herbie Kane’s Bristolian accent, given his Liverpool academy background.
Speaking to Football Heaven at the start of December, Kane gave an array of seemingly disinterested, short answers, was non-committal when asked about his Barnsley future and was unenthusiastic about the return of highly-rated teammate Luca Connell.
It rubbed Barnsley fans up the wrong way.
“That's the manner of a player who wants out.”
“If he doesn't want to be here, let him leave.”
“He doesn’t seemed arsed one bit.”
But Kane prefers to do his talking on the pitch. Following the interview, Herbie went bananas. In each of the five league games in December, Kane either scored or assisted a goal, as Barnsley put together a strong, unbeaten month.
Goals against Peterborough, Stevenage and a penalty against Reading took him onto five for the season but, if anything, it was Kane’s creativity and passing range that stood out most - with assists against Charlton, Port Vale and Reading each demonstrating different aspects of his game: tenacity against Charlton, a Pirlo-esque wedge against Port Vale, and a cute chested set up for a Devante Cole volley against Reading.
Having made 131 starts in League One but only 12 in the Championship, one can understand Kane’s ambition to reach the second tier, either with or without Barnsley.
And If The Tykes are to go one better than last season and achieve promotion, they need Herbie fully loaded, as he was in December.
Kieron Bowie — Northampton Town
Bowie has been an important part of Northampton Town’s front four for 18 months. The Fulham loanee’s versatility allows Jon Brady to use him all across the front line, his mobility and work rate out of possession is a positive, and he’s mature in his attacking movement compared to most 21-year-old attackers — perhaps due to having played a full season for Raith Rovers aged 16/17.
But… Bowie was approaching 1,000 minutes without a league goal this season, following five goals in 28 (9) appearances last season. An important cog in a successful team, sure, but if you were picking holes, you’d be asking for more goal contributions.
Before December: 21 shots, 0 goals. Since the start of December: 17 shots, 6 goals.
It feels like everything has clicked for Bowie, and having looked a little constipated in front of goal, suddenly he looks impossible to handle. He's scored some excellent goals, best summed up by a first-time, stroked strike against Lincoln.
His late equaliser against Carlisle summed up the threat that he poses, lingering on the right-hand side of the Cobblers attack until the last moment before striking like a lanky, Scottish scorpion. Bowie is around 6’3, and perhaps could and should be more of an aerial threat. He showed a glimpse against Oxford, hitting the post with one header before rising to nod home a minute later. More of that, please.
Cobblers’ Starman in a strong month, Bowie is our League One Young Player of the Month.
Nigel Adkins — Tranmere Rovers
Won four, lost one: it was a decent final month of 2023 for Tranmere, which they followed up with a 4-2 victory over Notts County on New Year’s Day. Could 2024 be the year of Nigel Adkins?
At the start of December, Tranmere were 22nd. In fact, at the start of November, they were 23rd, which is when Adkins was finally given the job properly after nearly two months in interim charge. The timing was strange – the team were on a four-match losing streak – but the long-overdue confirmation of the inevitable seemed to give Adkins managerial superpowers as if bitten by a radioactive John Aldridge. His first 10 matches as ‘full-time’ manager have brought Tranmere 23 points, League Two’s best record in that time, catapulting them from the relegation zone to 15th and just six points short of the play-off places.
Poor-quality opposition meant that Tranmere’s November appeared promising but not prophetic until they ended the month away to title-chasing Mansfield and succeeded in making a point by taking a point. It was December that certified this run of form as more than a flash in the pan, with a narrow 1-0 defeat to Walsall the only blot on their copybook (a phrase we should probably all stop using, given it’s as relevant in 2024 as tuck shops and the cane).
A pair of 2-1 home wins over Newport and Swindon built confidence and performances improved further, with quicker attacks, passes being fizzed from player to player and the wide men threatening throughout, while at the other end, their defence no longer looked lost when the opposition countered. Adkins’ lads travelled to Salford and thumped them 5-1 with five different goalscorers, then weathered the storm away at Harrogate (first-half shot count: Harrogate 8, Tranmere 0) and emerged stronger in the second half, coming away with a 2-0 win. Goalkeeper Luke McGee was their hero that day but there had been strong performances all month from Kieron Morris, Connor Jennings, Tom Davies and Rob Apter, whose recall by Blackpool is already worrying Tranmere fans.
It won’t worry Adkins, though. Not Mr Positivity. There’s still reason to believe at Prenton Park, and if in doubt, just look at the homepage of the 58-year-old’s website.
Actually, he should probably update that.
Joe Tomlinson — MK Dons
“In a three-at-the-back system, your attacking output likely lives and dies by the quality of your wing-backs.”
- Me, just now.
What’s Joe Tomlinson got to do with that? Well, Mike Williamson plays a sexy 3-4-2-1 basic shape, which looks like a 3-2-5 in attack. Stretching the play, and regularly receiving the ball in wide attacking areas? The wing-backs, particularly Joe Tomlinson (#14 below).
The 23-year-old was absolute dynamite in December, unlocking a lot of MK Dons’ attacking play as they logged maximum points in the month.
This may seem a strange comparison, but there’s a touch of the Harvey Barnes — a former MK loanee — in Tomlinson. He’s a powerful, direct runner, who can go both ways to create distance between himself and defenders and gets clean shots off with both feet.
Versatile enough to play RWB or LWB, Tomlinson showed off an array of attacking moves in December. He scored a neat finish with his left foot after a run in behind against Crawley, and a thumping strike from range with his right foot having cut inside against Morecambe.
But Tomlinson isn’t just about goal threat. He also has the composure and IQ to pick out teammates with crosses or cutbacks, even after carrying the ball long distances. He grabbed a brace of assists against Forest Green, and created the most xG from open play of any League Two player in December.
Across the season, Tomlinson is responsible for around four shots OR key passes per game. Now THAT is attacking threat from wing-back.
Oh, and he has to defend a bit, too. MK only conceded one goal conceded in December, and it sure as hell didn’t come down his side, guv.
Ali Al-Hamadi – AFC Wimbledon
Look, Ali Al-Hamadi has got enough NTT20 column inches (Substack… pixels?) recently, but the fact that he is far too good to be playing in League Two shouldn’t be held against him when it comes to marking top monthly performance.
There may be a sense that Al-Hamadi is too prominent at the level to win the Young Player Award. But it’s worth remembering that he’s still 21, and only scored his first professional goal one year and nine months ago.
The shot stats below, courtesy of WhoScored.com are not normal.
And it is categorically not the case that Al-Hamadi is supremely selfish, shooting from anywhere, anytime he gets the ball.
He is just That Guy.
Quick. Hungry. Active. You’ve likely already read everything I have to say about Al-Hamadi — how I think he could instantly be a threat in the Championship, and potentially higher than that in time.
The funny thing is that despite a strong haul of four goals in the month (no-one scored more) there is a sense that, with some warmer shooting boots, Al-Hamadi could have had double that. Particularly in games against Salford and Colchester, he missed multiple good chances, there’s no getting away from it.
But for generations, there’s been too much focus on the chances that strikers miss. In my opinion, it’s still a blind spot for huge swathes of football lovers, a sort of cognitive bias adjacent to loss aversion, where the pain and memory of missed chances seem more powerful than the pleasure of the goals that are scored.
League Two defenders breathe a sigh of relief, as Al-Hamadi is off to the Asia Cup now for 3-5 weeks. At times in December, it felt like there were two of him.
Agree with our picks? Disagree? Let us know, and as ever… go well!