You voted. We counted.
Now the Football League season is over, FFT proudly presents 2018/19’s ranking of the finest footballers in tiers two to four, including future stars and a former teacher, all picked by fans.
To identify the best from below England’s top tier, be they League Two stalwarts or Championship loanees, we polled supporters from every Football League club. You each told us five players in your club’s division (but not at your club – yes, we’re onto you) who you think have shone this season, and we gave points according to the rank you gave them, from first to fifth, and the league in which they’re playing.
It’s science, so you can’t possibly disagree. Oh, you do? Then tweet to tell us how, why and who’s missing.
So far, we've revealed numbers 51 to 11 – come back on Friday for the top 10. Enjoy...
51. Luke Freeman (QPR)
In an up-and-down season for the Hoops, their midfield schemer has been one player to consistently bring his A-game, terrifying opposition defences with his direct running and wand of a left peg. Freeman, formerly of Stevenage and Bristol City, is technically excellent and a man for the big occasion – his opening three goals of 2019 came against Aston Villa, West Brom and Leeds.
50. Tyler Walker (Mansfield)
Perhaps the greatest success of Walker’s season has been to secure a reputation as a master goalscorer, and not simply ‘son of Des’. What impresses most about the loanee is his ability to find space in a crowded box, as well as his composure when finishing with either foot or his head. He’ll return to Nottingham Forest full of confidence after 20-plus goals and potentially a promotion, too, with Mansfield heading into the League Two play-offs.
49. Ashley Hunter (Fleetwood)
After breaking into the starting XI two seasons ago, the 23-year-old is now the key creative asset for this Fleetwood outfit and among the top assisters in League One. Hunter is at his most effective on the left side of midfield, where the bulk of his assists have come from inswinging right-footed crosses that are tough to defend against. The ex-Ilkeston man is a clever player with excellent technique.
48. Chuks Aneke (MK Dons)
The Arsenal academy product’s talent has never been in doubt, but it's taken a while to work out his most effective position.
It seems obvious now: Aneke is a brilliant lower-league striker, able to handle the physicality of League Two and boasting both the ability to create chances and a knack for being on the end of them. He’s been vital in the Dons’ successful bid for a swift League One return.
47. Eberechi Eze (QPR)
Eze went from being a League Two loanee to a clutch player for QPR in less than a year. A silky No.10, his ability to breeze past players, coupled with a powerful shot, make him a real dangerman and a target for rough treatment from opponents. Like QPR, he has fallen away in the second half of the season, but he has the skill to go far and, at 20, the time to add the consistency needed to do so.
46. Max Aarons (Norwich)
The teenager impressed in the Carabao Cup’s early rounds, was given a chance in the league and since then has been first-choice right-back (where he now plays opposite another young full-back, 21-year-old Jamal Lewis). Going forward, he offers the Canaries width, pace and fantastic link-up play, and in defensive situations has shown great maturity. The prototype of a modern full-back.
45. Ian Henderson (Rochdale)
It’s difficult to think of many players quite as crucial to their team as Henderson is to Dale. He'll be the club’s top goalscorer for a fifth season in succession, and has hit more League One goals than anyone in the division across the past five campaigns. The veteran can play as a deep-lying forward or out wide and still be the team’s most consistent goal threat, and he’s showing no sign of slowing.
44. Alan Browne (Preston)
Were this The 51 Most Underrated Football League Players, Browne would be No.1. Plucked from Cork City as an 18-year-old, he has just reached 200 Preston appearances and his influence has never been greater. He wears No.8 but plays as a No.10 and has scored 12 times in the Championship this term, while his work without the ball allows Alex Neil’s side to defend from the front to supreme effect.
43. Padraig Amond (Newport County)
The 30-year-old finished the season with 14 league goals – but it was his cup haul that really caught the eye. Amond scored in every round of Newport’s run to the last 16 of the FA Cup, including a late strike against Manchester City which impressed Pep Guardiola so much that he sought him out to congratulate him on the finish after the game.
42. Lukas Jutkiewicz (Birmingham)
The man they call The Duke has always been a useful forward at Championship level. But having become a key man under Garry Monk, he’s now enjoying his best campaign yet, thriving alongside Che Adams and reaching double figures for both goals and assists in early February. For any team playing a direct style of football, a willing targetman is essential, and the 30-year-old has won the most aerial duels in the division.
41. Jason Shackell (Lincoln)
Shackell – one of several players lured to Sincil Bank in recent seasons despite clearly being capable of playing higher up the ladder – has lived up to the expectations and formed part of the Imps’ sturdy League Two spine. His leadership qualities have helped Lincoln win the title, while his four league goals have included two winners and a stunning direct free-kick.
ON THE NEXT PAGE...
Places 40-31, including an exciting Chelsea youngster and a former PE teacher who rose up through non-league
40. Oli McBurnie (Swansea)
Last season, he won Barnsley’s Player of the Year prize despite joining the club in January; now, back at Swansea, the perfect loan striker is the perfect lone striker. The Scotland international’s fun personality and throwback style (he’s been called a 21st-century Steve Claridge) make him a fan favourite, but he has real talent too, dropping deep to spray the ball wide before receiving a cross.
39. Reece James (Wigan)
It’s hard for a full-back to catch the eye, yet James was singled out as the Latics’ Player of the Month for September, October and even November – before getting into the Championship's official team of the year. In fact, he performed so well at right-back that Wigan boss Paul Cook tried him out in central midfield – and he ran the show there, too. He’s linked with a move to Brighton, but could Chelsea’s potential transfer ban make them give an opportunity to teenage talent next season?
38. Ivan Toney (Peterborough)
The Posh parted with a reported £650,000 to nab the striker from Newcastle and, thanks to regular first-team action, he already looks like following in the footsteps of ex-Peterborough forwards Dwight Gayle and Britt Assombalonga with 21 goals in all competitions this term. A mobile forward, Toney is a threat in the air, can score with both feet and has formed a deadly partnership with assist king Marcus Maddison.
37. Nicky Law (Exeter)
Manager Matt Taylor called Law “a League One player” when bringing him to League Two for free last July, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. An all-action midfielder, Law can contribute in a number of different positions and offered a goal threat as Exeter chased a play-off spot. His presence in this list speaks to a consistent high level of performance that is recognised across the fourth tier.
36. Adam Reach (Sheffield Wednesday)
A reliable Championship performer for the past five campaigns, Reach shot into the consciousness of the wider football world with two goal-of-the-season contenders – both live on TV – in the space of one autumn week. As well as the magic left foot that stunned Leeds and West Brom, Reach possesses an impressive work rate and can be relied upon to perform in a variety of roles.
35. Jay O’Shea (Bury)
The Irish midfielder has rediscovered his stellar Chesterfield form with Bury, despite being deployed in a deeper midfield role to the one he often played for the Spireites. Far from suppressing his attacking instincts, however, this part with a free-scoring Shakers outfit has brought out the best in O’Shea, registering 21 league goals and assists for the team en route to League One promotion.
34. Sammie Szmodics (Colchester)
One of half a dozen graduates from an impressive academy forming the spine of Colchester’s first team, local lad Szmodics is the jewel in the club’s crown. His greatest weapon is unerring accuracy from the edge of the box – he managed double figures for goals for a second year running – and with the technical quality to play at a higher level, the No.10 has been tipped for a big move.
33. Jamal Lowe (Portsmouth)
The midfielder, a former PE teacher who came up through the non-league system, finished this season with more goals than he managed in 2017/18 as Portsmouth reached the League One play-offs.
A personal highlight for the 24-year-old came when Pompey got through to the Checkatrade Trophy final at Wembley. Lowe had never been to the stadium before, despite growing up “15 minutes away”.
32. Jon McLaughlin (Sunderland)
It’s hard to overstate the goalkeeper’s contribution to Sunderland’s season as they adjusted to life in League One. McLaughlin’s saves have turned potential defeats into draws, and draws into victories. He made his Scotland debut last year at the age of 30, but could yet cement a place as their No.1.
31. Alex Mowatt (Barnsley)
The early days of the midfielder’s Oakwell spell weren’t promising. He was sent off 40 minutes into his debut in January 2017, then loaned to Oxford for a season. But since Daniel Stendel’s arrival as manager, Mowatt has made real progress, pulling the strings with a quality of pass rarely seen in the third tier. Barnsley’s star forwards would labour without this former Leeds player in the engine room. Can he do it in the Championship next year?
ON THE NEXT PAGE...
Numbers 30-21, including the best in League Two, and another promising Chelsea loanee!
30. Adam Webster (Bristol City)
Webster’s partnership with Tomas Kalas has given the Robins one of the division’s toughest defences. Comfortable engaging aerially and in one-on-one situations, he also has the quality on the ball that's required of a top defender. After his rise through the Football League with Portsmouth, Ipswich and now Bristol City, everything points to Premier League football for Webster in the years to come.
29. James Justin (Luton)
Those who've seen a fair bit of Justin are very excited about his potential. He’s a right-back who has been playing on the left and can surge down the flanks to great effect, contributing goals and assists aplenty. Luton fans are hoping back-to-back promotions will enable them to keep hold of this prodigious asset, but either way this is unlikely to be the last you’ll hear about the 21-year-old.
28. John Egan (Sheffield United)
How many clubs can say their record signing was a bargain? Sheffield United can. While Brentford’s sales savvy has put them £55m in profit over four years of transfers, it was a misstep to let Egan, at 25, go for just £4m. His penalty-box dominance is a major factor in United having the second tier’s joint-tightest defence.
In Ireland, Egan isn’t even the most famous sportsperson in his family. Mother Mary was a title-winning footballer and his father, also John, was a Gaelic football legend – statue and all. But he’s making his own way as Chris Wilder continues to build brilliance on a budget. The Blades’ innovative use of overlapping centre-backs – old dog Martin Cranie learning new tricks to cross – would fail if the third centre-half lacked Egan’s quality.
27. James Norwood (Tranmere)
It’s sometimes claimed that prolific non-league goalsmiths can struggle with the step up to League Two, but after helping to fire Tranmere back into the 72, Norwood has gone from strength to strength in the Football League’s basement. Despite concerns that he’d miss Andy Cook after the latter's June move to Walsall (the duo shared 50 league goals last season), Norwood has only increased his output.
26. Matt Clarke (Portsmouth)
Clarke’s potential is scary: at just 22 he has already amassed more than 150 Pompey appearances, and he’s consistently been one of their standout performers in that time. He ticks two boxes for elite centre-backs, being defensively rock solid as well as comfortable in possession. While he’s currently in the third tier, his rapid progress to date suggests he may not be eligible for this list much longer.
25. Mason Mount (Derby)
One of Frank Lampard’s success stories this season has been his ability to get Lampard-esque performances out of Chelsea loanee Mount. Having spent a year playing top-flight football for Vitesse in the Netherlands last year, the 20-year-old midfielder has excelled in Derby’s play-off push this time around.
24. Joe Lolley (Nottingham Forest)
While he was popular at Huddersfield, Lolley played only a bit-part role in their incredible promotion to the Premier League in 2016/17. Since then he's thrived at the City Ground, wowing Forest fans with direct dribbling and rockets from distance.
During the Reds’ remarkable 5-5 thriller at Aston Villa, Lolley – a Villa supporter – caught the eye with four assists and a sensational 35-yard strike.
23. Kamil Grosicki (Hull)
The Polish wideman’s unhappy stay with Hull appeared short-lived when they were relegated to the Championship after his arrival in January 2017. A 2018 transfer to Sporting never materialised, however, and he was tasked with knuckling down at the foot of the Championship, as Hull then were.
Grosicki redeemed himself with goals, assists and a work rate that many people previously doubted.
22. Danny Mayor (Bury)
The highest-placed League Two player on this list has really earned his spot. With Bury returning to League One at the first time of asking, the midfielder’s 11 league assists have played an enormous role in the Shakers comfortably finishing as the fourth tier’s top scorers.
21. John Marquis (Doncaster)
Millwall sent Marquis on nine different loans with varying degrees of success before cashing in on him in 2016 – and he’s been Donny’s talisman ever since. He's the man you’d trust to put a chance away, key to the club’s ambitions and as reliable a striker as you’re likely to find in League One. Marquis is rarely going more than a couple of matches without being on the scoresheet.
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The best in League One! The greatest defensive rocks in the Champ!
20. Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough)
Playing against Boro must be exhausting. The first obstacle: an immovable three-man midfield that includes Mo Besic and John Obi Mikel. Next: the wing-backs, who are often yet more central midfielders. Got past that half of the team? Good. Now deal with three centre-backs and, finally, beat Randolph.
The Irish keeper is the last line of a defence that doesn’t give much away – and arguably the Championship’s best shot-stopper is enjoying career-best form at the Riverside.
19. Dwight Gayle (West Brom)
He’s the ultimate Championship striker. Gayle has become a yo-yo player, always prolific at this level but unable to convince top-flight managers of his ability (not that a Premier League goal every 225 minutes is awful). The Londoner has been his usual second-tier self with the Baggies, converting a decent percentage of chances even when shunted to the wings in order to accommodate Jay Rodriguez in a one-striker setup.
18. Kieffer Moore (Barnsley)
Moore is a targetman who has since added a goalscoring edge to his game. He caught the eye on loan at Rotherham from Ipswich during the first half of last season, and though his move to Barnsley in January 2018 couldn’t keep the Tykes in the Championship, he’s been in formidable form back in League One. He’ll be desperate to prove his Championship qualities next season.
17. Lyle Taylor (Charlton)
Many were surprised to see Taylor stick around in League One when he left AFC Wimbledon last summer, hopping across south London to The Valley. Taylor's all-round game makes him a special footballer at this level, and he and Karlan Grant had a deadly partnership before the latter moved to Huddersfield in January. Tellingly, Addicks fans were mostly relieved that the club managed to keep hold of Taylor.
16. Emi Buendia (Norwich)
While it’s impossible not to be impressed by most of Norwich’s young squad, Buendia has made a particularly rapid emergence as one of the Championship’s best playmakers. The Argentine, 22 – with La Liga experience at Getafe – arrived last summer and didn’t wait to show off his dribbling and passing skills. The Football League is blessed with some fine No.10s right now, and this one has the qualities to play at the very top. He'll get the chance.
15. Neal Maupay (Brentford)
After a rampant start, this has been another frustrating season for Brentford, but their 20-goal striker hasn’t let up for a moment. Last term he missed some gilt-edged chances; now, his enviable ability to get into excellent goalscoring positions has been augmented by a newly clinical edge. As ever, Brentford look likely to lose their stars in the summer. Maupay will be on quite a few shopping lists.
14. James Collins (Luton)
League One’s top scorer and, according to you voters, the best player too. Luton’s second successive promotion, taking the third tier by storm, has been in no small part down to their talismanic striker who notched 25 goals on the way to the title.
The club survived a mid-season management change and, at 28, Collins received his first call-up to the Republic of Ireland squad. Championship, watch out.
13. Jarrod Bowen (Hull)
Across his two Championship seasons, Bowen has scored 34 goals – a startling return for a wideman, particularly as Hull spent nearly all of that time occupying a berth in the bottom half of the table. He was named December’s Championship Player of the Month and is scoring goals faster than he can think of celebrations (one against Bolton was darts-themed, though sadly not in tribute to his namesake, Bullseye host Jim).
Bowen is an appealing proposition for a host of clubs, and was linked with Spurs in January.
12. Pontus Jansson (Leeds)
Much has been made of Leeds’s ‘Bielsa-ball’ brand of lung-busting pressing and attacking, but they wouldn’t be promotion pushers without a solid foundation – particularly Jansson and Liam Cooper in central defence. The Swede is comfortable on the ball and dominant physically, while his desire to win (not to mention presence on social media) has made him an Elland Road hero.
11. Jay Rodriguez (West Brom)
Many assumed that Rodriguez would be moving on following relegation, but his commitment to the cause has shone through – as has his quality as a Premier League striker. Although former Baggies boss Darren Moore often struggled to squeeze both J-Rod and Dwight Gayle into his team, their combined goal haul keeps the Hawthorns outfit dreaming of a swift return to the top flight as they head into the play-offs.
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10. Jack Grealish (Aston Villa)
There’s no doubt at all that Grealish would be even higher on this list but for his long injury layoff: when fit, there’s no better player in the Football League. His all-round game has vastly improved, while his ability to drift past players is elite level; defenders are terrified of being humiliated by his trickery. No player in the league has been fouled more than Grealish – in fact, nobody is remotely close – and he’s missed a third of the season.
9. Kemar Roofe (Leeds)
Roofe was written off by many people (some Leeds fans included) after an underwhelming first two seasons at Elland Road, but he’s one of several players revitalised by Marcelo Bielsa. Deployed in his favoured position up top at last, Roofe has looked every inch the poacher in a team that creates chances aplenty. His knee injury in mid-February could hardly have come at a worse time, though.
8. Bradley Dack (Blackburn)
Dack, arguably the best player in League One last term as Rovers won promotion, settled into life in the Championship with nine goals in his first 17 games at this new level. Generally playing just behind the striker, Dack routinely befuddles defences with constant movement and nifty footwork. Despite a mid-season drop-off in his goalscoring form, he has still provided moments of magic – and took his total for the season to 17 with a goal on the final day against Swansea.
7. Che Adams (Birmingham)
It’s not been the easiest of seasons for Birmingham, whose vague hopes of a late push for the play-offs were ended by a nine-point deduction – and their subsequent form meant that dream was likely beyond them anyway.
Adams’ continued talent has been a high point, however, and he netted 22 goals in the league – by far and away a career best for the 22-year-old. The Blues will have a big job on their hands to hold onto him this summer, with a number of Premier League teams ready to pounce.
6. Tammy Abraham (Aston Villa)
The Chelsea striker’s decision to return to the second tier was a real coup for Aston Villa, and the youngster certainly didn’t disappoint. Picking up where he left off from his fruitful 2016/17 loan at Bristol City, Abraham has plundered plentiful goals thanks to some superb movement and finishing. January attention from Wolves suggests we’re not likely to see him in the Football League again.
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5. Oliver Norwood (Sheffield United)
Having played a part in previous campaigns for both Brighton and Fulham, the central midfielder has done the unexpected in landing three promotions in a row – and his influence is greater than ever. He has been the Blades’ metronome, managing more passes per game than any other Championship player, but just as crucially Norwood offered Chris Wilder steel in the middle of the park. His wicked set-piece delivery has teed up numerous goals, too.
4. Harry Wilson (Derby)
Welsh wizard Wilson has done enough on loan with the Rams – after last year’s heroics at Hull – to earn the chance to prove himself in Liverpool’s first team. His goals from distance and dead-ball flair have got Derby (and Wales) out of several awkward scrapes, and the youngster’s ability to manipulate a football with that hammer of a left foot has made him something of a sensation on social media.
3. Billy Sharp (Sheffield United)
If anyone deserves a crack at the Premier League, it’s Sharp. Since making his Championship bow at Sheffield United 15 years ago, he has surpassed 300 appearances in the division, netting 114 goals and showing immense strength of character during personal tragedy – yet he’s played just 20 top-flight minutes. Few would begrudge the Blades’ talisman – 33 and scoring more than ever – another shot next season.
2. Pablo Hernandez (Leeds)
This season has produced 12 goals and 12 assists for the 34-year-old Spaniard, as Leeds excruciatingly missed out on automatic promotion. Hernandez has played for nine clubs throughout his career but has rarely hit the form he has shown at Elland Road, telling FFT that it's down to boss Marcelo Bielsa’s eye for detail. Rather than the Argentine’s difficult reputation, he says the manager is “just loco for football”.
1. Teemu Pukki (Norwich)
When Norwich signed Pukki, then 28, on a free transfer from Brondby, it wasn’t with a view to the Finn scoring 29 goals for a table-topping Canaries outfit. He has been the Championship’s bargain of the season – and, say FourFourTwo readers, the Football League’s Player of the Season
Although Pukki has 10 assists, putting him in the league’s top 10 creators, his campaign – and the club’s – has been defined by his goals.
But how? Pukki isn’t especially tall, nor quick compared to many Championship forwards, or indeed many Championship defenders. The Finn’s attacking movement is superb, though, and what he lacks in pace, he finds in space.
Arguably, Pukki isn’t a striker at all. His first Norwich start up top was in September, and has spent a sizeable chunk of his career on the right or in the hole. Daniel Farke benched striker Jordan Rhodes, moved Pukki forward and City – having taken five points from their opening six games – won their next four by single-goal margins, with their new striker scoring in three of them.
He’s made a habit of scoring vital goals this term, with late winners against Millwall (97th minute), Bolton (93rd) and Blackburn (86th) joining match-settling strikes in tight victories over Preston, Middlesbrough and QPR.
That’s Pukki this year: the difference-maker. He’s the hero that no one anticipated – perhaps not even Norwich.
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