This feature first appeared in the May 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now!
If you’re a regular reader of FFT, you’ll probably know by now that we compile our list of the best players in the Football League at this time every year – and we always do it by asking you. We polled fans of every Football League club, from Accrington Stanley to Wycombe Wanderers. Gladly, that was a total of 72 teams this year – back up to the full complement, after Bury’s expulsion reduced the EFL to just 71 sides last season.
To decide the top 50 from outside the top flight, we asked supporters to choose the best performers in their team’s division – but not at their own club – and handed out points according to the rank they gave them.
It was democracy in action, so if you disagree with any of the results, please don’t storm our HQ dressed as some sort of horned shaman, as has happened in other parts of the world. Instead, simply tweet us who you think is missing, using the hashtag: #FLTOP50.
50. Colin Kazim-Richards
Derby County | Forward
Few players can boast a career like Kazim-Richards. Beginning with Bury, the forward has spent spells in Turkey at Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Bursaspor, also rocking up in France, Greece, the Netherlands, Scotland, Brazil and Mexico, before signing for Derby in October. His goals have taken the Rams away from relegation and earned him a new contract.
49. Nicky Cadden
Forest Green Rovers | Midfielder
Considered something of a coup following his performances in the Scottish second tier last season, Cadden has delivered, which is fitting given the midfielder's wicked output on the left flank, from where he’s been a menace. Rovers frontman Jamille Matt has benefited handsomely from the wideman’s precise crosses.
48. Mallik Wilks
Hull City | Forward
The young goal getter had a tragic start to his career, learning of his brother’s murder just three days before his first-team debut for Leeds in 2017. The Hull forward reached 20 goals for the season by early March – if his recent hot streak with the Tigers had come a little earlier, he may have been higher in our supporters’ poll.
47. Vaclav Hladky
Salford City | Goalkeeper
When there are discussions about Hladky potentially being the best goalkeeper that League Two has seen in modern times, you know he must be good. Nick Pope, Jordan Pickford and Dean Henderson may have something to say about that, but with the highest save percentage in the division, the Czech gloveman is certainly living up to the billing.
46. Joe Pigott
AFC Wimbledon | Forward
It’s been a case of ‘feed the Pig and he will score’ this season for the Dons – the striker has shouldered a heavy burden in netting 10 league goals before Christmas. The 27-year-old is an unselfish all-rounder who’s happy to be an aerial target and run the channels, making him more than merely a goal threat.
45. Matt Jay
Exeter City | Forward
Jay made his debut as far back as 2013, and while his path from academy to key attacker wasn’t as short as Grecians class-mate Ollie Watkins’, he’s scored more Exeter goals this campaign than the current Aston Villa man ever managed. His expert finishing has shone in a little-and-large partnership with Ryan Bowman.
44. Joe Worrall
Nottingham Forest | Defender
Even alongside a number of older and more experienced team-mates, Worrall is Forest’s natural leader. The local lad’s huge appetite for defending and constant improvements to the technical side of his game back up his barking with top displays in Chris Hughton’s impressive defensive unit. Comparisons to Michael Dawson are suitable.
43. Aiden McGeady
Sunderland | Midfielder
Since Lee Johnson has come in to manage Sunderland, Aiden McGeady has gone from “Siberia to the frying pan”, as he put it. In the following 17 league matches, he delivered 11 assists. When the Black Cats thrashed promotion-chasing Doncaster 4-1 in February, McGeady set up all four goals for striker Charlie Wyke. He provided the assist for the only goal in the 2021 EFL Trophy Final against Tranmere, too – Sunderland’s first win at Wembley for 48 years. Without McGeady, things could have been very different.
42. Daniel Bentley
Bristol City | Goalkeeper
In past Championship campaigns, Bentley caught the eye for his spectacular saves but also the odd clanger. Having rectified that issue, even in a side that’s faced the second-most shots on target, Bentley also stands out for his excellent distribution. His laser throw, in particular, starts Robins counter-attacks superbly.
41. Nick Powell
Stoke City | Midfielder
Pegged as something of a luxury footballer earlier in his career, Powell has added newfound tenacity to that silky technical quality. He’s long had a strong aerial threat, but nearly half of his goal output this season has come via that reliable noggin, having reached Championship double figures for the first time.
40. James Vaughan
Tranmere Rovers | Forward
Injuries have often blighted the ex-Everton striker’s career, but the Premier League’s youngest scorer’s class is in no doubt in League Two. Vaughan bagged 21 times in 33 appearances in all competitions this season before injury struck again and he was forced to undergo knee surgery, with Tranmere handily placed in the promotion race. They did at least make the playoffs.
39. Ben Tozer
Cheltenham Town | Defender
“Ben Tozer’s long throw is the most dangerous creative threat in League Two” – a refrain that started off as a joke, but quickly became truth. Tozer’s trebuchet has resulted in numerous goals, which could be the difference between automatic promotion and a play-off tussle. He’s no circus act, though: the one-time midfielder can defend a bit too...
38. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall
Luton Town | Midfielder
Across loan stints with Blackpool and now Luton, the young playmaker has proved a threat with both his passing range and willingness to carry the ball, and dangerous when given licence to gobble up cutbacks on the edge of the penalty area. The Hatters ace is a top tier player-in-waiting with his parent club, Leicester.
37. John Marquis
Portsmouth | Forward
Marquis’ physical prowess makes him one of League One’s most feared strikers, not least as he backs it up with goals. After struggling to reach his expected return when deployed deeper last season, he has thrived this term as a targetman, laying on chances for team-mates as well as getting the job done himself.
36. Seny Dieng
Queens Park Rangers | Goalkeeper
In September, Dieng inked a new four-year Hoops deal, despite never having played a game for the club. A week later, he made his debut and quickly became Mark Warburton’s first-choice keeper. QPR kept a league-low six clean sheets in 2019-20, but the Swiss’ sharp shot-stopping has transformed their fortunes.
35. Cauley Woodrow
Barnsley | Forward
Woodrow played a key role in Barnsley’s remarkable survival bid last time out, and is at it again – only this time, Valerien Ismael’s men are dreaming of the Premier League. Back up top, Woodrow embodies this Tykes team: he leads their infamous press from the front, while providing the goalscoring and creativity his side needs. Classy.
34. Lewis Montsma
Lincoln City | Defender
With eight goals from centre-back this season, Dutch defensive rock Lewis Montsma has provided Lincoln City with plenty at both ends of the pitch. The centre-back - who's modelled for Burberry in his spare time, too - is still young and learning his trade but has become a fixture for the Imps, who managed to secure a play-off spot this term.
33. Luke Jephcott
Plymouth Argyle | Forward
Jephcott’s impact stunned many after he was recalled from a loan stint at seventh-tier Truro in January 2020. Seven goals in 14 games secured promotion, and the old-school striker has since made light work of the step up, too. Jephcott thrives in a front two, and is now knocking hard for senior Wales honours.
32. Gustavo Hamer
Coventry City | Midfielder
The £1m fee to recruit Hamer from Zwolle during a summer fraught with financial concern appeared bold, but it’s already proved a bargain. Promoted League One clubs have found it hard to avoid the drop in recent years, but the Dutch-Brazilian’s quality on the ball and tenacity off it have played a huge part in Cov’s safety bid. He’s box office.
31. Paul Mullin
Cambridge United | Forward
Mullin didn’t reach 10 league goals a season during previous spells with Morecambe, Swindon and Tranmere, but things have been different at Cambridge. In his first full campaign at the Abbey Stadium, Mullin had netted 28 in the league by mid-April to surge well clear at the summit of League Two’s scoring charts.
30. Charlie Wyke
Sunderland | Forward
Mackems were losing patience with Wyke, who had bagged only nine goals in two League One seasons before 2020-21, but Lee Johnson’s arrival has resulted in a blossoming in the forward’s form. He reached the 20-goal mark in early March, helped by a brutal four-goal headed haul against Doncaster in February.
29. Ben Whiteman
Preston North End | Midfielder
A summer transfer seemed inevitable after Whiteman’s excellent 2019-20 showed he was too good for League One – after another superb half-season spent screening Doncaster’s back four, a move to the second tier followed in January. Already the beating heart of Preston’s midfield.
28. Harry Wilson
Cardiff City | Midfielder
Wilson’s loan move to the Welsh capital was greeted with raised eyebrows from those expecting a Premier League switch, but the Liverpool winger’s efforts have still been impressive. If anything, a more direct style has played to the youngster’s strengths: goal and assist numbers have spiked under Mick McCarthy, with his morale high ahead of Euro 2020.
27. Wes Hoolahan – BEST IN LEAGUE TWO
Cambridge United | Midfielder
This season has witnessed two completely different Cambridge Uniteds – Cambridge with Wes Hoolahan, and Cambridge without Wes Hoolahan. When the 38-year-old has featured, he’s displayed all of the class that has become his trademark throughout a 20-year career. The former Norwich playmaker made it five career promotions when Cambridge went up in May, but he isn't ready to hang up his boots just yet, despite being three years oder than U's gaffer Mark Bonner. “People ask, me what’s it like being older than the manager,” revealed Hoolahan at the start of the season. “I honestly don’t even think about it.”
26. Jonson Clarke-Harris
Peterborough United | Forward
Signed to replace Golden Boot winner Ivan Toney last summer, the pressure was really on, but confidence has never been an issue for Clarke-Harris – nor has scoring in League One over the past few years. Quick, mobile and with a powerful left foot, the £1.25m arrival from Bristol Rovers had blasted 28 league goals by mid April.
25. Jed Wallace
Millwall | Midfielder
Wallace was the only Championship player to beat single figures for goals and assists last season, and while let down by his Lions team-mates’ wastefulness this campaign, the ex-Portsmouth and Wolves schemer has added a more accurate final ball to his natural speed and directness. A nightmare foe for full-backs.
24. Jorge Grant
Lincoln City | Midfielder
As a technical No.10, Grant was a perennial lower-league loanee from Nottingham Forest, looking good only in flashes, but he has thrived since Michael Appleton made him Lincoln’s deep-lying orchestrator. Grant’s dead-ball prowess earns goals and assists, and makes him a candidate for League One individual awards.
23. Troy Deeney
Watford | Forward
Many people expected Deeney to dominate the Championship in 2020/21, but by mid-March, six of his seven goals were from the penalty spot. Perhaps Deeney’s most significant contribution came when manager Vladimir Ivic was sacked just hours after dropping the striker because of a disciplinary issue. That’s power.
22. Omar Richards
Reading | Defender
The Lewisham-born left-back has agreed to join Bayern Munich this summer on a four-year deal, following an outstanding season at Reading. Discarded by Fulham aged 15, the one-time wideman should fit in nicely at the Allianz Arena – offering competition for Canadian star Alphonso Davies, another winger-turned-full-back.
21. Dael Fry
Middlesbrough | Defender
Manager Neil Warnock talks about Fry as if he is boasting about his favourite grandson’s latest feats. Understandably: the local lad’s bravery and reliable defensive instincts point to a long spell at a higher level. There are shades of Harry Maguire in his 6ft 4in frame and style, but also clear parallels in their early careers.
20. Arnaut Danjuma
AFC Bournemouth | Forward
It’s no surprise the Dutch international – a £13.7m arrival from Club Brugge in 2019 – has provided some moments of real quality this campaign. Frequent flashes of skill, technical ability and spectacular goals suggest a second-tier star playing at the wrong level, although questions about his consistency remain.
19. Kieffer Moore
Cardiff City | Forward
After spells in the South Devon League Division Two and with Viking Stavanger, Kieffer Moore finally thrived in the Championship by finding the back of the net 10 times for Wigan last season and made his Wales debut, aged 27. Moore joined Cardiff in August and had registered a solid eight goals by late January; he promptly netted eight more in his next 10 league matches. Certain to make the Wales squad for Euro 2020, the late bloomer is now flying.
18. George Honeyman – BEST IN LEAGUE ONE
Hull City | Midfielder
Former Sunderland skipper Honeyman made the gut-wrenching decision to leave his hometown club in the summer of 2019 after growing fed up with life in Netflix documentary Sunderland 'Till I Die. "It was like being in Big Brother," he told FourFourTwo this year. It has proved a masterstroke move, with Honeyman notching 13 assists as Hull City finished champions of League One. He's not contempt with a life in the second-tier, however. "I played in the Premier League before with Sunderland and I have ambitions to get back to that level some day," he says.
17. Bryan Mbeumo
Brentford | Forward
Brentford’s ‘BMW’ couldn’t drive them into the Premier League, but while Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins accelerated away, Mbeumo stayed behind to play alongside a Rolls-Royce in Ivan Toney. The young Frenchman won’t match his 16-goal haul of last season but he has become a better provider, ensuring the Bees reach the playoffs again.
16. Conor Hourihane
Swansea City | Midfielder
The Welsh side’s loan signing of Hourihane in January was one of the window’s shrewdest bits of business. The Irish midfielder immediately demonstrated how he’d helped Aston Villa into the Premier League, providing the Swans with pinpoint set-pieces and vital goals: he scored in each of his first three league games.
15. Marc Guehi
Swansea City | Defender
The centre-half, who was among the goalscorers in India when England beat Spain 5-2 in 2017’s Under-17 World Cup Final, has continued to prove his potential. Having first joined on loan from Chelsea in January 2020, Guehi extended the temporary deal for the whole of this campaign and helped Swansea to concede just 15 goals in their first 28 games.
14. Harvey Elliott
Blackburn Rovers | Midfielder
Harvey Elliott was already the youngest ever Premier League player, yet an exciting Championship loan spell means his star has risen even further. Swapping a slightly questionable top-knot for the classic headband look, Elliott – who turned 18 in early April – had contributed five goals and 11 assists by mid-March, earning praise from Blackburn boss Tony Mowbray. “He’s a fantastic talent,” said Mowbray. “It’s unfathomable to me that, in five years, he’ll still be in his early 20s – he might have played 250 games by then.”
13. Todd Cantwell
Norwich City | Midfielder
Even as Norwich were relegated from the Premier League, ‘the Dereham Deco’ caught the eye with his attacking instinct. The midfielder – still eligible for England Under-21s, but strangely overlooked by former boss Aidy Boothroyd – ignored links with Liverpool and Leeds in order to stay in Norfolk, dazzling in a second promotion.
12. Ovie Ejaria
Reading | Midfielder
It was thought that the Southwark-born star would be moving on up after his superb spell on loan from Liverpool last season; instead, his temporary switch was made permanent and he has helped Reading to challenge for promotion. The ex-England Under-21 international is now expected to represent Nigeria.
11. Max Aarons
Norwich City | Defender
Another stellar season has resulted in Aarons being been linked with a move to Manchester United (and for £35m, not on loan as Barcelona insultingly requested). He’s seen as a future England right-back – he just has to get past Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka…
10. Josh Dasilva
Brentford | Midfielder
The Arsenal product made unwanted headlines in January when he was sent off for a bad foul on Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in the semi-finals of the League Cup. The Championship has been a different story, his midfield excellence convincing promotion-chasing Brentford to give him a new deal in October.
9. Michael Olise
Reading | Midfielder
The teenage winger is seen as the hottest of hot prospects, having played a major role in Reading’s lightning-quick start to 2020-21. Born in Hammersmith, Olise has two France U18 caps by virtue of his French-Algerian mother, and he qualifies for Nigeria through his father; they recently put him on standby for the senior squad.
8. Ismaila Sarr
Watford | Forward
Watford signed Sarr for a cool £30m in the summer of 2019, and he has more than 30 caps for Senegal, so it isn’t surprising that he has been one of the Football League’s best players. His attacking displays, including a five goal contribution in a 6-0 thrashing of Bristol City, helped Watford to a second place finish, and an immediate return to Premier League football.
7. Andre Ayew
Swansea City | Forward
Andre Ayew just can't stay away from Swansea. He's been to West Ham and back and had a loan spell in Turkey but this season, the Ghanian hitman has struck 16 times in the Championship to fire the Swans into the playoffs and in with a shout of promotion. Not bad for a man who told FFT he wasn't an "out-and-out striker"...
6. David Brooks
AFC Bournemouth | Midfielder
Raheem Sterling. Marcus Rashford. Bernardo Silva. Trent Alexander-Arnold. Declan Rice. David Brooks. That was the list of six nominees for PFA Young Player of the Year in 2019, which serves to illustrate the talent Brooks possesses when he’s fully fit. The Bournemouth midfielder has proved himself to be one of the Football League’s best players in 2020/21, however, and is now looking forward to a potential call-up to the Euros with Wales.
5. Lucas Joao
Reading | Forward
Joao arrived in the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday six years ago, but this season has undoubtedly been his finest. The Portuguese forward hadn’t previously bettered 10 goals in an English season; this time, he passed that mark in November, reaching 20 in mid-February. No wonder Reading have impressed.
4. Adam Armstrong
Blackburn Rovers | Forward
Armstrong’s abilities have been known in the Football League since he struck 20 League One goals for Coventry as a teenager on loan from Newcastle. While he was less prolific in temporary spells with Barnsley and Bolton, the 5ft 8in striker has been a big hit at Rovers after joining in 2018 – and his 2020 brought 27 goals.
3. Teemu Pukki
Norwich City | Forward
Following Norwich’s relegation from the top flight, FFT’s Football League Player of the Season for 2018/19 found a new gear in the second half of 2020/21. Pukki bagged 11 goals in nine league games between mid-February and mid-March to take him past the 20-goal mark again – perfect preparation for Finland’s historic debut at Euro 2020 this summer and another crack at the Premier League next season.
2. Emi Buendia
Norwich City | Midfielder
The Canaries playmaker has been in the form of his life this season - according to, well, him. "I reached 15 goals," he tells FFT. "Two years ago in the Championship I got eight, so I’m really pleased with that, and I’ve provided assists to help the team." A starring role in Norwich's promotion back to the Premier League has brought its suitors, but Buendia appears content. "Every footballer is happy to see big clubs linked, but I’m 100 per cent focused on doing my job here," he says.
1. Ivan Toney – BEST IN FOOTBALL LEAGUE
Brentford | Forward
Named as FourFourTwo's best player in League One only last season, Toney has taken his game to new heights in the Championship this campaign, scoring 31 times to break the second-tier single-campaign scoring record. "Coming to a team like Brentford, it’s inevitable you’re going to score because of the chances they create," he told FFT this time around.
His pace and eye for goal helped Brentford replace Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma, stars of last season's doomed promotion push who were sold to Premier League clubs ahead of the new season. Toney believes The Bees' £5m investment in him was savvy. "I think it was a bargain, to be honest!" He laughs. Few would disagree with that assessment, with Brentford hoping to reach the promised land via the Play-Offs this month.
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