THEY’VE walked the division and set records for fun, so it was no surprise to see Wolves dominate the PFA’s League One team of the year.
And try as I might, there was just no avoiding the division’s best defence, best attack and record points scorers with a mighty 103.
That’s why the men in gold also dominate my top XI of 2013-14. With so many excellent sides – the top four would all have gone up automatically last season – it was a tough call, not least in midfield where League One player of the year Adam Forshaw really should have featured.
But having seen him only fleetingly, I had to plump for Romain Vincelot, Orient’s dynamic playmaker. Likewise, apologies are due to Rotherham, whose collective outshone any individual. Anyway, here’s the team I’d pick to tackle allcomers.
GOALKEEPER CARL IKEME – WOLVES
WHAT a difference a year makes. Last May, Ikeme was still nursing the hand he broke punching a tactics board in frustration after his embarrassing blunder against Bristol City. It was an incident that seemed to sum up Wolves’ chaotic season, and his subsequent absence did the club no favours as they slipped out of the Championship.
Today, though, he is the local hero once more, a model of consistency who has kept an incredible 25 clean sheets to propel Wolves back to the second tier.
“Carl has been brilliant all season,” said Wolves midfielder Dave Edwards. “I really don’t think there are many better keepers in England. That might sound a bit much but I’ve played with Joe Hart and Wayne Hennessey and Carl is up there with them.”
RIGHT-BACK HARRY MAGUIRE- SHEFFIELD UTD
CAN United really hang on the hottest property in League One? After a third straight appearance in the PFA team of the year – at the age of just 21 – it may be time for bigger and better things.
From the moment he burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old in early 2011, the young defender has garnered plaudits. “Terrific, a model professional who gets better with every game,” said Neill Collins.
“He’s never flustered by anything,” said former Blades boss Danny Wilson. “He was like a senior pro at 18.”
After he helped the Blades keep 16 clean sheets this term, Wolves are rumoured to be plotting a £1m bid. But if formative interest from Everton hardens, they won’t stand a chance.
CENTRE-BACK TONY CRAIG – BRENTFORD
MIDFIELD dynamo Adam Forshaw may have been named League One player of the year, but it was grizzled veteran Tony Craig who won the votes of his team-mates.
The 29-year-old, a veteran of promotion to the Championship with Millwall in 2010, was the epitome of solid but unspectacular, assuming the captaincy in the absence of Kevin O’Connor and playing through broken bones, ankle problems and all manner of ailments to guide Brentford to a phenomenal 20 clean sheets.
“Tony is a solid and outstanding professional,” said Bees boss Mark Warburton. “If you had a dressing room full of Tony Craigs you would never have any problems.”
CENTRE-BACK DANNY BATTH- WOLVES
WHAT were Stale Solbakken and Dean Saunders thinking? Both had the 23-year-old Wolves fan on their books last season. Both left him to rot while playing men far less dedicated to the cause.
Kenny Jackett wasn’t going to make the same mistake and, along with Sam Ricketts, made the 23-year-old the bedrock of his defence. Strong and athletic, Batth was integral to Sheffield Wednesday’s promotion to the Championship in 2012 and has proved just as critical at Molineux, conceding just 31 goals in 46 games – the best defensive record in the entire Football League.
LEFT-BACK JAKE BIDWELL- BRENTFORD
IT’S a good job Brentford went up because it’s unlikely Jake Bidwell would have stuck around for another season. Unanimously regarded as the best left-back in the division – which is astonishing considering he joined Everton’s academy as a goalkeeper – the 21-year-old has already played more than 100 games for the Bees.
Quick and attack-minded with the strength of a converted centre-half and prowess from set-pieces, Bidwell has been capped at every age group for England and has reportedly been watched by Gareth Southgate this season. Another season like this and the Under-21 chief won’t be the only one taking notes.
MIDFIELD MOSES ODUBAJO – LEYTON ORIENT
ORIENT’S young player of the year for the second season running, Odubajo is a throwback to the days of maverick widemen, all mazy dribbles and lightning pace.
Rejected by Millwall – and Orient – as a teenager, he made it third time lucky after winning a second trial at Brisbane Road and has never looked back. A screamer on debut in 2011 set the standard and since then he has been a feature in the side.
At 20, there is still the odd detour down a blind alley or skilful flick that ends up in the stand, but when it goes right, Odubajo is a joy to watch – as he has been by several Premier League scouts.
MIDFIELD ROMAIN VINCELOT – LEYTON ORIENT
A Duracell bunny with the tenacity of a warthog, the Frenchman was the beating heart of an Orient side that upset all odds to finish third. Unable to command a place at Brighton following a £100,000 move from Dagenham in 2011, Vincelot made the switch to Brisbane Road in February last year and became an instant hit.
Indeed, Orient’s transformation from relegation battlers to promotion contenders can be directly traced to the 29-year-old’s arrival, which sparked a run of just three defeats in 14 games at the back end of last season.
Bustling and energetic, Vincelot is a genuine box-to-box player who ensures no opposition playmaker will ever get time to put a foot on the ball. He’s also got a great touch and uses the ball intelligently.
MIDFIELD KEVIN MCDONALD–WOLVES
AFTER the shirkers and mercenaries of recent years, Kenny Jackett arrived at Molineux determined to build a side of solid, unpretentious pros the fans could identify with. And nobody summed up his quiet revolution like Kevin McDonald, the Scottish playmaker with the teak-tough streak whose class in the middle of the park has kept the golden boys rolling.
Converted from a free-roaming maverick to a midfield quarterback, the 25-year-old has embraced the extra discipline and could now be in line for a Scotland call.
MIDFIELD BAKARY SAKO –WOLVES
THE solitary bright spark during last season’s dismal descent to League One, Sako was a wanted man last summer, with Nottingham Forest and Fulham both tabling bids in the region of £3m.
But new gaffer Kenny Jackett stood firm and has been rewarded by another stellar season from the Frenchman. Quite simply, Sako is too quick, too powerful and too skilful for the majority of defenders in League One.
But that should come as no surprise – it was only 2011 when he and PSG star Blaise Matuidi were fighting it out for player of the year at Ligue One side St Etienne. After ten goals and 14 assists – the most in League One – it surely won’t be long before the big time beckons again.
FORWARD BRITT ASSOMBALONGA – PETERBOROUGH
AT a fraction over £1m, it’s fair to say that a place in the team of the year was the least Peterborough expected of their record signing. But while money may buy class, it doesn’t always guarantee confidence; the 21-year-old could easily have crumbled under the pressure following his high-profile summer switch from Watford.
Instead, he set about proving he was a snip, plundering 33 goals and terrifying centre-halves with his formidable combination of hulking brute strength, electric pace and unerring finishing. Without him. Posh wouldn’t have been anywhere near a play-off place.
FORWARD JOE GARNER– PRESTON NORTH END
THERE was no shortage of contenders for the final striking berth. Callum Wilson scored 21 goals in just 37 games for a struggling Coventry side, his fearsome pace too much for defenders to handle.
Sam Baldock reminded everyone of his class with 23 for Bristol City and Kieran Agard ploughed Rotherham’s path to the play-offs.
But by dint of sheer relentlessness Garner gets the nod. Since the start of November, the 26- year-old has netted a phenomenal 23 goals in 33 games, briefly launching the Lilywhites to within touching distance of automatic promo- tion. And, of course, there was THAT goal in the play-off semis.