You’d be forgiven to think that the best managers in the country feature in the Premier League and the Championship. However, those who know about League One know that there are some top drawer managers plying their trade in the humble shadows of the big leagues. Major clubs, such as Sunderland, Ipswich Town and Wigan Athletic feature in League One this season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve got the best players… or managers.
League One is a brilliant place for young gaffers to learnt their trade in the professional game. The range of opposition means clubs/managers have different challenges each week. From playing at Fratton Park one week, to the Crown Oil Arena the next (no offence Rochdale fans), every game is completely different. Famous managers such as Chris Wilder and Eddie Howe both grew their managerial CV in League One.
So, it really does ponder the question, who are the top five managers in League One at the moment?
John Coleman (Accrington Stanley)
The Scouse 58-year-old manager is a true Accy legend.
From his 13-year-stint that ended in 2012, to his current seven year spell that started in 2014 – we’ll ignore the sticky spell at Rochdale in the middle. In 1999, Accrington found themselves deep down the footballing pyramid. They played in the Northern Premier League First Division but by 2006 Coleman had got the North-West side back into the world of professional football, specifically League Two. That is three promotions in seven years; as Accrington rose, so did Coleman’s reputation.
By 2012 he was the club’s longest serving manager, and only Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were ahead of him for length of current tenure in the country at that time. He left Accrington having managed 587 games – thats a lot. Of the 587 games, he recorded a 40.2% win rate, securing 236 victories. Obviously when entering the Football League, the clubs form did dip, but they haven’t been relegated since entering League Two in ’06.
The highlight of Coleman’s career must’ve came in the 2017/18 season. A regular League Two campaign was expected, but somehow the smallest club in the top four divisions did the unthinkable. They finished the season celebrating with the League Two champions trophy, after recording 93 points. Winning the title is a great achievement for every manager, but to do so with a shoe-string budget and with a reasonably low-key squad is even more impressive. Billy Kee’s 25 goals was an incredible return for a major talent.
So that takes us to this season. They currently sit 9th in League One – a league that boasts the likes of Portsmouth, Hull City, and the aforementioned Sunderland, Wigan Athletic, and Ipswich Town. Having played less games than most other teams too, they could be a bit higher. Win their games in the hand (and other results go their way) and they’ll be sat up in… 2nd.
Lee Johnson (Sunderland)
From the humble standings of the WHAM Stadium, to the grand ‘Wembley of the North’, Sunderland and their mega stadium should not be in League One.
That being said, their recent years of turgid football means they are right where they belong, but they’ll be hoping to get up and out of League One soon. The north-east club have fairly recently appointed Lee Johnson. A manager who comes with experience, reasonable success, and a lot of expectation. Born in Newmarket, the 39-year-old cut his teeth at Oldham Athletic. With a 35% win rate from just over 100 games, it was somewhat surprising to see him given a slight step up in management. He moved over to Barnsley, who at the time were a fellow League One club. After a mediocre start, a brilliant seven-game winning streak saw the Tykes rise up the table. This saw Johnson rise up the leagues.
By February 2016, just less than 12 months in the job, Johnson was signed by Bristol City. Helping the Robins survive in the Championship was an impressive feat for the first two years. It was in his third season that he pushed for more. An 11th place finish, was then succeeded by an 8th place one the season after. An impressive EFL Cup run to the semi-finals, saw his side lose out to Manchester City on penalties. But it was notable that Pep Guardiola was very praising of his counter-part in the dugout.
After a mediocre run of form, Bristol City sacked Johnson. He was only out of the game for half a year though. He’s recently returned to football with Sunderland. Having already managed 16 games, he’s recored eight wins and five draws. A solid return for a mismatched squad that needs work.
Lee Johnson turned Bristol City from relegation fighters to promotion chasers. There’s no reason why he can’t re-imagine this Sunderland side, and take them back to where the club should be.
Michael Appleton (Lincoln City)
At the time of writing, Lincoln City sit top of League One. They’ve amassed 53 points from 27 games and have shone a lot this season. Michael Appleton deserves a lot of credit for how his Lincoln side have played this season, but a lot of people won’t be too surprised by the gaffer’s success.
Despite having a tough start to his managerial career, the 45-year-old boasted some big clubs on his résumé. He achieved a disappointing combined 22% win rate at Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers. His stats took a big turn when he joined Oxford United. During the three years he spent at the Kassam, he managed over 170 games and recorded a solid 45% win rate. He won promotion to League One and made it to two consecutive EFL Trophy finals. His impressive Oxford United side was to be feared.
A spell as no.2 at Leicester City ended when he took charge as the caretaker in 2017 after Craig Shakespeare had been sacked. He won his two games in the Premier League. A strange and confusing spell at West Brom then occurred, before he replaced the Cowley brothers at Lincoln in 2019.
The Imps were recently promoted, but their stock was high. Appleton secured them a 16th place finish. Less than 12 months later and Lincoln sit top of League One. With the likes of Jorge Grant, Anthony Scully and James Jones pulling the strings and Lewis Montsma keeping the goals out at the back (whilst scoring eight himself), then the club have are in fine form.
Appleton’s pressing and rushing attacking play is focused around Grant. The gaffer has certainly been able to get the best out of the mercurial talent.
David Artell (Crewe Alexandra)
As managerial jobs go, few are harder than the one at Gresty Road.
Whilst working with a shoe-string budget, you also have to blood their youth players into the first team and create a team that can challenge the big-wigs of League One. All that, before the inevitable selling-on of the best talents that the club have produced. To say Dave Artell as done a truly outstanding job is an understatement.
He took over the role from Steve Davis in January 2017, with the club fighting a relegation that would’ve seen them drop two leagues in two years. To leave the Football League would spell oblivion for a club that relies on its status of academy. With no managerial experience prior to taking the job, the hard-nosed and often brash centre-half guided the Alex to safety. The 17th place finish in 2016/17 was gradually improved upon in the next two seasons as the Railwaymen finished 15th the season after, then 12th the season after that.
Whilst table positions were improving, so were his crop of youngsters. The likes of Charlie Kirk, Perry Ng, Tommy Lowery and Harry Pickering were all laying claim to being the ‘next best thing’ to come from Crewe since Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood.
But it was a piece of managerial excellence that saw Crewe’s form rise significantly after the Christmas of 2018. A tactical switch from the traditional 4-4-2 to an even-more-common 4-3-3 saw Artell get the best out of a key player. Ryan Wintle took control of the ‘CDM’ role, and utterly flourished. He instantly became a key performer, and the switch actually allowed the aforementioned James Jones (now at The Imps) and experienced Paul Green to come into their own. After a 1-4 win away at eventual champions Lincoln City, Crewe never looked back and thus finished the season strongly.
The club carried that form on into the next season as they fought in an intense title race with Swindon Town. PPG cost them the title, but promotion back to League One was thoroughly deserved. Artell had managed to do several things. Bring brilliant youth talent to foreground – with Kirk being the top assister in League Two. Mix experienced heads like Green and Chris Porter with the youth to create the perfect balance. And bring back the beautiful passing football that had been the ‘Crewe Way’ for many years.
The club currently sit 11th in League One after an iffy run of form. With Ng signing for Cardiff and Pickering heading to Blackburn, Crewe’s youngsters are leaving them… could their young manager be on the move soon too?
Darren Moore (Doncaster Rovers)
When Alan Pardew was fired by West Brom in 2018, a 43-year-old called Darren Moore embarked on his first foray into the hot seat. Despite the club sitting rock bottom of the Premier League with a ten point gap between them and safety, Moore nearly pulled off the unbelievable. Before Southampton last-day victory, the Baggies would’ve been safe. But alas, they did fall to relegation but Moore didn’t fall to the same fate as Pardew. He was given the next season in the managers chair, but only lasted till March. The club sat 4th in the Championship, but a negative run of home form made the powers-that-be make a change.
After just under a year in management, Moore had garnered a fairly good reputation. Taking the Baggies anywhere near Premier League survival was a miraculous event, and 4th in the Championship is no mean feat. We all know when a club drop into the second tier, they find it tougher than they’d like to.
He spent less than a year outside of the game. After his departure in March 2019, Doncaster Rovers came calling in the summer, and by July Moore was back in business.
Grant McCann took Doncaster to the playoffs the season prior to Moore’s appointment. The largely successful McCann regime had ended with a McCann heading to Hull City. Moore’s introduction would see a slight decline as the club finished 9th in a uber competitive League One that was curtailed due to COVID-19. In the current campaign though, DM’s Donny are sitting in 5th, with an expectant look at the playoffs come July.
With 15 wins in 25 games, only three sides have recorded more wins than Doncaster in the 2020/21 season. From the ever-green James Coppinger, to the young talents of Tyreece John-Jules, Moore has created a squad with an identity. Attractive football that meets a pragmatic ability to win games of football. With the wide talents of Josh Sims and Jon Taylor, full-backs will be having nightmares for weeks.
If they win their games in hand… guess who’ll be top.
There it is then, my list of the top five managers in League One. Disagree with any of these gentlemen’s inclusions? Hate Dave Artell due to his brash touchline nature? Don’t rate Lee Johnson as much as we do? Let us know who you’d add if so, Sir Alex’s son maybe?