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How the next generation of managerial maestros found their feet in the EFL

27 October 2020

There has been much talk about the importance of England’s footballing pyramid in recent weeks, and with the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Jack Grealish, Jamie Vardy and Ollie Watkins - to name a few - all flying high at the top of the Premier League, it’s no surprise that English football and its players have made the headlines.

Talent levels throughout the footballing pyramid, specifically the EFL, continue to increase year-on-year, something emphasised not only by those excelling in the top flight at club level. A deeper look reveals just how much of an impact players playing in the EFL have had on the international stage for England.

For so long, EFL clubs have afforded many the opportunity to put that first foot on the ladder, giving them a platform to shine and, most importantly, competitive first-team experience. And the proof is in the pudding. Of the latest international squad announced by Gareth Southgate, 24 of the 30-man squad came through the League pyramid or played for an EFL club. Its importance cannot be ignored.

So much can be said for the players on the pitch; young talent developed in the EFL, by EFL Clubs and in EFL competitions. Dean Henderson, Kyle Walker, Tyrone Mings, Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson, Kalvin Phillips, James Maddison, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy - the list of those with EFL experience goes on. But the talent on the pitch isn’t the only thing to be excited about.

Yes, you could make a number of all-star XIs with EFL affiliations, but who would stand in the dugout and manage these stars? Take your pick.

The Championship, League One and League Two are - and have been for some years - flooded with managerial talent. As with the players, these divisions are breeding grounds for the next generation of managerial maestros.

One look at the Premier League and the number of managers whose CVs are packed with EFL experience is clear to see. In fact, 12 of the current 20 Premier League managers have EFL experience.

Brendan Rodgers cut his managerial teeth in the Sky Bet Championship with Watford, Reading and Swansea City. Sean Dyche managed Watford during their time in the Championship before taking Burnley to the Premier League. Roy Hodgson had a brief spell at Bristol City; Nuno Espirito Santo joined Wolves when they were a Championship side; David Moyes at Preston North End; Graham Potter at Swansea; Steve Bruce at Huddersfield Town, Birmingham City and Hull City, among others. Then, of course, you have the three newly-promoted managers from the Championship in Scott Parker, Slaven Bilic and Marcelo Bielsa. The list goes on.

There is no suggestion, of course, that all of these managers were shaped by their time outside of the top flight, but it’s certainly an experience that they all carry with them and will never forget.

On top of those already listed is Aston Villa manager Dean Smith, whose side went into the international break on the back of a 7-2 victory over champions Liverpool, and who at the time of writing sit in second place in the Premier League table behind Everton. On the pitch, of Smith’s starting eleven who played in that much-discussed victory over Liverpool, there were a combined 778 appearances in the EFL, a stat that speaks for itself.

A closer look at Smith, however, shows that his managerial career began almost 10 years ago, at now-League Two club Walsall. Having initially been appointed Head of Youth at the club, he took the managerial reins six months later. Guiding them from the relegation zone to safety in his first few months, he also took the Saddlers to the EFL Trophy Final in 2015, before leaving to take charge of Brentford.

Success in South London saw Smith's boyhood club, Aston Villa, come calling in October 2018, an opportunity too good to turn down. Since then, he's never looked back.

With former Premier League winner John Terry as his assistant coach, a club-record 10 consecutive wins saw Villa go from 14th in the Championship to the Premier League via the 2018/19 Play-Offs and, in 2020, he took them to the Carabao Cup Final, where they narrowly lost out to Manchester City.

Now, although the season is only four games young, his side occupy second place in the Premier League table. Dreamland for any manager.

Speaking of dreamland, Frank Lampard occupied the opposition dugout in the 2019 Championship Play-Off Final at Wembley, as the former Premier League winner took his first steps in management with Derby County. He may not have won promotion on the day, but the former Chelsea man’s debut season in the dugout did culminate in a sold-out Play-Off Final, following one of the most dramatic Play-Off Semi-Final comebacks in recent times. 

Despite defeat to Aston Villa on the day itself, Lampard had done enough in his first season as a manager to earn the Head Coach role at Premier League Chelsea, the side he made over 650 appearances for, scoring a record number of goals in the process.

Head north to South Yorkshire and you’ll find one of - if not the most - successful manager in Sheffield United’s history in Chris Wilder.

In under four years, Wilder has taken Sheffield United from League One to the Premier League. Last season, the Blades finished 9th in the top-flight, with a squad not all that different from the one which won promotion from the Championship the season before. That is testament to Wilder as a coach, a man and a manager.

And where would he be without the football pyramid in its current structure?

Wilder, like many of his players, grew up in the EFL. Having previously been at Oxford United and Northampton Town, the Sheffield United boss has managed in every division in the EFL - and also the Conference - where he began his career with Halifax.

In a recent interview, he said: “English football is a unique situation in terms of the pyramid system and it’s important that we look after that.

“Of course, there will always be focus on international teams and Premier League teams, but as I have experienced throughout my career, there are a lot of people involved and a lot of work goes on in these smaller Clubs. It’s important that these remain."

It has been clear for some time that he is one of the best coaches in England, not only since his rise following Sheffield United’s promotion to the Premier League, but also considering the impressive work he did with lower league Clubs.

Last season, he and his United side lit up the Premier League, and were a breath of fresh air to England’s top flight.

It’s fair to say that Smith, Lampard and Wilder are proven managers at the top level now, but the fact that England’s all-time record goalscorer chose to join Championship side Derby County as both a coach and a player to start his preparation for a potential management career, speaks volumes.

With over 700 appearances and more than 300 goals to his name in club football - including a record 253 for Manchester United - Wayne Rooney is one of the biggest and most recognisable names in world football.

Now, there’s no doubt that the former England captain still has an important role to play on the pitch, but the fact that he - like a number of his former England teammates - has chosen the Sky Bet Championship to learn his trade in coaching speaks volumes.

“The opportunity to come back to England and play, but also take up a coaching role with the club was too great to turn down. I want to learn and to gain experience for when I do stop playing and go on to that next step,” Rooney said when signing for Derby last season.

He has made no secret of his desire to try his hand at coaching and management, and where better to start, than in one of the most unpredictable and competitive divisions in the world?

Ultimately, it begs the question, where would these managers be without these invaluable opportunities and a platform to shine?

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