TEAMtalk Soccers - Manager of the Season
In our final TEAMtalk Soccers awards category, the season's best bosses are honoured as Jon Holmes congratulates the Manager of the Season. Hairdryer treatments, fourth-place guarantees, nice-guy routines, a failure to see - the behaviour patterns of football managers can often be more fascinating to watch than the teams they put out on the pitch. TEAMtalk has assessed all those generals who commanded forces in the Premier League this season to see who made best use of their troops, transfer warchests and tactical battleplans. Many are called but few are chosen... managers, we salute you! 5. Alex McLeish (Birmingham City): With new owner Carson Yeung arriving at St Andrew's, it was little surprise to see McLeish among the short odds to be sacked early doors. In October, Yeung was asked whether the Scot was safe and replied: 'Not at all.' A question lost in translation, but maybe a Freudian slip in response? No need for psychoanalysis though; by then, McLeish had already constructed a solid side. Blues were low scorers again, but almost every game they played was a tight affair, thanks in large part to McLeish's astute strategies. A 15-game unbeaten run in league and cup saw them beat most mid-to-lower-table rivals and hold those above to draws. That secured McLeish the Manager of the Month award for December. In the final reckoning, there was a sizeable 11-point gap between eighth (Everton) and ninth (Blues) so for being the best of the rest against expectations, McLeish earns an honourable mention. 4. Avram Grant (Portsmouth): Manager of the league's worst team?! And still nominated?! In any other season, such a suggestion would be more obscene than the bottom line on Pompey's bank statement. But Fratton Park was full of surprises in 2009/10. When Grant arrived in late November, Pompey only had seven points on the board and appeared doomed. But the bigger picture was far worse, with the club on the brink of financial ruin. Grant had to operate under a transfer embargo and with a slim squad whose wages kept being delayed. But he kept his charges focused and considering the circumstances, it was to Grant's credit that only the traditional 'Big Four' thrashed them. Meanwhile, Pompey edged past Coventry and Sunderland in the FA Cup before a 4-1 win at Southampton put them into the last eight. Birmingham were seen off, and in the semi-final against Tottenham, Grant kept his side compact and determined at Wembley, and they had the legs in extra-time. The prediction for the final was annihilation; but Pompey only lost 1-0 to Chelsea. Throughout the season, the stoic Israeli kept his dignity at all times (even when the tabloids found out where he was going for a post-work massage). There may have been no happy ending, but there was joy along the way - and Uncle Avram's true grit and big heart made it possible for Pompey. 3. Harry Redknapp (Tottenham): Many predicted that the 'Big Four' monopoly would be broken up in the Premier League in 2009/10. However, few correctly foresaw how the season would pan out. In the end, Harry's game proved the way forward. Like Manchester City, Spurs were busy in the transfer market last summer - but Redknapp actually made a profit. The White Hart Lane squad now looked very strong indeed - the quality sat on the bench was the envy of most managers. Spurs reeled off early wins, bagging their boss an August gong, and recovered well when beaten by Chelsea and Manchester United. Shock 1-0 defeats by Stoke and Wolves at the Lane (where the home defence was largely rock solid) could have caused jitters but again they bounced back quickly. Tottenham really hit form in the closing weeks, winning 10 of their last 13 league games. The pivotal match was the 1-0 victory at Manchester City, yet throughout the campaign, Redknapp managed his side brilliantly - so many of his gambles paid off. In addition, he was able to put tax evasion charges to one side, and took his side to a quarter-final and a semi-final in cup competitions. Spurs will still have to win a difficult two-legged play-off tie to reach the Champions League, but getting the opportunity to do that is a signifcant achievement in itself these days. That's why Redknapp is on our managers' podium. 2. Carlo Ancelotti (Chelsea): Ancelotti kicked off his Blues reign with the Community Shield and eight straight league wins. However, hurdles soon came his way; Chelsea were hit by a transfer ban by FIFA (later rescinded on appeal) and the Blues were beaten at Wigan and Aston Villa. But Ancelotti remained unruffled, and key November wins over Manchester United and Arsenal followed, landing him the monthly honours. A dodgy December followed - just one league victory from five games, and a Carling Cup exit at Blackburn. But Chelsea closed 2009 with a come-from-behind derby win over Fulham, and January was a 100% month. Then, another hurdle - the media storm over John Terry's private life. Ancelotti struggled to keep his skipper and team-mates focused but despite blips at Everton and at home to Manchester City, he steered the Blues through another tough period without any major dents to their confidence. The Champions League defeats to eventual winners Inter Milan were disappointing - but some suspect refereeing decisions in the San Siro were contributing factors. There was the briefest of hangovers - a lethargic 1-1 draw at Blackburn - as Ancelotti demanded a sprint to the finishing line from his star names in their last 10 games in league and cup. And how they responded - 37 goals scored, including 10 against Aston Villa and two in the crucial win at Manchester United that ultimately settled the title race, while only the Wembley woodwork prevented a rout of Portsmouth in the FA Cup final. Ancelotti's gruff demeanour belies a warmth which Chelsea's pampered pros responded to and he only allowed his stern exterior to drop at the end, roaring with delight at the Bridge and then singing 'Volare' on the Kings Road. It may seem harsh that Ancelotti won the Double in his first season in English football, and still didn't claim a TEAMtalk Soccer gong. In almost any other year, he surely would have done. But instead, for 2009/10, our winner is... 1. Roy Hodgson (Fulham): ... again! Last May, Hodgson was our top boss after overseeing a remarkable change of script at Craven Cottage - from The Great Escape to The Magnificent Seven(th) in 12 months. For a club consistently among the smallest in the Premier League, the turnaround he produced on a tight budget was our stand-out success in management. Yet one year later, the canny Croydonian surpassed himself by taking Fulham on a Fantastic Voyage across Europe. Nine and a half months, 18 games and over 20,000 miles. For plotting that route, inspiring his team, and navigating a thrilling course through treacherous ties, Hodgson is the repeat winner in this category having excelled as an explorer as well as a manager. The 62-year-old's management style is impossible to pigeon hole - he's a drill sergeant, but not a bawler; he's avuncular, but not a soft touch; he's cosmopolitan, but quintessentially English. But above all, he can draw upon 34 years of dug-out experiences and still come up with new ideas. Firstly, domestic matters. Fulham only finished 12th, but Hodgson can be excused a run of just two wins from the last 10 league games as he held his best troops back for continental combat (thus flouting one of the more ridiculous Premier League rules). However, before the denouement, Hodgson could point to two Manager of the Month awards - only David Moyes could match that in 2009/10 - one for an unbeaten October, and another for an 11-point February haul. Fulham only lost in extra-time at Manchester City in the Carling Cup and also made the FA Cup quarter-finals. Onto the Europa League odyssey. After cruising against FK Vetra of Vilnius, Fulham's play-off second-leg task was nasty - travel east as far as you can go without leaving UEFA territory to face improving Russian opposition in Amkar Perm. Playing on an artificial pitch far from home without six first-choice players, Hodgson's men struggled - but they remained organised and held out until the 90th minute, going through on aggregate. In Group E, Fulham took four points off CSKA Sofia, but poor officiating cost them on both occasions against Roma. By this stage, record signing Andrew Johnson had played his last European game of the season due to injury. To compensate, Hodgson worked on the attacking instincts of Zamora and Gera who would go on to net six goals each in the competition. To progress, Fulham had to win a difficult decider at Basel - the visitors' three-pronged central midfield dominated possession and they triumphed 3-2. Two months later, they lined up against holders Shakhtar Donetsk in the round of 32. Impressively, spirit again overcame style - although it appeared the Cottagers may have met their match when they lost 3-1 at Juventus in the last 16 and then went a goal down early on in the second leg. But this time, decisions went in their favour and Hodgson masterminded a jaw-dropping 4-1 victory capped by late substitute Clint Dempsey's stunning chip. Wolfsburg and Hamburg were out-thought and out-fought by Hodgson and his heroes in the quarters and semis, the inverted wingers Duff and Davies grabbing vital home goals while in Germany, the keeper and back four (Schwarzer plus Baird, Hughes, Hangeland and Konchesky) demonstrated the strength of their defensive unit with clean sheets. Alas, Fulham's brave rearguard was crucially unlocked by the Aguero-Forlan combination in the last few minutes of extra-time in the Nordbank Arena on May 12. The disappointment will linger for Hodgson, but the memories of how this modest but committed man took a modest but committed team to a European final will abide much longer. As Sir Alex Ferguson simply put it: "What Roy has done there this season is one of the best British club achievements of all time."
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