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Searching for value in the Championship and League One


The Championship and League One represent a smart scouting pool for teams across Europe.

It’s all very well benefitting from three decades of lucrative TV contracts. Establishing yourself as the foremost division in European football and the go-to destination for any talented wannabe star with pound-signs in their eyes.

However, it does make effective domestic scouting a nigh-on impossible task. As cash spills from Rupert Murdoch’s pockets and into the coffers of once-struggling Premier League also-rans, an unfortunate consequence emerges. Players like Ben White start to get touted at £50 million plus. Who ever thinks of the poor Premier League Directors of Football? 

Whilst the coveted table top real estate remains exclusive for an elite few, the middling pack are also extremely well monied. Leicester, Wolves, Aston Villa, West Ham. All part of an insurgent middle-class of door-bangers. They are expressing upward ambition. No longer helplessly resigned to handing over their assets. 

For all the romantic talk of loving the badge and boyhood dreams, a rendition of the Jack Grealish phenomenon from yesteryear would surely by now have taken his anti-shinpad activism to wealthier pastures. But 2021’s Jack Grealish enjoys the wages and fee of 2009’s Cristiano Ronaldo. And that makes him almost unattainable. In 2021, you have to pre-empt your Jack Grealish (Spurs of course nearly did this in August 2018 but foolishly buckled at the £25 million price tag). This means rummaging through the bargain bucket of the English football league. 

So here it is. The sparkling next crop of Jack Grealish’s among the litany of Jack Grealish sounding-and-looking pretenders. The best of the best from the Championship and League 1. 

Michael Olise 

As one London-born Reading starlet, Omar Richards, packs his bags this week after securing a move to Bayern Munich, the sensible money suggests Michael Olise too won’t be available for much longer. The money involved though, would be significantly more. 

Olise’s left boot is a wand. He drifts effortlessly inside from the right flank (although can just as easily play centrally behind the striker) and picks out runners that few players at Championship level have the ability to find. Olise possesses that elusive ‘maverick’ quality that we all pine for like a lost curio from a bygone time. Playing on instinct. Without a script. Producing the moments that make football special. 

So easy to the eye, and capable of rare artistry, it feels almost sacrilegious to reduce Olise’s talents to spreadsheet data. Like evaluating a Rembrandt on the pure basis of mathematical proportions and symmetry. But to the few remaining non-believers, here is the hard statistical evidence. Olise’s 12 assists in the league puts him second only to Player of the Season Emi Buendia. His average of 1.9 key passes per 90 alongside an 81.5% pass completion rate evidences a rare blend of risk-taking with consistent ball retention. No Championship under 24 produced more passes leading to shots all season, either. No Championship under 24 is a better player, either. 

Dael Fry 

After flirting with the playoffs around the middle of the Championship season, Middlesbrough eventually settled into a 10th place finish worthy of little note. Dael Fry, however, is no small fry. Averaging over seven aerial duels won per 90 minutes and standing at an imposing 6ft 4in, Fry is very much what you’d expect from a centre half bevolved of Neil Warnock. 

More likely a target for newly promoted sides looking to stay compact and hold firm against aerial bombardment, Fry’s pass completion rate of less than 60% doesn’t quite locate him among the deep lying technicians the modern game . But it isn’t terrible either. He is competent bringing the ball out from the back to start Boro’ attacks. The trope of Warnock or Allardyce, blood-and-guts traditionalists, being left behind as even bottom half Premier League teams take the continental pathway isn’t without merit. However, England’s top flight will always demand centre-halves who can consistently come out on top in the air. 

If you’re a Norwich, or a Brentford, and Chris Wood or Dominic Calvert-Lewin come bundling towards you like a cannonball sent over a medieval castle wall, you’ll be thankful for a Dael Fry there to match them. 

Dion Charles 

Caution might be assumed advisable when scouting from a team once used as a punchline in 1980s advertisement from the milk marketing board. “Accrington Stanley… Who are they?” famously cries the milk-guzzling child who dreams of emulating Ian Rush. However, time (specifically the time since businessman Andy Holt took over in 2016 with the club on the verge of folding) has been kind to the Lancashire club.

Established as a comfortable League One outfit in the last three years, Dion Charles, who has been there for the last two and scored 29 goals in that time (last season contributing 30% of Accrington Stanley goals in the league), has been a key part of the club’s modern era. He predominantly plays off the right hand side and has the guile and quick feet to create his own chances in the box, often jinking past several challenges in tight spaces before finding a finish. Think Luis Suarez, or (a little more down to earth), Danny Ings. 

It is expected that the Northern Ireland international will move gradually through the divisions. Hull City, set to re-join the Championship in September after winning promotion, has been touted as a destination. But any reader sitting here questioning “Dion Charles… Who is he?” might not be for very much longer. 

Lewis Johnson 

On just the 16th Boxing Day of his lifetime, Lewis Johnson stepped out at Stadium MK in Bletchley for his League One debut for MK Dons, during a 2-0 home win against Bristol Rovers. He was a professional footballer already. He was also Head Boy at school. 

Johnson has the frightening pace, raw talent and boundless enthusiasm that typifies the cliché ‘youthful prospect’. He also has a composure in front of goal that makes him stand out among his age group. Just go and watch the assertiveness of his three goals for MK Dons U18s against Hertford Town U18s last season. As soon as he gets ample opportunity to make League One football look similarly easy, Johnson’s current ‘N/A’ transfermarkt value will be changing in due course. 

Johnson was born in 2004, standing as a testament to the talent that he is. Playing a modest but still impressive nine times for MK Dons this season, he scooped one of three Football League Apprentice of the Year Awards for this season. Note – Jude Bellingham also has one in his cabinet. Note – Jude Belligngham wasn’t also Head Boy (as far as I’m aware!). 

Siriki Dembélé 

Dembélé is swiftly becoming the go-to surname for exciting European talents. Aside from Moussa and Ousmane, players of Champions League quality, there is also a British Dembélé base. Older brother of baby-faced Celtic prospect Karamoko, pocket-sized Sirki Dembélé currently plays in League One for Peterborough. The unpredictable swing of the rumour mill has linked him to both £15 million and free transfers in recent months. 

If the former proved correct, it would see Dembélé shatter the current £11 million record for the division (set by Ademola Lookman when he moved to Everton). The paying customer would be getting an ambidextrous and uniquely skilled player. One who dances past heavier-set League One defences like a whippet toying with a pack of overfed English Mastiffs. He’s also scored 13 times this season, but with a little fine tuning this figure could be much higher, as he averages almost 2.5 shots per 90. 

Dembélé either plays wide in a 4-3-3 or through the middle in a 4-4-2, both to equal effect. His natural talents would be harnessed by any buyer. There are few, if any, better natural ball carriers in the football league. He is also a livewire, having been sent off two seasons back for a headbutt against Lincoln City. The whippet can bite as hard as he barks.

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