With around a quarter of the season gone it has not necessarily been the names you would expect to see in or around the promotion spots and play-off berths in the Football League. There is still plenty of time to go but for the fans of the clubs concerned there is an excuse for dreaming at the moment.
In the Championship the surprise team for many has been top side Brighton & Hove Albion who, despite dropping points at home to Preston North End last weekend, still lead the way in front of the more fancied sides of Middlesbrough, Hull City and Burnley. Their position may be a surprise to some but given they have qualified for the Championship play-offs in two of the previous three seasons, it shouldn’t be too much of shock to see them up there again this season.
League One also sees unfancied leaders with Gillingham and Walsall currently filling the two automatic spots but a closer look shows that Gillingham have been building to this since their League Two title win in 2013 and Walsall have been gradually piecing things together too over the last few years under Dean Smith. Two of last season’s League Two promoted sides – Burton Albion and Bury have had good starts too, with both enjoying the momentum that often comes with a promotion. Bury being up there also comes as less of a surprise given the quality of players, for this level, that they brought in over the summer. Burton have been on something of roll over the last few years and have clearly got into the very good habit of winning games. Current boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is turning heads higher up after building on the success of his predecessor, Gary Rowett, who guided the Brewers to the play-offs two years running prior to be spirited away by Birmingham City this time last year.
In League Two it is no surprise to see the likes of big spending Portsmouth, last year’s play-off losers Plymouth Argyle and Wycombe Wanderers, and relegated Leyton Orient challenging at the top but there are at least a couple of teams you wouldn’t have expected to see up there. Mansfield Town and Carlisle United are in or around the play-off spots after both struggling at the wrong end of the table last season, with their respective boards going in different directions by way of new managerial appointments in their successful fights to stay up.
Mansfield currently sit in fifth spot just two points off Portsmouth, who they held to a goal-less draw last weekend thanks to the heroics of veteran keeper Brian Jensen. The former Burnley man is one of several experienced heads that the Stags young manager, Adam Murray, has brought in this season, and they seem to have made the difference.
Murray took over the Field Mill hot-seat from Paul Cox in early December last season, and at the time was the youngest manager in the Football League. It was something of struggle for the then 32-year-old as the Nottinghamshire side limped home in 21st place, finishing the same seven points clear of relegation they had been when Cox left, albeit three places lower.
Murray may have lost 15 of the 27 league games he was in charge of last season but clearly learnt a lot about the players he had in that run and undertook an overhaul of the squad over the summer. The close season saw 14 new faces arrive at Field Mill with, 11 going the other way and the revamp seems to have paid off given current form. Murray is not shy at blowing his own trumpet either believing that the energy he feels he brings to the club by being a young manager has rubbed off on the group.
The much travelled former midfielder, who retired from playing over the summer, feels young coaches don’t always get a chance, due to chairman feeling they don’t have the experience to cope, but he feels you only get that by going through good times and bad – learning lessons from both. Ultimately he has chosen to stand and fall by his own decisions, taking advice from more experienced managers where he sees fit, rather than fall back on an experienced assistant as some young managers do.
He may well have passed on having experience in the dug-out but he has clearly recognised the need for it on the pitch. His summer dealings saw the average age of the side rise from 24 to 27 with Jensen the oldest of his new recruits but not the only experienced player to come in and play a major part in the season so far.
Striker Craig Westcarr, 30, picked up on a free from Portsmouth, and former Bolton Wanderers defender Nicky Hunt,32, signed following his release by Accrington Stanley at the end of last season have also been among the first names down on Murray’s team sheet this season. He also has the services of other new signings Chris Beardsley, 31, the ex-Stevenage forward now in his third spell at Mansfield having started his career there back in 2002, and 34-year-old goalkeeper Scott Shearer to call upon if needed.
On current form it seems Murray has got the blend right as does Keith Curle up in Cumbria with Carlisle United, Curle being a manager at other end of the scale from Murray at the age of 51. Carlisle had tried the rookie manager route with their previous appointment, Graham Kavanagh, but turned to the more experienced Curle last year with the club rock bottom of the Football League
Curle started off in management exactly as Murray did, as player manager at Mansfield Town. That was back in 2002 but it has been far from an easy ride for Curle in management with his time at Field Mill ending in controversial circumstances. Having guided the club to the Division Three play-off final the season before he would leave under a cloud in December 2004 when he was sacked for allegedly bullying a youth team player. Curle took the club to court over it and won his case for wrongful dismissal with the courts calling Mansfield’s disciplinary procedures a sham.
He no doubt then learnt some hard lessons as he went through some of the bad times Murray refers to in fairly brief spells at Chester City and Torquay United, before he linked up with Neil Warnock at Crystal Palace as a coach. He had worked with the divisive Yorkshireman previously having been a player-coach under him at Sheffield United towards the end of his playing career. He then followed him to Queens Park Rangers before returning to management at Notts County after Warnock and his coaching staff were sacked by QPR in 2012. His spell in Nottingham lasted just under a year despite a win percentage of 45% during his time there and leaving them in 10th spot in League One, just five points off the play-offs.
With that kind of record, it was something of a shock to many to see him leave but no surprise to see Carlisle United appointing the former England International in their hour of need. He took over a side with just three points, no wins from their first nine games and – unsurprisingly – woefully short of confidence.
It has been a familiar story up at Brunton Park in recent years, after a creditable 8th place finish in League One in 2012, the culmination of a gradual improvement that the Carlisle fans no doubt had hoped would lead to at least a play-off place in 2013, having last qualified for them in 2008. Instead they struggled to a 17th place finish before succumbing to relegation the year after. After another poor start Curle came in and whilst a final position of 20th may not sound too spectacular it was a spot nine points clear of the drop zone at the end of the season, and avoided a second drop into the Conference in ten years for the club.
The close season saw him make a more muted transformation than Murray with just five new faces replacing the ten that left. A smaller squad with a good balance of youth and experience has clearly benefited from a pre-season under Curle as they sit just outside the play-off positions, despite the loss of one of last season’s few bright spots – Kyle Dempsey – moving to Huddersfield Town. They have also impressed in this season’s Capital One Cup, dumping out League One Chesterfield in the first round before pushing Liverpool all the way to penalties in their second round. Their form hasn’t gone unnoticed and saw Curle nominated for the manager of the month award for September, only to miss out to Accrington’s John Coleman, another side who have surprised many by their lofty position too.
Curle and Murray may be at opposite ends of the managerial scale in terms of experience but both are quietly getting the job done at the moment despite their clubs starting with long odds for promotion at the start of the season. Around now is when injuries and suspensions start to have an effect and it will be a test of their respective skills to see how they cope and whether they can maintain their current form and allow their fans to keep dreaming of success.