ONES TO WATCH

Our ex­pert Chris Dunlavy picks ten play­ers set to sparkle in 2016

The Football League Paper - - NEWS -

THIS time last year, Dele Alli was turn­ing out for MK Dons against Notts County in front of 3,000 supporters. Now, the teenage mid­fielder is an Eng­land reg­u­lar and Spurs su­per­star. The Foot­ball League is full of glit­ter­ing gems like Alli, just wait­ing to be un­earthed and buffed to great­ness. And each new year brings fresh seams of stars to the sur­face.

So if 2015 was the year of Alli, who will shine bright­est in 2016? Here are a few of the con­tenders.

LEWIS COOK – LEEDS UNITED

Cook’s tal­ent is hardly a se­cret.The 18year-old mid­fielder has played for Eng­land at ev­ery level up to U19, while his per­for­mances at the back end of last sea­son won him the young player of the year award and kept Leeds in the Cham­pi­onship.

“He’s the best ju­nior I’ve seen by a mile,” said for­mer Leeds gaffer Neil Red­fearn, who nur­tured Cook through the youth ranks at El­land Road. “What an im­mense tal­ent he is. He’s only a teenager but he’s got this pres­ence, this power and this drive about him. And the kid can play.”

What Cook has lacked is a foil – a mid­fielder an­chor who can do the dirty work and al­low him to dic­tate play.

But with Liam Brid­cutt, ar­guably the Cham­pi­onship’s finest de­fen­sive mid­fielder, now signed on loan from Sun­der­land, Cook is al­ready start­ing to show his class. If the pair click, it could be a very happy new year for Leeds.

RO­MAINE SAWYERS – WAL­SALL

Last sea­son, Dean Smith de­scribed Sawyers as an “un­sung hero”.

“Ro­maine does a great job for the team with­out the ball which some­times goes un­no­ticed,” he said. “But ev­ery­body here no­tices it al­right.”

This sea­son, ev­ery­body else has, too. Enig­matic and en­er­getic be­fore, the 24-year-old has added con­sis­tency and goals to his game, net­ting six times so far to fire the Sad­dlers’ un­ex­pected pro­mo­tion charge.

With his con­tract set to ex­pire in the sum­mer and scouts pack­ing the Bescot, it’s hard to imag­ine the for­mer West Brom trainee be­ing around next sea­son. The ques­tion is, can Wal­sall fend off Cham­pi­onship in­ter­est in Jan­uary?

VIV SOLOMON-OTA­BOR – BIRM­ING­HAM CITY

Re­jected by Crys­tal Palace three years ago, the 19-year-old winger has been tipped for great­ness by Blues boss Gary Rowett.

“If he can piece it all to­gether, he’s go­ing to be an­other De­marai Gray,” said Rowett. “He’s prob­a­bly stronger than De­marai. He’s quicker than De­marai. He doesn’t take on play­ers like De­marai, but he’s got two really good feet.

“He can smash a ball with both his left and his right, and he’s a really hum­ble lad, who works in­cred­i­bly hard.”

Hugely im­pres­sive with a vir­tu­oso goal against Ful­ham and string of eye-catching per­for­mances off the bench, Solomon-Ota­bor made his first start in this week’s 1-0 vic­tory over MK Dons. Ex­pect to see much more of him.

GE­ORGE THORNE – DERBY COUNTY

Why are the Rams so much more solid this year?

The re­turn of Ja­son Shack­ell is a big fac­tor, as are the tac­tics of new gaffer Paul Cle­ment. But the re­turn of Thorne should not be un­der­es­ti­mated.

Just 16 when he be­came West Brom’s youngest player in half a cen­tury, Thorne’s fledg­ling ca­reer has been wrecked by a string of se­ri­ous knee in­juries. Now 22, he has still to reach 100 ap­pear­ances.

But the way he con­trols a mid­field with his clever pass­ing and in­tel­li­gent or­gan­i­sa­tion, you’d think he was a crusty vet­eran.

Whether it’s making tack­les, screen­ing his back four or start­ing coun­ters from deep in mid­field, Thorne oozes class and com­po­sure, al­low­ing more at­tack-minded play­ers like Bradley John­son to go raid­ing.

The ru­moured Premier League in­ter­est is no sur­prise; re­sist­ing it is key to Derby’s pro­mo­tion am­bi­tions.

KE­MAR ROOFE – OX­FORD UNITED

West Brom can cer­tainly pump them out. Like Sawyers, Roofe is a prod­uct of the Bag­gies’ youth team, re­leased in the sum­mer af­ter a suc­ces­sion of un­spec­tac­u­lar loan spells.

Mind you, the last of them wasn’t too shabby.The 22-year-old scored six goals in 16 games for Michael Ap­ple­ton’s Ox­ford, prompt­ing the League Two U’s to sign him up on a per­ma­nent deal.

And Roofe has car­ried on right where he left off, forming a deadly part­ner­ship with Danny Hyl­ton and hit­ting a fur­ther 12 as Ox­ford have stormed into the au­to­matic pro­mo­tion chase.

Ca­pa­ble of play­ing out wide, in the cen­tre or be­hind the striker, it’s no sur­prise that New­cas­tle have spent the last month mon­i­tor­ing his progress.

SAM CLU­CAS – HULL CITY

Three years ago, Clu­cas was ply­ing his trade in the Con­fer­ence. Be­fore this sea­son, he’d never even had a boot deal.

Yet come Septem­ber, the 25-year-old could be a Premier League player.

And doesn’t he de­serve it? Signed from Ch­ester­field for £1.3m in the sum­mer, Clu­cas has out­shone a host of es­tab­lished Premier League play­ers at the KC, forming a deadly dou­ble-act with fly­ing left-back Andy Robertson.

“No­body wanted him,” said Hull boss Steve Bruce. “He went to Glenn Hod­dle’s school. He was at Here­ford, Mans­field, Ch­ester­field. Now he’s here and he’s been a ter­rific buy.

“He’s got that hunger. Some­times, the big play­ers from big acad­e­mies don’t have that. It’s taken away from them. But Sam’s had to fight and scrap. He’s had to do it the hard way.

“You can see that in the way he plays. He’s not fazed by any­thing, he just gets on with it. He’s as tough as they come, works all day. He’s a de­light to work with.”

JAMES MAD­DI­SON – COVEN­TRY CITY

Miss­ing since Au­gust with dam­aged an­kle lig­a­ments, Mad­di­son made his re­turn last month and looks set to sparkle in 2015 – if the Sky Blues can keep hold of him.

Coven­try have al­ready re­jected a bid from one Premier League club, whilst Arse­nal and Liver­pool have both watched the 19-year-old play­maker ex­ten­sively.

Like fans and op­po­nents, both have been be­witched by the rapier pace, in­tel­li­gent pass­ing and jink­ing feet of the diminu­tive play­maker.

Tony Mow­bray, though, has urged his young star­let to stay put.

“James has only played some­thing like 14 games in League One,” said the for­mer West Brom and Celtic boss. “Here, he’ll be able to let his tal­ent flour­ish where he is ap­pre­ci­ated. If he moved to a big club, he isn’t go­ing to get in their first team. He should stay in a place where he’ll enjoy his foot­ball and let the tal­ent grow.”

AINS­LEY MAIT­LAND-NILES – IP­SWICH TOWN

Mick McCarthy had only seen his 18-yearold mid­fielder play a hand­ful of times when he spoke to BBC Ra­dio Suf­folk in Au­gust.

"Wow, the tal­ent of him,” said the for­mer Wolves boss, who’d signed Mait­land-Niles on loan from Arse­nal in the sum­mer. “I think he’s go­ing to play for Arse­nal, there’s no doubt in my mind.We are just so lucky to have him.”

The mid­fielder is un­doubt­edly raw. Spindly limbed and rarely able to com­plete 90 min­utes, the first half of the sea­son has been spent tough­en­ing up and ac­cli­ma­tis­ing to the Cham­pi­onship.

But with a bit more mus­cle to com­ple­ment his un­doubted abil­ity and supreme ath­leti­cism, Mait­land-Niles could prove key to Ip­swich’s play-off bid.

CONOR CHAP­LIN – PORTSMOUTH

Pom­pey’s teenage su­per­sub may strug­gle to get a start but, with seven goals in 19 ap­pear­ances, his ra­tio of 93.29 min­utes per goal is bet­ter than Jamie Vardy, Romelu Lukaku, Olivier Giroud and Riyad Mahrez.

The 18-year-old is stuck be­hind Caolan Lav­ery and Marc McNulty but – de­spite start­ing just seven times – is ac­tu­ally the League Two side’s top scorer.

“He is repet­i­tively try­ing to prac­tise, one of those play­ers I have to drag off the train­ing pitch phys­i­cally some­times,” said Pom­pey as­sis­tant Leam Richard­son.

“I even had to take his boots off for him the other day so he didn’t kick any more balls! He’s a player who makes things hap­pen.”

Paul Cook must be sorely tempted to see if more min­utes will equal more goals.

ZACH CLOUGH – BOLTON

Tipped for star­dom af­ter an ex­plo­sive de­but sea­son that yielded six goals in ten games, Clough’s as­cent was stalled by a dis­lo­cated shoul­der in Septem­ber.

In his ab­sence, the Trot­ters failed to win a sin­gle match and sank to what ap­pears an in­escapable po­si­tion at the foot of the Cham­pi­onship.

Yet Clough’s come­back at the start of De­cem­ber sparked a re­turn of five points from a pos­si­ble 12 and the 20year-old’s brace against Ful­ham showed what he was all about – pace, sleight of foot and a vet­eran’s eye for goal. Bolton look doomed, but Clough should at least give their fans some­thing to shout about.

BRIGHT FU­TURE: Zach Clough has been one of few pos­i­tives in Bolton’s sorry cam­paign

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