By Chris Brookes
With so much focus from the mainstream media in this country on the Premier League, even more so on the so-called ‘bigger’ teams in the top flight, the other divisions of The Football League can fall by the wayside. As any fans of clubs in these leagues will testify, there are actually some real noteworthy talents currently plying their trade here. As a Sheffield Wednesday supporter who hoped we’d left League One behind for good in 2005, we’re back here for a second successive season and while it’s a place we want to depart, there are still some genuinely accomplished footballers in the division. Placing them into a fairly orthodox 4-4-2 I have selected the players I see as the best from the age category of 23 and under. Players on loan from other divisions are not eligible.
Goalkeeper: Alex Smithies (Huddersfield Town) Age: 21
Making his debut as a 17-year-old for his hometown club, Smithies has gained many admirers after fully establishing himself in the 2008/09 season. The Terriers stopper is currently on the comeback trail after knee surgery but remains the outstanding candidate for this spot in my selection.
Right-back: Jack Hunt (Huddersfield Town) Age: 20
A Terriers Academy graduate, Hunt has also featured in midfield but his displays in his favoured right-back position win him his place in my line-up. A true athlete supplemented with impressive technical ability and delivery, the supporters at the Galpharm hold him in the highest regard.
Centre-back: Krystian Pearce (Notts County) Age: 21
With Martin Allen’s revitalised Magpies sitting 4th in the table, Pearce has played a key part in the early throes of the season. The ex-Birmingham youth looks to have finally settled after numerous loan spells in his short career and his imposing presence is crucial to the County rearguard.
Centre-back: Harry Maguire (Sheffield United) Age: 18
The youngest member of this XI, Maguire was one of the youngsters given their opportunity in the midst of the Blades relegation run-in last season. Danny Wilson’s side are currently 2nd and the ever-improving, powerful Maguire won August’s Football League Young Player of the Month award.
Left-back: Rhoys Wiggins (Charlton Athletic) Age: 23
Wiggins, a vital part of Bournemouth’s run to the League One play-offs in 2010/11, has slotted in seamlessly to the league-leading Addicks defence thus far. London-born but a former Wales Under-21 international, he scored his first goal for the club in a 3-2 win at Rochdale this month.
Right-midfield: Scott Wagstaff (Charlton Athletic) Age: 21
A homegrown Addicks talent (with the club since the age of 8), Wagstaff netted 11 goals last season and has been key again this time around. His marauding midfield displays and evident eye for goal, including two against Wednesday in the previous campaign, make him a deserved choice.
Central-midfield: James Berrett (Carlisle United) Age: 22
The Halifax-born Irish Under-21 was signed from Huddersfield last summer and is now an integral cog in the Cumbrians’ engine room. Hard-working and with quality from set-pieces, he has also caught the eye with some stunning long-range efforts, registering 10 goals altogether last season.
Central-midfield: Dale Stephens (Charlton Athletic) Age: 21
Starting with Bury, Stephens then attracted attention for his Oldham performances, spending the end of last season with promotion-winning Southampton. The third Addicks representative in my team, Stephens’ passing and goal-scoring help to make him a player with tantalising potential.
Left-wing/forward: Danny Ward (Huddersfield Town) Age: 19
With two unsuccessful play-off campaigns with Swindon and Huddersfield, Ward could be forgiven for wanting to dodge a return to League One but he opted for a permanent Terriers move this summer. Costing around £1million from Bolton, he is a fearsome opponent with goals and natural flair.
Striker: Gary Madine (Sheffield Wednesday) Age: 21
League One’s leading scorer at present with 9 goals already, Madine has excelled in the season so far. Formidable in the air, he has added a new dimension lately to his all-round prowess and is in the form of his young career. The ex-Carlisle man has become an instant starting choice for The Owls.
Striker: Jordan Rhodes (Huddersfield Town) Age: 21
An inspired buy from Ipswich in 2009, Rhodes has hit exactly 50 goals for Town since and will be vital again to the team’s promotion aspirations. A natural finisher, he has garnered widespread interest from other clubs and although Oldham-born, has played for Scotland’s Under-21 team.
An honourable mention now to an up-and-coming youngster who just failed to make the cut. From what I’ve seen from this promising talent he could have a long and prosperous future in the game, especially judging by the enthusiasm he plays with. Step forward Preston’s Graham Alexander…
…you what? nearly forty years old?…
You can tweet Chris at chris_brookes or check out his superb website http://beatsandrhymesfc.com/