5 questions with… Not The Top 20’s Ali Maxwell

Ali Maxwell of Not The Top 20 podcast joins us this week to talk about the podcast, the frustrating gulf in financial clout between Premier League and English Football League clubs and the race from promotion from the Championship.

Hey Ali, thanks for joining us. To start, could you tell us a bit about NTT20. Why did you feel it was important to put the spotlight on the football league?

My co-host George Elek and I have been mates since we were 10, a friendship – like all the best – rooted in a love for football… playing, watching and discussing it, and specifically the Football League.

It was only after a few episodes and a positive (and forgiving!) reception from early listeners that we realised the importance of doing an EFL podcast – the We Are Going Up Podcast had come to an end and, despite some excellent club specific podcasts, there wasn’t much for someone who wanted to get an overview of all three leagues.

We realised how absurd that was, especially as this is not a ‘niche’ – there’s around 500,000 season ticket holders across the EFL. Knowing that fans and followers of the Premier League had hundreds of podcasts to choose from, we were spurred on by a responsibility to provide quality, knowledgeable and entertaining content and felt encouraged when it was well-received.

On the Premier League, what is your opinion in it’s wealth? As a fan of the Football League, it must be frustrating when you see so many clubs struggling.

It’s definitely frustrating to see EFL clubs struggling financially, and while it can happen for a number of different reasons, you can trace back a majority of the financial issues to the imbalance in our professional game, stemming from the top.

But it’s easy to blame everything on the Premier League, and that should be avoided. Across the 72 teams we follow, it’s equally frustrating to see teams managed poorly in other ways – fans treated as ‘customers’, agents taking on more and more power, owners making excuses after risky decisions leave a club on its knees. Each scenario is different, and while the environment makes it tough, it’s still possible to compete within your means.

How do you rate the Championship promotion race? Who do you think will go up and who is best suited to staying in the Premier League next year?

It’s really burst into life in the second half of the season – a small reduction in Wolves’ dominance and the brilliant form (and different styles) of Cardiff, Aston Villa and Fulham has made the automatic promotion race more exciting than recent years.

At the time of writing, it’s very hard to pick, but Cardiff have not blinked yet in the face of huge pressure from their rivals. The cushion afforded to them by early season form looks like it could take them over the line in May.

Brighton, Newcastle and Huddersfield are showing that the step up to the Premier League can be handled with the right manager and sensible, smart recruitment. I think all the current promotion candidates could make a fist of it – I do wonder if Warnock and Bruce may struggle to adapt to modern tactical trends in the Premier League, but they’ve proved us wrong before…

The Cardiff story has been quite remarkable, hasn’t it? What do you make of other managers’ grumbles (there’s been plenty!) about Cardiff and Warnock’s style of play?

Grumbles about style of play are at the top of our Hate List along with any references to the ‘size’ of a club and in which division it ‘should’ be!

That’s not to say style is irrelevant, but it’s not up to opposition managers to grumble, and it would be wrong to equate possession with success. The simple fact is that, objectively, Cardiff are formidable in defence and exceptional in attack. There’s been plenty to enjoy, from Zohore’s all-round forward play, Hoilett and Mendez-Laing’s darts from the wing, and the late-arriving Ralls and Paterson.

Neil Warnock succeeding (again) in spite of changing styles in the division – which some managers of his ‘vintage’ have struggled with – and in spite of a squad that isn’t considered elite ‘on paper’, should silence any qualms about a perceived ‘poor style of play’ and cements his position in the top group of second-tier managers – someone who consistently gets the most out of his players and out-does expectations year after year, job after job. Remarkable indeed.

Which Football League player do you think has been the standout this year and is destined for greater things?

There are so many players that we love watching and consider destined for bigger things – it’s honestly hard to know where to start.

Some might sneer at a perceived lack of quality below the Premier League, but 85% of the England squad have played in the Football League, so the chances are that some current players will, too.

Ryan Sessegnon is the obvious answer. His goal-scoring exploits are well covered by now, and it’s the manner in which he takes his chances that stand out. He’s some room for improvement in his all round game, but has plenty of time to do it!

James Maddison has stood-out in an average Norwich team, and David Brooks (Sheff Utd) looks destined for the top. But there’s quality all over the EFL, from ‘less fancied’ Championship names such as Joe Bryan (Bristol City), Luke Freeman (QPR) and Joe Ralls (Cardiff), to Nick Powell (Wigan), Ryan Ledson (Oxford), Ben Wilmot (Stevenage) and Jodi Jones (Coventry) lower down.

Ali MAxwell hosts the football league podcast ‘not the top 20’. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER HERE.
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