Is there any position more glamorous than that of the holding midfielder?
Well, yes. Almost all of them. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about.
As a seasoned U’s supporter, I feel that the Richard Money era has seen the removal of the many yokes, albatrosses and hoodoos which have dogged, cursed and indeed ruined the last few years of season-ticket ownership.
As evidence I give you: we no longer look rubbish when we’re forced to shoot towards the NRE in the first half; we no longer suspect that the manager has a ‘favourite’ (unless it’s Luke Berry, of course, but how could you not? Look at his little face) and, most of all, we no longer look overrun in midfield.
Tom Champion has become a real fans favourite, and it’s not hard to understand why. In fact, if the sponsors stopped going for the headline grabbers as man of the match rather than those that form the spine of the team, Coulson, Miller and Champion would be leading the Liberace lifestyle, quaffing down the prize givers champagne. But champagne isn’t an option for these soldiers (artists?) in the trenches of… er… non-league football grounds. For a start, it could lead to allegations of bourgeois…ness. Perhaps from Braintree, Alfreton or Hyde and we know what snobs they are. And Money wouldn’t like it. No matter how entertaining it was.
We here at the U-logy are all too aware that we’ve talked up Money’s shrewd attacking additions, perhaps to the exclusion of those who make it possible for us to play with the, occasional, freedom that we do.
Champion and Bonner arrived early on in the summer: a result of us wanting to get business done early and of them, presumably, not being paid by part-time Dartford once the season had ended. The decimation of Dartford’s squad was always likely given the costs of competing at this level, staying part-time and, most of all, their success last season.
Having been unfortunate enough to have spent both Boxing Day and New Years Day either watching Braintree or being in Braintree and watching Braintree, a visit to Dartford was a very welcome relief. While no one really stood out, apart from their on-loan keeper who is now plying his trade at Accrington Stanley, what was clear is that Dartford were well organised, were very strong in the centre of the park, and that Josh Coulson should be credited with the greatest assist to ever occur in football (from Michael Gash’s quite bizarre free kick). Quite the difference from our insipid and spineless performance against them at home earlier in the season, when nothing happened… except for their two efforts on goal bobbling into the net.
Moving swiftly on, it is not a coincidence that this solidity in the middle of the park and Luke Berry’s recent liberation has everything to do with the fact that Tom Champion, certainly in our half, is never more than eight yards from the ball.
Paul who? What Carden? Here is exactly the player we’ve missed since his decline and fall. Carden, in my opinion, has been one of the hardest players to replace we’ve had in the Conference. Sure he stayed on too long, but in his pomp he was one of the most effective players in this league. Perhaps only Rossi Jarvis, or maybe Mark Bentley, came close to emulating his tough tackling, all-action style.
Champion’s had an interesting, which is to say, obscure, career until he hit the relative mainstream with the U’s. A former England Under 18 international who came through at the excellent Watford Academy, he oddly experienced his only full-time football, pre-U’s, at Barnet.
Prior to this, Champion had spent five, yes, five years at Bishop’s Stortford (in fairness, he was studying for a sports science degree) before signing for Braintree (I feel we’re cursed to see that word until we leave this division…) and joining Dartford in 2010, as a key part of their rise to the conference. His decision to forsake full-time football in order to obtain a degree and work in the City, I believe, suggests a wise head off the pitch to complement his evident sagacity on it.
Champion’s effect on this squad can be measured in many ways: anecdotally, we never look over run in midfield; statistically, we have the meanest defence in the division – a product of our dominance in the centre of the park; and finally, we have a free-scoring central midfielder who can now buccaneer from box to box, knowing that he’s always covered.
And this goes for many other of our attacking lights. Against Woking, for example, while U-logy favourite Richard Tait, was getting into some great positions around the box and the byline, who was there and willing to cover at right back? Champion. When Coulson or Miller do what they do best and win the ball in the air, who is there to pick it up and shepherd it to safety, or to give it to an attacking player? Champion.
It cannot be overestimated how important winning the ‘second phase’ ball when we’re defending is. It has so far been the difference between top of the league and mid-table and is one of the most notable aspects of our defending under Money. This, combined with our feckless ability to lose games through tired clearances before half time, just after half time and in the last 10 minutes of a game, became the most frustrating aspect of our defending from set-pieces over the past two seasons.
In fact it is our new-found ability to turn defence into attack through winning the second ball that is the mainstay of our counter-attacking style. But it is defensively that we cried out for that Carden-esque player, the type who sees where the ball is going to drop before it does. Given his ability in the air, both when defending and attacking, you would expect him to eclipse Carden’s U’s goal tally this season alone. He’s already a third of the way there.
This isn’t to say that Champion is without his flaws – if he didn’t have them there’s no doubt that he would be playing at a higher level than he is with us. Watching him go head-to-head in a sprint with a 40-year-old Edgar Davids and come second, as he often does when he needs to move quickly, can be painful, but his reading of the game and his overall positional sense is so good that this generally isn’t a problem.
He does also suffer a bit from a rare combination of the Carden yips and the Jarvis crab-like passing – often going from side-to-side when the more incisive forward pass is begging to be made, and sadly, in going for the sideways pass, often playing it wide of the man or into touch. But this said, if his second touch has to be a tackle, it is rarely a missed place one, as his excellent disciplinary record testifies.
At the age of 27, Champion has made a number of sacrifices in order to play full-time football again, and he has done this, presumably, because he wants to make a sustainable living from the game once his playing days are over. I just hope that his time with us rewards him for his bravery, endeavour and undoubted ability.