2015 Review: #1 Liam Ridgewell

1 - Ridgewell

In his first season as the Portland Timbers’ captain, Liam Ridgewell led by example as he guided his side to their first ever MLS Cup success.

Skipper

After joining Portland halfway through their 2014 season, following his release from West Brom, Ridgewell was named as the club’s captain for the upcoming 2015 season.

Despite an upturn in form following the Englishman’s arrival in 2014, the season ended in disappointment for the Timbers as they finished outside the playoff spots.

Although the Timbers suffered a setback missing out on the playoffs that year, Ridgewell gained valuable experience in his new surroundings and that enabled him to set an exemplary example to his team-mates in the 2015 season.

Only two sides conceded less than the Timbers last year in regular season action and the former Birmingham City man had a large part to play in that.

The solid rearguard that the Timbers displayed, which Ridgewell helped to provide, saw the club finish third in the regular season, earning safe passage through to the MLS Cup playoffs.

However, the opening round of the playoffs was anything but safe. The Timbers narrowly defeated Sporting KC on penalties in a shootout where all 22 players took a penalty. Ridgewell calmly dispatched his strike from 12 yards during the mammoth shootout.

Two draws and three wins later, including a goal in the Western Conference final against Dallas, and Ridgewell was lifting the Timbers’ first ever MLS Cup in just their fifth season in the competition.

The 31-year-old finished the season with 37 appearances and also a goal to his name. He missed just three MLS matches all season.

The defender also featured in the CONCACAF Champions League and US Open Cup, although he was often rested in the cup competitions.


Ridgewell’s playoff goal against Dallas and the unusual celebration which followed…


Homeland

Despite being born in London, Ridgewell spent the entirety of his footballing career in England, prior to the move to the US, in the Midlands.

After leaving West Ham United as a youth player, the ex-England U21 defender went on to make nearly 350 appearances combined for the Midlands clubs Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Brom.

During his time with Birmingham, he won the League Cup in 2011, his only senior honour before joining the Timbers.

Since becoming a fans’ favourite in Portland, Ridgewell has twice returned to England during the off-season. He featured for Wigan Athletic last year and has just returned to the US after a spell with Championship promotion hopefuls Brighton & Hove Albion.

2015 was an exceptional year for Ridgewell. He led by example and guided Portland to their first ever MLS Cup.

2016 will see the defender lead his team-mates through the challenge of retaining a trophy which has never been easy to win twice in a row. The Timbers will be relying on more consistently solid performances from Ridgewell if they are to be victorious again.

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2015 Review: #2 James Lawrence

2 - Lawrence

Last year saw James Lawrence complete the league and cup double with AS Trenčín in Slovakia. Not bad for your first season in senior football.

Double dream

Oxfordshire-born Lawrence headed into 2015 with Slovak league and cup ambitions. His side, AS Trenčín, had never won a major honour in their relatively short 23-year existence. However they did finish as runners-up in the 2013-14 season and at the halfway stage of the 2014-15 season, Lawrence and his team-mates were well set in both competitions.

Having established himself in the side, regularly starting at left-back, Lawrence continued where he left off after the long winter break.

His solidly consistent performances throughout the season saw Trenčín head into May 2015 with a cup final to play and the league title within their sights.

The subsequent cup final was a bitter-sweet-bitter experience for the left-back. Starting on the bench, despite having played a crucial role in run to the cup final, Lawrence came on in the second half with the tie locked at 1-1.

The game duly went into extra time, where a further goal for each side saw the game head for the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. Trenčín held their nerve to win the shoot-out and Lawrence had his first ever honour at the age of 22 in his first season as a professional.

Unfortunately, an injury sustained in the cup final would curtail the left-back’s debut season in Slovakia. However, the season was to end of a positive note as Trenčín would go on to secure their first ever Slovakian top tier title and finish the season with the double.


Highlights from the Slovak Cup final, where Lawrence’s side were successful on penalties.


Injury troubles

The rest of 2015 was incredibly frustrating for Lawrence. He was unable to shake off his injury problems until October, thus missing his side’s first every foray into the UEFA Champions League, where Trenčín would go on to be knocked out by Steaua București in the second qualifying round.

However, he made a successful return to the starting line-up, scoring in his side’s 3-0 fourth round cup win over Blava Jaslovské. More pleasingly, he managed the full ninety minutes as his side looked to defend their title.

League minutes have been harder to come by for the 23-year-old this season though. With injury hampering his quest to nail down a starting spot in the line-up, the left-back made just three appearances, all as a substitute, in the league before the start of the winter break began in December.

Education

Before making the move to Slovakia, Lawrence spent five years in Holland honing his skills. Initially with Ajax, the full-back combined the classroom with the changing rooms as he earned an international master’s degree in sports management whilst still playing.

After two years with Ajax, Lawrence left the club but spent three more years in the country. First, he joined Sparta Rotterdam’s under-21 side and then moved on to RKC Waalwijk’s.

Then with the aim of first-team football and with the aid of a contact at former side Ajax, Lawrence secured a move to Trenčín.

2015 finished disappointingly for Lawrence as injury halted the impressive progress he had made in Slovakia. However, the year must still be classed as a success. It was the year AS Trenčín secured their first ever major honours and the Englishman played a major part in that.

2016 will see him attempt to regain his place in the starting XI. The Slovakian league returns from its mammoth winter break at the end of this month, and fully rested, Lawrence will hopefully get a run of games as Trenčín look well placed to defend the titles they achieved last season.

2015 Review: #3 Billy Ions

3 - Ions

We’ve reached the number three spot in our 2015 review and we finally have our first player who also featured in the 2014 review. Billy Ions moves up from sixth spot to third following yet another superb season in Finland with the Kemi Kings.

Champions

After a couple of seasons in Finland’s third tier, the Kakkonen, Ions and his Kemi Kings team-mates were plying their trade in the country’s second tier in 2015 following their promotion.

However, the Kings adjusted to the step-up sensationally, and with new manager Jari Åhman, took promotion in their stride, losing just six games all season as they cruised to the Ykkönen title, winning by four points.

Ions played a pivotal part in securing the back-to-back promotions. The former Newscastle United started ever single league game, often wearing the captain’s armband as he fired 17 goals in 27 games

Equally adapt at playing on the left-wing as well as up top, Ions made both positions his own. He contributed both goals and assists during a triumphant season.

The seventeen-goal tally was an improvement on the 13 he managed the previous season in a lower division, reflecting on the seamless nature in which Ions made the transition to the Ykkönen.

The second half of the season was were the 21-year-old really excelled. Reunited with his former strike partner, American forward Christian Eissele, the pair fired home 16 goals between them in the last 11 games of the season to earn Kemi Kings’ first ever promotion to the top tier of Finnish football.

The last two games were exceptionally special for Ions, as he hit his second Kemi hat-trick in the penultimate game of the season, before following that up with a brace on the final day.

The superb end to the year saw Ions finish tied with former Ipswich Town striker Pablo Couñago as the second top-scorer in the league, just two goals behind prolific Finnish striker Kalle Multanen.


 

Highlights of Ions’ 2015 season. Head to 1:00 for a very cheeky overhead kick and 1:30 for a spectacular solo goal.


 

Earlier career

To learn more about Billy’s career before the 2015 season, make sure you read my exclusive interview here and also his entry in the 2014 season review.

2015 has been yet another success story for Billy Ions. He has the first title of his career so far and was also awarded the Players’ Player of the Year award in the Ykkönen.

2016 will see if Ions can make yet another seamless transition following promotion. This time he will be taking on the country’s big names in the top tier, the Veikkausliiga. At just 21 though, Ions has the best years of his career ahead of him and with three full seasons of senior football behind him already, we have only just seen the start of the Billy Ions story.

2015 Review: #4 Wayne Brown

4 - Brown

Heading into his third consecutive in Finnish top tier football, Wayne Brown was looking to go one further than his 2014 achievements and win the Veikkausliiga.

Last year saw him do exactly that.

Champions

Partway through the 2014 season, former Fulham midfielder Brown swapped relegation-battling with TPS for title-challenging with SJK and although he could not quite inspire his side to the title in 2014, last year, his side went one step further.

SJK won the Veikkausliiga title by just a single title, securing their first ever top division title just two years after winning the second division, the Ykkönen.

The victory also broke HJK Helsinki’s reign of dominance over Finnish football, as SJK became the first side other than HJK to win the title since 2008.

27-year-old Brown was a large part of SJK’s historic success. He played in 25 off his side’s 33 league games and chipped in with a couple of goals as well as four assists.

His solid displays in midfield provided an excellent platform for his side’s more attacking forces to burst forward.


Wayne Brown scoring against his future team-mates at SJK during the 2014 season with former side TPS.


Return to Scandinavia 

When Brown joined TPS on a permanent deal in 2013 after four seasons with Bristol Rovers, he was no stranger to Finnish football.

In 2009, Brown joined TPS on loan from Fulham whose manager at the time was Roy Hodgson. His contacts in Scandinavian secured the move.

In his first season in Finnish football, Brown was an absolute revelation. The then 21-year-old was in scintillating form as he fired home nine goals and contributed eight assists in 26 games.

His sensational run of from, including a goal on his debut, saw him voted as Finland’s Player of the Year for 2009 and also guided TPS to their best ever finish in top tier football as they finished third.

After the loan move, Brown could not force his way into Fulham’s first team and after making just two Premier League appearances, he moved to Bristol Rovers on a free transfer.

2015 saw Brown and his SJK team-mates do the (almost) unthinkable and finally break HJK’s dominance over Finnish football to the delight of many a neutral fan.

2016 will see him and his side as the top team in Finland. They will be the marked side in the country and Brown’s good form will have to continue if they are to match their successes of 2015 against sides determined to upset the champions.

2015 Review: #5 Jamie Hopcutt

5 - Hopcutt

Having established himself as a regular in the Ostersunds line-up after three seasons at the club, Jamie Hopcutt headed into the 2015 season as one his side’s key players as they aimed for their first ever promotion to Sweden’s top tier.

He did not disappoint and under the stewardship of manager and fellow Englishman Graham Potter, Hopcutt finished as the league’s second top scorer as Ostersunds finished second and earned promotion to the Allsvenskan.

Importance 

Hopcutt’s importance to Ostersunds has increased with every year he has spent with the side. After joining in 2012, his first three seasons saw an increase in goals every year: three, six and then nine in the 2014 campaign.

He was not only Ostersunds’ Mr. Dependable (in 2013 he didn’t miss a single league match) but he was also able to drive on the rest of his teammates with his commanding performances from midfield.

However, 2015 saw the York-born midfielder take his game to another level. With coach Potter continuing to exert his influence over the side, Hopcutt took promotion into his own hands when deployed in a more advanced central role.

Capable of scoring goals from inside the box, often arriving inside the 18-yard-box with immaculate timing, the 23-year-old is also equally adept of firing in strikes from outside the box as well as ending mazy runs with impressive finishes (his first goal in the 4-0 drubbing of GAIS in October is testament to this).

It took Hopcutt three matches to open his account in 2015 but this would not be a sign of things to come. Fourteen more goals followed (including a hat-trick back in August) in his remaining 21 appearances of 2015 as his goals saw Ostersunds finish as the league’s top scorers. However, they could not prevent his side agonisingly missing out on the Superettan title by just a single point.


Highlights from Ostersunds’ 5-1 win over Utsikten in August, the game in which Hopcutt fired a hat-trick.


Not that Hopcutt didn’t do all he could to guide his side to the title – he fired five goals in the last four matches of the season.

Minnows

When Graham Potter persuaded Hopcutt to sign for Ostersunds in 2012, the side were then playing in Sweden’s third tier and attracting around the 1,000 fans per game. Now the side will be looking to repeat some of the 6,500 sell-outs they achieved last season as they take part in the top tier of Swedish football for the very first time.

However, even though the 6,500 sell outs will seem like a vast change from Hopcutt’s early days in Sweden, the country’s top tier has clubs with the ability to attract over 20,000 fans, a far cry from the midfielder’s youth days with York City.

Hopcutt failed to get his chance with York but he is making up for that now, especially after he was crowned as the Superettan’s best player last year.

2015 saw Hopcutt become Ostersunds’ star man. Promotion as well as his 15 goals were a fantastic return from just 24 league games, 20 of which were starts.

2016 will see the hard work really start. Hopcutt will be under pressure to reproduce his impressive form in the top tier against Swedish giants such as Champions League side Malmo. With Potter’s backing though, the 23-year-old has a great chance of making the step-up as seamless as possible.

2015 Review: #6 Jay Bothroyd

6 - Bothroyd

Finishing as the J2 League’s top scorer probably wasn’t something Jay Bothroyd imagined he would ever achieve when he started his career as a youngster at Arsenal but it was exactly what the former England international accomplished last year.

International journeyman

Bothroyd was no stranger to playing his football abroad when he signed for Japanese second division side Júbilo Iwata in February last year.

The striker had previously featured for Perugia in Italy’s Serie A during his early career and spent 2014 with Robbie Fowler’s former side, Muangthong United in Thailand.

However, despite being an England international and with five seasons of Premier League experience under his belt, Bothroyd was initially over-shadowed by Uruguayan legend Diego Forlán as the most well-known goal-getter in Japan’s second tier.

Prolific

Despite this, the 33-year-old showed Japan football fans why he should not be overlooked. On his debut for the Júbilo, the former Cardiff City striker fired two goals in a 3-1 win over Giravanz Kitakyushu, setting the tone for the rest of the 2015 season.

Bothroyd’s game only improved from there on. His side Júbilo finished fourth in 2014 and were pushing for promotion in 2015. The England striker made that dream a reality with his prolific goalscoring throughout the year, and alongside 25-year-old Brazilian striker Adailton, who himself fired 17 goals, Júbilo finished second and secured promotion back to Japan’s top tier.


Highlights of Bothroyd’s 2015 season with Júbilo Iwata.


Eleven out of the forward’s twenty league goals were the first goal of the game, thus, often setting up his side with he perfect platform for victory.

However Bothroyd’s best performance of the year arguably came in a game which did not result in three points. The 3-3 draw with Kyoto Sanga in August last year did not wield the result that Júbilo fans wanted but they did get to see their new hero fire a hat-trick. Bothroyd gave his side the lead on three occasions but still could not guide his side to the win.

Best yet

Last year was actually Bothroyd’s joint-best season in terms of goals scored. In 2010/11, also the season where his single England cap came, he fired 20 goals for Cardiff City in all competitions, hitting 18 of those in the Championship. However, his 20 goals for Júbilo came in ten games fewer than he managed it for the Welsh club.

2015 was Bothroyd proving himself to the fanatic fans of Japan’s second division. Finishing as top scorer, forming a lethal strike partnership and earning promotion was more than the forward could have asked for.

2016 will be a big step-up. Of course, Bothroyd has played at the highest level of football but at the age of 33 and with a newly promoted club, this year could be his hardest challenge to date. Júbilo fans will be hoping the striker can continue his prolific scoring despite their promotion.

2015 Review: #7 John Bostock

7 - Bostock

Last year saw John Bostock finish arguably the season of his career. He guided OH Leuven to promotion and subsequently set about attempting to ensure they remained in the top tier.

Promotion

The first half of 2015 saw Bostock finish what he had started in 2014 by helping to secure promotion for OH Leuven back to the Belgian Pro League at the first opportunity.

Promotion was secured after Leuven finished fifth in the league, safely securing passage to the promotion play-offs. Bostock’s side then remained unbeaten when it mattered, winning four and drawing two of their play-off matches to top the group and achieve promotion.

The attacking midfielder was integral in the play-offs, with his two goals taking his tally to 13 for the season from 31 games. A very decent return from midfield and even more impressive considering Bostock went the entire 2013/14 season with previous club Antwerp with just one goal.

His goals, assists and all round performances saw the former Tottenham Hotspur man bestowed the honour of being the Belgian Second Division Player of the Year.


Highlights of Bostock’s 2014/15 season with OH Leuven (fast forward to 2:35 for a Bostock beauty).


 

A new challenge

The rise to the Belgian Pro League for Bostock and his Leuven teammates has been a baptism of fire. Despite making a relatively solid start, Leuven currently sit in 15th, second bottom. An especially tough period came during October and November, where the newly-promoted side suffered six consecutive losses.

However, the signs at the end of the year were more promising as Bostock scored two goals to help his side to take seven points from a possible twelve in December.

Tomorrow sees Leuven return to Pro League action after their winter break and Bostock, who has four goals and two assists so far this season, will be hoping to carry his good form from the end of 2015 into the new year.

Hot Prospect

Bostock shot to fame in May 2008 when he joined Tottenham from Crystal Palace at the age of 16 for a fee reported to rise as high as £2m depending on appearances. The move came after he became Palace’s youngest ever player the year before.

He then became a regular for England at under-17 and under-19 levels but the talented midfielder never got his chance to shine at Spurs and after several loan spells, he left the London club for Royal Antwerp of the Belgian Second Divsion in 2013, who at the time, were managed by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

The move turned out to be exactly what Bostock’s career needed and after a season where he could finally call himself a first-team regular, recently relegated OH Leuven came calling the following season as they looked to bolster their ranks as they pushed to make an instant return to the Pro League – and make an instant return they did.

2015 was the year we all knew Bostock had in him when he first burst onto the scene as a gifted 15-year-old. Promotion and an individual accolade crowned a great year.

2016 will see the 24-year-old continue to battle alongside his Leuven teammates to remain in the Pro League. The signs in December were promising and if Bostock can continue his goal-scoring exploits from midfield, his side should have no trouble surviving.