The 2019/20 Sky Bet League Two season has been a hectic and highly competitive campaign, with giant powerhouses such as Swindon Town, Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City all challenging for the automatic promotion positions, not many foresaw Crewe Alexandra to have such an impeccable season.
Since Crewe were promoted to League One back in 2012, things have been on a downwards spiral at Gresty Road, with the club being a lower mid-table in England’s third division before they were sentenced to the foot of the table in 2016 and simultaneously relegated to League Two, but the Alex never truly bounced back, having finished 17th, 15th and 12th before the beginning of the 2019 season. This explains why pundits and fans alike didn’t precede the rollercoaster of a year that the supporters have enjoyed, as the mighty Railwaymen abolished the odds and finished as runners-up to Swindon Town.
Flashback to August 2019, and teams began their season with a higher calibre compared to recent years, newly relegated Bradford City possessing high profile names such as James Vaughan and Clayton Donaldson, Plymouth having convinced Ryan Lowe down south following the tragic Bury FC dissolved, as the Shakers star players followed their gaffer to Home Park and of course the eventual victors Swindon having top marksman Eoin Doyle, poacher Jerry Yates and the rousing Lloyd Isgrove. It’s fair to say the standards had been raised, so for a club like Crewe who weren’t necessarily hugely financially backed or recognised for their big name players, they had a daunting task on their hands.
The first piece of the puzzle was manager David Artell, the former Gilbraltian international beginning his second full season at the club after being appointed in 2017. Artell is a tactical mastermind, as evidenced throughout the season, he even has a bachelors’ degree in forensic biology so his analytic viewpoint and knowledge towards the game which he knows inside out is an immediate positive for a club who would rely so heavily on tactics rather than individual quality of players. He spoke on his degree, which most football managers don’t have, stating: “Around 2.25pm it was Diagnosis: Murder with Dick Van Dyke and then Murder, She Wrote with Jessica Fletcher and I thought: ‘Yeah, I’ll be good at that. I did think: ‘Why do I not tune into something better than the man off Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Jessica Fletcher? But I found them interesting and it all started from there.” The interesting agenda circling Artell is his belief in the project going on at Gresty Road, as he is currently the 9th longest serving manager in the top four English divisions despite the fact he is just 39 years old. Notwithstanding the fact that it his first managerial conquest, he is showing no urgency to find new clubs to explore and gain more of a reputation or experience but rather as a manager who is keen to see a project out, hence why he is remaining at the club following their promotion and likely interest from higher reputable sides.
Artell and Crewe have gained themselves quite the reputation however, as the Alex’s youth policy is one not to be ignored. Their ability to find such adequate youth talents and give them opportunities to flourish in the first team is remarkable, with the likes of Nick Powell, Ashley Westwood and Danny Murphy all taking their opportunities from the youth academy before moving onto bigger and better things. The constant success and first team chances allows the club to attract a larger range of youngsters who just want to play football and give their all for the badge, even if it does mean they have to play at a lower level than hoped for.
This season alone Crewe have given 22,831 minutes to players under the age of 23 in League Two, which is the second in the league behind Macclesfield Town. This really does show how Artell utilises the youth of his club compared to a relegation threatened side, both have used players under the age of 23 yet Crewe have clearly been so much more successful. Furthermore, if the league table only allowed goals and assists from players aged 23 or younger, Crewe would have topped the league rather than finishing as runners up with 76 points, 11 ahead of second place Forest Green Rovers, with a +25 goal difference. These stats are fascinating, as they show the unblemished work ethic and unity of such a young yet amalgamated unit.
The mixture of youth and experience within the squad is the quintessential balance for a promotion side, with the likes of Charlie Kirk, Callum Ainley and Tom Lowery all representing at a high competitive level regarding youthful nature combined with the admittedly older but certainly not lacking in talent when it comes to the likes of Eddie Nolan, Olly Lancashire and of course, Chris Porter, the 36 year old danger man who has netted 14 times this season. The main aptitude for Crewe this campaign though has to be defender and club captain Perry Ng. The 24 year old has arisen through the Railwaymen’s youth squad and gone onto make almost 150 appearances, scoring 6 times from defence. As a local lad, he is adored by the fans and a huge favourite, with such a mature and down to earth attitude in interviews he portrays the perfect role model to any young supporters who are determined to live their dream and play for their supported club. It’s understandable that Ng is being targeted by a number of Championship clubs, he is involved in the EA Sports EFL team of the season which shows the standard of football he is capable of playing and would be a real asset to anyone who dares to pay the money required.
As Crewe Alexandra prepare for the 2020/21 crusade, having already signed Offrande Zanzala and closing in on free agent Luke Murphy, many neutrals will unquestionably be keeping a close eye on Artell’s army to pick up tips for his tactical outlook on the beautiful game as well as what made this season so successful. Will the Railwaymen push on from here and mount an unlikely play-off target? Or will they have taken too big of a step and crumble against giants such as Ipswich Town, Sunderland and recently relegated Hull City? Something tells me it won’t be the latter.