Reflecting on Crewe's Football League Trophy Crown
A week on from Crewe’s triumph at Wembley, our illustrator and sometimes contributor Ben Piggott reports back on his experiences of the Football League’s Trophy Final.
The talk on the stroll/waddle up Wembley Way – at least among those who hadn’t had to crawl down the spine of the country in the early hours – was of the 33,000 tickets that Southend had managed to shift for their first ever final here. Such are the benefits of having a national stadium a stone’s throw from 15 league grounds: when one of them does make it to a final, they can bundle in a tidy gate and make everyone feel better about the whole enterprise. In this case, it was a brisk ping West along the A130 that saw half of the stadium filled with blue and white. The other half was pocketed with dense cohorts of Crewe fans in the lower tiers, looking as defiant as it’s possible to discern from half a kilometre away. Ironically for a team accustomed to strong away support, this felt very much like a home game for Southend.
Similarly, off-pitch attention was drawn their way when it came to the sidelines as well, with Phil Brown suited in the dotted box after all, and Paul Sturrock just one of the 33,000. Briefing one’s less versed fellow-attendees is easy when it comes to Brown: ‘He’s a bit of a prune, but he’s good value.’ Exhibit A was provided soon after kick-off, as Southend’s new gaffer needed no invitation to stoop and head a loose ball into the hands of an arriving Crewe player quicker than he could say ‘yes mate…’. This brought a joshing rebuke from Steve Davis as the two men set about concealing their jangly nerves with an aplomb fitting of the occasion.
Meanwhile on the pitch, things had begun as they meant to continue. Crewe were, in the words of Southend centre-back Ryan Cresswell, ‘owed one’, on account of having tipped his team out of the play-offs last season and having had the gall to get themselves promoted off the back off it. There was no sign of Southend having brought this ‘one’ that they owed though, as Crewe set about them. This Crewe side are, as with many young teams, crisp. Southend were, as a result, ragged. From the off, they found possession hard to come by as every speculative pass found its way to a Crewe player and was swiftly shuttled back to the edge of their box. The runs of Moore and Clayton up front were giving the Crewe midfield a wealth of options when they worked their way smoothly forward, and the lead came in the same slick style. A corner from the right cruised low along the turf and, from the moment that Harry Davis let it run through into space on the edge of the box, there was leisurely inevitability about Luke Murphy’s finish. It was the kind of strike – passed simply into the top corner from 20 yards – that makes one resolve to play more football, because how hard can it be?
After the madness of their quarter-final against Oxford, and despite edging past League 1 Leyton Orient in the next round, there was the sense that this match was going to be a bridge too far for Southend. One fan behind us warned his companions ‘there is a good chance that Crewe are considerably better than us’, and as the half wore on things were looking ominous for the locals. Having brought so many folks along for the day, the more vocal supporters were spread amongst the vast throng and it was proving hard to find a united voice with which to encourage their players. The fans resorted to cheering a pigeon and a succession of corners alternately.
But all was not entirely lost. What initially felt like an inability to put a foot on the ball gradually came to seem like an unwillingness, and, backing their rangy passing and physical presence, Southend began to drag their lumpen way back into it. The aforementioned corners were dutifully heaved towards the back post, eschewing the clean premeditation of Crewe’s example, and bit-by-bit, there emerged that greasy fundamental of the game: joy down the flanks. In fact, had Tamika Mkandawire got more than a single cornrow to one of the now steady supply of corners, 1-1 at the break would have seemed fair.
As it was, Crewe hustled their lead back into the dressing rooms. There was more encouragement for the Southend fans during half-time though, as the centre-circle entertainment played out a gripping human drama. Having watched his adversaries methodically sidefoot balls against a huge inflatable paint pot, Steve from Essex (let’s call him) began in abysmal style, drawing boos from all corners for his limp efforts. But, gradually finding his rhythm as the 60 seconds wore on, it was the underdog who triumphed, eventually overhauling his target to take home half a grand. The stakes were higher for his county’s representatives as things got back underway a few minutes later, but if they could take heart from Steve’s story then a second-half rally was within sight … for four minutes. Then Max Clayton got Crewe’s second.
Brown’s grand managerial flourish was to deploy equine centre-back/forward Bilel Moshni (or, as he is known to his fans, Moshni Bilel) in central midfield, a task to which he would have proven entirely unsuited in the early exchanges had he found himself anywhere near the ball. By the time that the second half rolled around, Moshni was genuinely floundering. Having allowed himself to be splattered off the ball, he watched on from the turf as Crewe dutifully profited. After an unsightly telling off from his teammates, he set about further engineering his removal by lying prone in the opposite goalmouth after failing to force home an immediate riposte.
Brown took pity on his misused enigma and rolled on the battering totem of Barry Corr right away, to help propel the kitchen sink into Crewe’s goal mouth. His team also took it upon themselves to abandon not only their left side – where Grenadan international Anthony Straker had slowed almost to a crawl – but much of midfield, patrolled as it was by the ball-eating coverage of Arsenal loanee Chuks Aneke, who had been swallowing up second balls with ease for some time. This refused flank manoeuvre did have some logic, as Sean Clohessy ‘down the right’ has been one of Southend’s most consistent players this season and his overlaps looked to be their one way back into the game. The former Salisbury fullback even produced a Ronaldinho-esque flick-flack to make his way into the penalty area at one point. This had the young fans in front of me in instant raptures, before they decried it as a fluke and returned to making their early-exit excuses in earnest (“if they score this corner, I’m going”).
In the end, Crewe were able to resist their opponents’ clumsy advances. Assombalonga’s pass-averse tiptoes to the edge of the box and Corr’s flatheaded persistence were not to yield a consolation, let alone an improbable – and unwarranted – equaliser. The better team won deservedly, as one might expect, and Southend were left to anticipate Brown’s impact on their play-off tilt while Crewe (average age: 23) could bask in their superiority and look forward to the increased pilfering that this victory will mean for their ‘good bunch of youngsters’.