The Two Unfortunates Health Checks: Crewe Alexandra
Today, we are delighted to launch a new series of posts that will see contributors run the rule over the fortunes of their football clubs in the medium term. Each article will be structured by way of an assessment of the past few years, analysis of the current situation in terms of ownership, finances and personnel and end with some crystal ball gazing as to what may lie in wait over the next few years. The results will provide a state of the moment and in-depth ‘health check’ of each club’s position and we hope to publish contributions from across the Football League but also beyond.
Most of the initial entries to the Health Checks series will appear from January 2019 but we are delighted to launch matters today with a first post for us from Paul Wilkinson. Paul is a fan of Crewe Alexandra and has enjoyed a long career of writing about the Alex. He can be followed on Twitter at @eepaul.
I have supported Crewe since 1971. My initial football experiments included a trip to Jackson Avenue to watch Nantwich Town play Rhyl in front of about 200 people, but the Gresty Road experience of a crowd ten times bigger watching Crewe play Barrow got me hooked. Schoolmate ridicule about Crewe being knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league Blyth Spartans, and then finishing bottom of the Fourth Division – yet again – prepared me for a fan’s life full of disappointments.
It hasn’t all been gloom and doom though. Under Dario Gradi during the 1980s and 1990s, Crewe climbed up the league tables and in 1998 finished eleventh in the old First Division (today’s Championship) – the Railwaymen’s all-time best league performance. Young, skilful and playing the ball on the ground, Gradi’s teams were a pleasure to watch. I was running the ‘Alexandra Extravaganza’ website then, and we revelled in seeing young players blossom and move on to greater things: David Platt, Danny Murphy, Neil Lennon, Robbie Savage, Dean Ashton, Seth Johnson and many more ended up gracing the Premier League and international stages.
However, the purple patch of the late 1990s soon faded, and the club slowly tumbled back down to the fourth tier. Gradi finally stepped down from repeated stints as manager and caretaker-manager in November 2011, and former Burnley defender and Nantwich Town manager Steve Davis became his final successor. Davis took over a talented squad that quickly embarked on a 16-match unbeaten run to earn a 2012 play-off place, and with Nick Powell scoring one of the best goals ever seen in Wembley play-off final, Crewe beat Cheltenham Town to return – temporarily – to League One.
Powell went to Manchester United, midfield maestro Ashley Westwood went to Aston Villa, but Crewe weren’t daunted. Davis led the club to more silverware at Wembley in 2013 with a win over Southend United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, and the team finished 13th in League One, ending the season by fielding a team whose starting 11 were all Crewe Academy graduates.
The Past Five Years
But then it all started to go wrong. Poor starts to successive seasons led to repeated last day dramas. A win against Preston North End saw Crewe finish four places above relegation in May 2014, and it was even tighter a year later – a home defeat against Bradford City meant Crewe had a nerve-wracking wait for results elsewhere, ultimately finishing just above the bottom four in twentieth position.
The 2015/16 season saw Crewe win just two of their first 15 league games, and they crashed out of the FA Cup in the first round in depressingly familiar style, defeated at Gresty Road by non-league Eastleigh. A dire season fittingly reached its nadir when Crewe’s relegation to League Two was confirmed following a humiliating 3–0 defeat in the ‘A500 derby’ at local rivals Port Vale in April 2016, with five games of the season still to play. Despite fans’ cries of “Davis Out”, the board decided to stick with him for the following season.
For a brief change, the 2016/17 campaign began brightly. It opened with a 2-1 win at Stevenage (Chelsea loanee Alex Kiwomya scoring a sparkling debut winner in front of the travelling Alex faithful), and the club suffered only three league defeats up to the end of October, signing off with a 2-0 away win at Leyton Orient. But then it all went a bit pear-shaped. A home defeat by Plymouth Argyle was followed by another as Cheltenham Town walloped Crewe 4-1 at Gresty Road to win an FA Cup first round replay on November 12th. Crewe rallied to beat Morecambe 2-1 next time out, but then failed to win another game until February.
Desperate supporters’ chants of “Davis Out” grew louder as the barren run continued beyond Christmas and Davis was eventually sacked on 8 January 2017. Former Crewe defender David Artell, then working in the club’s Academy set-up, was perhaps the surprise choice as Davis’s successor (some fans suggest Artell was probably the cheapest option). He eventually ended the run of poor results, and the club finished the League Two season in seventeenth place.
However, by this point, another, more sinister, shadow was looming over the club off the pitch.
In November 2016, former Crewe defender Andy Woodward went public with claims of child sexual abuse against ex-Crewe coach Barry Bennell dating back to the 1990s. Other former Crewe players and trainees then made similar allegations. Crewe was suddenly in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Dario Gradi’s role at the time was questioned; he was also caught up in cover-up allegations concerning another coach at Chelsea and ultimately suspended; Crewe’s board was criticised for its lack of response to the Woodward revelations, and a former director suggested that Crewe directors had discussed Bennell’s activities in the 1990s.
Crewe fans’ shock about the revelations grew as the scandal unfolded; as well as Chelsea, it embraced Manchester City, Newcastle United, Southampton, Peterborough United and Cambridge United, among others. But there was also dismay about how Crewe responded to the problem.
I suggested its ‘no comment’ policy did more harm than good. I then welcomed the club’s promise to conduct an independent investigation by external legal counsel into its handling of the sexual abuse allegations, though – in the Blunder of Crewe – it then relapsed into ‘no comment’ mode: a strategy that inflamed media criticisms rather than countering them, and which led to an ‘us and them’ anti-media siege mentality among some Alex supporters.
Bennell has since been convicted and jailed for 50 offences of sexual assaults against young players. His February 2018 trial thrust Crewe into the limelight once again, and while the club was initially quick to express its sympathies to Bennell’s victims, it still did not apologise to them. Amid accusations from a prominent former prosecutor that Crewe engaged in a cover-up of its failings, Crewe then shelved its independent enquiry, feeling that that the appointment of external legal counsel is no longer ‘the correct way forward’.
On February 27th, Adam Breeze, a friend and fellow Crewe fanatic (he and I were regular contributors to the Alex fanzine, Super Dario Land, in the 1990s), publicly divorced the club in the pages of the Guardian. The club I have followed since the 1970s has never had deep pockets, but, in my view, dropping the independent enquiry was the conveniently cheap way out rather than the best way out.
At the time of writing (December 2018), the club remains tainted by the Bennell scandal and by Gradi’s continued FA suspension, while its on-the-pitch performance barely inspires confidence. Artell led Crewe to a slightly improved 15th place in his first full season in charge and has managed to retain some of the Crewe’s most promising Academy players, but questions are being asked about whether the Academy can continue to pay its way.
The Current Situation at Gresty Road
The embattled Crewe board led by chairman John Bowler (a dedicated and eminently decent man who mingles with supporters after matches) is also riven by internal conflicts. There have been legal wrangles about financial matters. A former Crewe director, Norman Hassall, appears to have taken money out of the club at a time when it could have done with an injection of funds to bolster the first team and to continue the support for Crewe’s Academy. Crewe has instigated and then dropped legal action against Hassall, and continued uncertainty about the club’s ownership will do little to attract new blood on to the board.
Crewe supporters have tried to offer constructive support. A new fans’ group, The Railwaymen, was launched in the summer of 2018, and has held fans’ forums to discuss matters both on and off the pitch with directors and with manager Artell. Through fan David Tomlinson, this group is also well connected with the newly merged national football supporters’ groups, so I am hopeful that it will be formally constituted in a way that might allow supporters to be represented within the club, perhaps even taking a financial stake in it.
As a town, Crewe might benefit from incoming investment related to the proposed HS2 railway improvements. Gresty Road is adjacent to the West Coast Mainline and there was some speculation that the land might be redeveloped, but that now looks unlikely. While a major infrastructure project might attract new businesses to the town and bolster Crewe Alexandra’s commercial support and potential supporter base, this won’t happen quickly – if at all.
Crewe’s Academy continues to be the club’s best asset, and the source of most of its playing talent. Artell finished the 2017/18 campaign – like Davis did five years earlier – by fielding a Crewe starting eleven entirely comprised of Academy graduates. They include goalkeeper Ben Garratt and tall Welsh defender George Ray (the only two players to have featured in both all-Academy XIs).
Ray made his debut in the 2013 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win (the first – only? – player to make his professional debut in a Wembley cup final) and won under-21 caps before suffering prolonged injury issues. Similarly, Scottish-born midfielder James Jones also won under-19 and under-21 caps before injuries prevented a potentially lucrative transfer move.
While his matchday tactics have sometimes been questionable (some bizarre team selections have occasionally backfired – a 6-0 hammering at Colchester in August stands out – and his substitutions rarely inspire), Artell has been astute in getting Crewe’s Academy assets signed into good long-term contracts to enhance their transfer value. It is not uncommon for academy graduates to make first team appearances aged 16 or 17, and to quickly gain matchday experience; attacking midfielder Callum Ainley, still only 21, now has over 100 first team caps; 19-year-old Harry Pickering has more than 50. Both are skilful players coached in Crewe’s passing game, as is Tom Lowery – a typically diminutive Crewe midfielder (nearly five foot six inches tall!) – who featured regularly last season.
Some take a little longer to make an impact but can excite rave reviews from loan spells with lower league sides or in the under-23s – midfielder Owen Dale is enjoying regular first team football at Altrincham, while forward Lewis Reilly will hopefully follow in the footsteps of Dean Ashton (Crewe has found numerous midfield dynamos but rarely a prolific striker).
Like many clubs in League Two, Crewe must sometimes look to the loan system to cover injuries or bring in experience. Veteran Irish international midfielder Paul Green made a huge difference when brought in on loan in January 2018 and signed a permanent contract in May before sustaining a serious leg injury, potentially ruling him out for the rest of the season. Striker and one-time Alex Academy graduate Sean Miller returned to the club on loan from Carlisle and also signed a permanent deal in May. But he and other…er…mature forward signings Chris Porter and Alex Nicholls rarely threaten rival defences.
The current season’s League results bear this out. After beating Morecambe 6-0 in the season’s opening game (and briefly going top of the league), Crewe scored just 13 times in the following 18 games. Another frustratingly goalless performance at Crawley on November 24th meant Crewe had scored just three times away from Gresty Road.
All players (and managers) have to be judged by results. Fellow Alex fan Tom Kural has identified that the club has finished above 10th just once in 15 years, while the number of goals scored and shots on target have both consistently been lower than Gradi-managed sides achieved.
The Next Five Years?
From following Crewe in the bad old days, I really appreciated the good times in the 1990s, but there are younger supporters who don’t have that early history. They perhaps started to follow the club in the golden Gradi years and feel it should be back to that level. I would love it if Crewe could return to the second tier, but let’s be realistic….
The Gresty Road facilities are hugely improved on what I first experienced back in 1971 – the ‘ash bank’ and sleepers at the Railway End are long gone – but the adjacent railway station is both a blessing and a curse. Crewe is a depressed industrial town in a rural location surrounded by top flight teams commanding considerable support. Its railway connections make it easy to reach, but also make it easy for local people to travel to rival attractions in Stoke, Manchester, Liverpool, or further afield (as a schoolboy, one of my friends was regularly taking the train to Old Trafford, while I supported my local team at Gresty Road). Matchday attendances have been gradually declining – the slide back down from the second tier is part of the reason, but season after season of average-to-poor performances won’t tempt many would-be supporters.
Unable to command regular large matchday attendances, Crewe Alexandra is therefore an economically challenged club unable to pay its players the tempting wages offered by other clubs even within the same division. Its Academy was once renowned as a talent production line, but changes to how clubs are rewarded for nurturing that talent have made the Academy less economic to run – and why would another club want to buy a player from a team struggling in the bottom half of League Two? The club’s otherwise laudable loyalty to its staff may have backfired with the expedient appointment of the inexperienced Artell as first-team manager, when fans have been looking for someone with greater tactical nous and flair who can help showcase the club’s Academy products.
The football sexual abuse scandal and the board wrangling have also damaged the club’s reputation. Bennell may now die in prison, but there are likely to be civil damages claims against the club (presumably a factor in its reluctance to comment). And another Crewe coach was recently suspended; will parents want their children to train at Crewe while questions remain about its safeguarding regime? And while the club’s finances remain somewhat opaque and the only constant is inertia, is there anything about the club’s board culture that might make it attractive to potential investors?
Dario Gradi and John Bowler did much to transform the reputation of Crewe Alexandra Football Club, but there is a very real risk that everything they achieved could come tumbling down unless some strong decisions are taken, and soon. The Railwaymen supporters group is keen for some positive changes, but action is needed quickly – continued mediocre performances mean the club could out of the Football League altogether.