There is something beautiful about South Cheshire’s relationship with the tasty, frozen, lactosey-goodness, that is ice cream. From the locally-famous Snugburys (an ice cream farm shop based on the outskirts of Crewe), to the world-renown Whitby Morrison’s ice cream van company, to the abruptly named ‘Ice Cream Van Stand’ down at Gresty Road. The obvious ties between the Ed Whitby, of Whitby Morrison, and the Crewe Alexandra boardroom is there to see, and the partnership with the club is the reason the away side is emblazoned with the most iconic stand name in England.
Apart from all the ice cream related press, Crewe Alex also are significantly known for its youth academy. Producing some of the best technical talents to have featured in English football. Its pedigree and prestige certainly took a knock when the Barry Bennell accusations and charges were brought to attention. However, the current crop of excellent academy products are showing what an asset the academy is for the club. But as they adorn a new league this summer, what can the League One dwellers expect of the returning Crewe Alexandra this time around?
Trust and Believe in the Youth
It has always been the way at the Alex, but now even more so.
To say there is a strong core of academy graduates down at Gresty Road would be an understatement. Before the curtailment of the 2019/20 season, the stands were awash with high level scouts coming to see what is next off the Crewe conveyor belt – to be honest, that conveyor belt is almost overflowing. Six names caught the eye in this department. Four true ‘academy grads’ and two that came in as U18s from youth ranks and/or the non-league, (who also spent time as scholars).
League Two’s joint-top assister last season, Charlie Kirk has the number ten etched across his back, and he really plays like one. Influential performances lead to 14 assists and seven goals last campaign, and an inclusion in the PFA Team of the Season. Another inclusion in that XI is Perry Ng. The right back of Singaporean descent had another stand-out year, so much so that by the time the transfer window closes, he might not even be in South Cheshire still. The captain, and star right back can go right to the top. He embodies the idea of an ‘attacking full back’. Capable of scoring big goals, getting big assists and also putting in big defensive displays, the man who shares an agent with Philipe Coutinho might get as many opposition managers screaming his praise this year, as he did last season.
Left back Harry Pickering is as valuable as the previous two. An exciting full back, who’s intelligence of pass is as good as I have ever seen at this level; his link-up play with Kirk can often be indefensible. Diminutive midfielder, Tommy Lowery, is as impressive on his day as the rest are. A low centre of gravity, excellent ball control, and a brilliant understanding of how to use his short stature mean that he can’t be bullied well by rough opposition. He’ll flick it round them, then pick a perfect pass.
The two non-academy graduates, but still build up the young core at the heart of the Alex are Will Jaaskelainen and Ryan Wintle. The former is, of course, a goalkeeper. He nailed down his first full professional season last year and proved to be a good shot-stopper. As he continues to learn and grow into professional football, Jussi’s son can only get better and better. The latter, Ryan Wintle, was arguably the best midfielder in League Two last year. He developed his game to become the perfect CDM. With the pace, tackling and intelligence to be an excellent defensive asset, he possesses the attacking mindset, passing range and tactical understanding to be the key to the entire team.
Five key outfield players. With an average age of 22, together they racked up 15’025 minutes last season in League Two. Between them, they got scored 20 goals, recorded 31 assists and proved utterly vital to a promotion campaign.
It is certainly worth noting a few other names of the next generation also. Defender, Billy Sass-Davies could have a breakthrough year with back-to-back starts for the first time in his career (Carabao Cup 1st Round and EFL Trophy) – he even capped the first outing off with a goal. Full-backs Travis Johnson and Rio Adebisi, midfielders Regan Griffiths and Josh Lundstram, versatile defender Luke Offord, and wingers Owen Dale and Tyreece Onyeka could all make an imprint on the Alex squad this year.
That is certainly one thing you can expect with this current Crewe side. Following the ‘Crewe Alex way’, manager Dave Artell has moulded the team into a possession based attacking outfit. With a heavy reliance on the build up play from deeper players, such as Pickering, Wintle, Lowery and Ng, The Railwaymen find themselves able to carve through teams with intelligent play. Possessing a target man striker might be contrary to what general expectations of the Crewe method would be, but it is actually an essential part. Chris Porter was the Alex’s top scorer for the last three seasons, netting 34 goals in that time (12 last season in 26 apps).
New signing Mikael Mandron certainly fits that mould too. The target man striker will offer an alternative to the ageing 36 year old Porter. With a bubbly personality on the pitch, the attacker scored twice against Bolton Wanderers in the EFL Trophy on Tuesday 8th September – his first and second goals for the club. He’s never been too much of a true goal scorer at previous clubs, but now being part of a team that makes an abundance of chances could be the ticket he needs.
The Alex were League Two’s top scorers last season, with 67 goals in 37 outings – a great return. Only five times last season did they draw a blank (including a period of back to back 0-0s and a 0-1 defeat). In addition, they beat opponents by a margin of more than two goals 11 times – including wins by the scoreline of: 4-1, 2-4, 5-0, 1-5 and 4-1.
The Railwaymen might’ve returned to the attacking heyday that saw the club peak at the top end of the Championship in the naughties, but with a throwback to those goal scoring joys, came a return to an old Dario Gradi style of simply out-scoring opponents. Those days saw much less focus on the defensive side of the game, and despite the fact that former-defender Dave Artell does pay attention to the defensive side of the game, there still tends to be defensive chaos.
Eight clean sheets came last season, with 43 goals going into the back of Jaaskelainen’s net. Not overly pretty reading. There seems to be multiple reasons for the chaotic defence that the Alex faithful observed at times. Whether it be silly mistakes like Nolan’s at the 1-0 defeat to Newport County, or set-piece goals as Jaaskelainen is not the most commanding goalkeeper. Poor defending in general from set-pieces had became an issue for Crewe. Injuries to key defenders was not the best either. The usage of six centre backs – Nolan, Wintle, Offord, Nicky Hunt, Oli Lancashire, and Michael Nottingham – throughout the season hampered the desire for consistency.
Also, when you play out from the back every time, then you’re bound to give a few chances away. There are bound to be a few stray passes.
New signings Omar Beckles and Donervon Daniels come with pedigree though. Shrewsbury fans seemed to be upset at Beckles’ rejection of a contract extension, and Daniels has a lot of experience throughout the leagues. Both players could have a great impact on the defensive stability of the side.
Wasted Opportunities Coming Back to Bite
As good and amazing as the attacking play is, it doesn’t always end up in the back of the onion bag. Every Crewe Alex side has something that worries the home support. Previous sides had a significantly soft core, others would lose leads very easily, others would capitulate with any sort of press. Not this side though. These boys will easily carve opponents open, and then put the shot wide. The famous adage about having to score when you’re on top, otherwise it will come back to bite you, has never applied better to a team before. The Alex can dominate for large periods, not score, and then concede easily on the break. It’s frustrating for the fans. Defeats last campaign to Plymouth, Newport County, Cambridge United, Salford City and Plymouth again all came at a sickening blow. In each game the Alex had had periods of brilliance, but wasted their opportunities.
Everyone knows about Chris Porters harrowing miss in the 2nd vs 3rd clash at Plymouth last season. The score finished 2-1 to the Home Park side, but it would’ve been very different had Porter swept into an open net from 15-20 yards.
If you’re watching the Alex against your team this season and you’re being dominated for a period, then don’t worry too much. You’ll get your chances.
Realistically, you can expect a rollercoaster ride. Whether it be the game itself, or Crewe’s season on a whole. There will be immense highs, and frustrating lows, but Artell’s and Crewe’s devotion to playing their own will always live on. When this crop leave, the next crop will be there to make it their own.
On the ‘Ice Cream Van Stand’ side of things, there is a new challenger in the game of weirdly named stands. The Gresty Road end is where you get the singing fans. The Gresty Road end is now sponsored, and called the ‘Rhino Safety Stand’. Are rhinos that safe?