Crewe Alexandra have long been revered for their youth development, with the line of talents to come through their academy over the years including Danny Murphy, Seth Johnson, Dean Ashton and Nick Powell.
The commitment to bring young players through the system has never wavered, with their own talent always the key to their most successive teams, not to mention crucial to the long-term prospects of the club when sold on.
Things had been quiet on that front in recent years since the emergence of Powell, but the work has never stopped and the club have nurtured over time another talented generation.
Although they were denied a first league title in their history by points-per-game calculations having been top on goal difference when the season was suspended, Crewe were the most exciting team in League Two thanks to a group of brilliant graduates, headlined by Charlie Kirk, Perry Ng, Harry Pickering, Ryan Wintle and Tommy Lowery.
A long time in the making
A few talented young players doesn’t make a successful team though, and the credit for moulding everything together must go to the patient work of manager David Artell.
Appointed in January 2017 with the club at a low ebb, 18th in the table after relegation from League One the previous year, the former Alex captain was given time to build the team back up. The impact on results was gradual, coming in 17th that season, before securing 15th- and 12th-placed finishes respectively in 2018 and 2019.
Having previously held a key role in the academy, Artell was the perfect man to continue the club’s traditions and give the necessary time and space for some talented young prospects to grow into the first team.
The fruits of this work began to show as 2018/19 went on, with Crewe gaining 15 more points in the second half of the season compared to the first. Their performances this season were a shock to some, but it only represented the progression that had already long been in evidence.
Squad and system in harmony
Artell had already settled on a system and a way of playing: a 4-3-3/4-5-1, based on the kind of pressing and possession more closely associated with teams much higher up the pyramid.
One twist came in the emphasis given to what was once the least glamorous position on the pitch. With two of the most talented full-backs in the division in Ng and Pickering, both were given license to play the role in a unique way, circulating possession and playing further inside while also bombing down the flanks in more usual fashion. The fact that both were in the top three for most passes in League Two shows just how integral they were to their team’s setup.
Another academy graduate with a crucial role within the system was Wintle, the all-action maestro in their aggressive and energetic midfield alongside Lowery and the highly experienced Paul Green. As a deep-lying playmaker, Wintle set the tempo for the whole side with his great range of passing, as well as getting stuck into defensive duties.
Out wide was Daniel Powell, a free transfer ahead of the season, and the inspirational Kirk. Another youth product with his stock now sky-high, Kirk formed a devastating partnership down the left with Pickering, demonstrating an end product to match his talents with seven goals and 14 assists.
And the system would be much weaker without an old head leading the line in Chris Porter, who provided both a forward to play off and a great target for crosses into the box, knocking in 12 of the league-high 67 goals netted by the Alex.
Experience proved important at the back too, with Nicky Hunt and Eddie Nolan providing a smart defensive partnership in front of the one youngster signed from elsewhere, Will Jaaskelainen, who was promoted to first-choice and proved more than up to the task.
The stats back up just how big a role their young stars played in their success. The six players who played the most matches and minutes across the season were all 24 or under, and an incredible 13 of the 25 to feature across the season were products of the club’s academy, a rate unmatched across England.
The season’s suspension saw promotion confirmed but May brought tragic news. One of the 25 players to contribute was Christian Mbulu, who played seven matches on a short-term deal before his release in January. After moving to Morecambe, his death last month shocked football, and his family will receive a runners-up medal courtesy of Crewe.
Stars draw admirers
The reality of Crewe’s model is that successful players will eventually be sold on, and some of their stars will now be top targets for bigger clubs.
Several could certainly play at a much higher level and there will be interest in the full-backs, particularly Ng who, still only 23, has phenomenal athletic abilities, creativity going forward, commitment in defence, and is a proven leader too as club captain.
The contributions of Kirk and Wintle will have drawn plenty of admirers too, and the challenge for Crewe will be to still get proper value for the players who do want to move, at a time when transfer budgets will be much tighter.
Whatever happens next for them, 2019-20 will be remembered as the season when Crewe reaffirmed their traditions, and as such it will go down as one of their greatest triumphs.