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Crewe Alexandra: Railwaymen on track for unexpected promotion

Crewe Alexandra's process of appointing managers internally is unique in the English Football League.

Since Guðjón Þórðarson’s departure in 2009, the club have abided by a policy of appointing coaches already associated with the club.

It’s a procedure that’s provided opportunities for individuals looking to progress their managerial career and resulted in two separate promotions from League Two under Steve Davis and David Artell.

Lee Bell is the latest to benefit from the club’s in-house policy and despite initial scepticism around his appointment, the 41-year-old is defying his critics as he orchestrates an unexpected promotion challenge at Gresty Road.

A 3-1 win over league leaders Stockport County at Edgeley Park has reiterated Crewe’s promotion ambitions and the Railwaymen are currently perched third in League Two, only four points adrift of the summit.

This season has been a remarkable contrast to the tumultuous campaign before, with Crewe languishing in the bottom six before a three-game unbeaten run propelled them to a respectable-looking 13th-place finish.

Having set off at double figure odds, Bell’s charges are now 9/4 to win promotion, while a Top 3 finish is priced at 9/2.

As Crewe ruffle the feathers of the more affluent sides in the division, we examine how Bell has helped to mould the Cheshire club into contenders at the top. 

League Two

Sticking to academy roots

Crewe’s success on the pitch coincides with the productivity of their academy.

The club have produced a wealth of individuals who have gone on to compete at a higher level; Harry Pickering, Ryan Wintle, Perry Ng and Ollie Turton have all found themselves at Championship outfits in recent years.

The academy is a key factor in their economic sustainability and the development of youth players is vital to how the club function.

For a club of Crewe’s resources it’s difficult to maintain an influx of talent that are first-team ready but their ethos has borne fruit this term.

Of the 14 players that featured in the 3-1 win over Stockport, four were academy graduates; left-back Rio Adebisi, right-back Lewis Billington, versatile defender Luke Offord and the exciting attacking midfielder Matúš Holíček.

They’re not the only figures to roll off the production line and feature under Bell. 20-year-old Joel Tabiner had flourished before sustaining a foot injury, while Zac Williams and Tom Booth have also featured over the course of the season.

And there was one academy player impressed to the extent that he is now at Blackburn Rovers.

The Championship outfit activated the release clause for Connor O’Riordan after the 20-year-old central defender excelled under Bell’s tutelage.

An instrumental figure in their rise up the League Two standings, to lose O’Riordan was a significant blow and yet another component of Crewe’s charge this season has been their impressive recruitment.

Shrewd transfer business

With O’Riordan departing, the club delved into the loan market to acquire Ed Turns from Premier League side Brighton.

The young centre-back has slotted seamlessly into Bell’s plans, demonstrating his comfort in operating within a back three or back four. It's of no coincidence that Crewe recorded back-to-back clean sheets following Turns' arrival and the defender opened his account in the victory over Stockport.

Crewe’s proud record in nurturing academy talents has been beneficial when they’ve explored the loan market. Clubs are confident their prospects will be catered for and it’s enabled Crewe to sign Harvey Davies from Liverpool and Joe White from Newcastle on loan deals until the end of the season.

It’s a shrewd transfer process that’s helped Crewe become a competitive force, despite possessing a budget that’s dwarfed by rivals Stockport and Wrexham.

While Crewe pride themselves on youth integration, Bell knew his side needed to be balanced with experienced individuals and the acquisition of veteran defender Mickey Demetriou on a free transfer from Newport County has been a revelation. 

On top of his impressive resilience, the 33-year-old has chalked up a magnificent return of seven goals and six assists from central defence this term. In fact, 18 of Crewe’s 59 goals so far have been contributed by defenders, a tally aided by their set-piece prowess.

Jack Powell and Shilow Tracey also joined in the summer, the pair injecting creativity and pace while providing further experience to a squad with a youthful complexion.

The average age of Crewe’s starting XI this term is 23.8 years – the third-youngest in the division – but many of their academy stars have displayed maturity beyond their years.

A winning formula

18 goals were scored in Crewe’s first four league games of the season as Bell’s brand of attacking football conceived entertaining results.

It was a philosophy he persisted with and the Railwaymen benefited, winning 10 of their opening 18 matches as a free-scoring side charmed supporters with a series of high-octane affairs.

But their expansive style soon proved unsustainable. After O’Riordan’s 92nd minute winner against Doncaster at the end of November, Crewe laboured through a six-game winless streak which saw them drop out of the play-off places.

Bell acknowledged a tweak to their style was needed. Their xGA was higher than struggling Forest Green in 23rd and such figures threatened to derail their promising start to the campaign.

Upon his appointment, the Alsager-born tactician had navigated away from the pragmatic approach his predecessor Alex Morris implemented but Bell had to find a solution to Crewe’s poor run of form. It meant reverting to a safer system focused on conceding fewer chances and in turn, fewer goals.

Crewe began 2024 with back-to-back 1-0 wins over Bradford City and, more impressively, away at promotion challengers Mansfield Town.

Bell’s free-scoring unit had transformed into a side that prided itself on defensive solidity and its yielded results.

Wins against Swindon and Barrow followed before a Matt Smith-inspired Salford inflicted their first defeat of the year. They bounced back by holding an in-form Tranmere at Prenton Park before beating Crawley, though the best was yet to come.

Bell has demonstrated over the course of his managerial spell that he's not afraid to make bold tactical adjustments; both he and his coaching staff were the driving force behind their statement victory over Stockport.

Crewe unearthed a balance in posing an attacking threat while remaining defensively compact and if they can produce performances of that ilk for the remainder of the season, there’s no reason to suggest why they can’t be fighting for automatic promotion come the end of April.

Their record against top half opposition when away from home is impressive - they’re yet to taste defeat in six matches - but Bell will be eager to see his side to brush up on their results against bottom half outfits when on their travels, having only won two in 10.

With fixtures against Harrogate and Notts County to come, Crewe will be tested. Fortunately they’ve just passed arguably their toughest assignment with flying colours.

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