With the new season fast approaching, host of Express FM’s Football Hour and Pompey Live pundit Jake Smith previews the Railwaymen.
Intro: Crewe Alexandra are back in the third tier after a four-year absence, having won automatic promotion from League Two via the decision to conclude the campaign with an unweighted points-per-game system. David Artell’s side finished as runners up of the division.
When the season was suspended on March 13th, The Alex were sitting at the top of the table, however Swindon Town were announced as Champions due to their game in hand, earning them a marginally better return on points-per-game.
The club were formed in 1877 as just ‘Crewe’, adding ‘Alexandra’ some years later. They are named that after Princess Alexandra, who had a recreation ground named after her in Crewe – where the club played their home matches in the 19th century.
In 2013, Crewe Alexandra won their first, and at present only, Football League trophy – defeating Southend United 2-0 at Wembley Stadium.
The Railwaymen, which is another nickname given to the club, are renowned for having a strong youth development setup, in spite of their long-standing tenures in the lower leagues of the professional game. Crewe have generated over £32million in player sales through this, with chairman John Bowler rightfully taking a lot of the credit for the club’s success.
Home Ground: Gresty Road, Crewe (Cheshire), 213 miles (by car) from Fratton Park – Capacity: 10,180
2019/20 Table Position: 2nd (Automatically Promoted from League Two) – 69 points after 37 games with an average of 1.86 points per-game.
Overall Head-To-Head Record: Crewe Alexandra Wins: 7 – Draws: 5 – Portsmouth Wins: 6
Previous Meeting With Pompey: Portsmouth 0-1 Crewe Alexandra, 4th March 2017, League Two
2020/21 Fixture Dates:
Saturday 21st November, 2020 – Fratton Park
Saturday 13th of February, 2021 – Gresty Road
Photo: Andrew Moon
Manager: 39-year-old Gibraltarian David Artell is the man in charge of The Alex.
Artell, who embarked upon his maiden managerial position when he accepted Crewe’s offer in 2017, has worked at Gresty Road for the last six years, having been appointed Academy Operations Manager in July 2014 whilst still playing for Bala Town.
Standing at 6’ 3” tall, the Rotherham-born and bred defender was known for his hard-hitting style of play at the back, causing problems for opposing attackers throughout his respectable 19-year playing career, predominantly in the Football League. One of his former managers, David Bentley, described Artell as “Committed. He was aggressive, he was brave.”
He made 72 appearances for Crewe between 2010 and 2012, before moving to Port Vale for “geographical reasons”. That spell at Vale Park did not last long however, 36 days later he agreed terms with Northampton Town on the grounds of Port Vale failing to exit administration, thus offering Artell a revised, poorer contract.
The North-West is where Artell has spent the vast majority of his footballing career, featuring for the likes of Rotherham United, Shrewsbury Town, Chester, Morecambe, Wrexham and of course Crewe.
On January 8th 2017, Artell replaced Steve Davis as manager of the Railwaymen with the club flirting dangerously with relegation down to non-league. His spell did not start in the best of manners, a 4-0 defeat at Hartlepool United toward the end of February sparked a strong team-talk in the dressing room after full-time, with Artell warning his players of the huge consequences they would have to face if results continued.
It must have worked, as The Alex won four out of their next five matches, eventually finishing 17th in the final standings. The following campaign, Artell’s second, was not too much better – a strong end to the campaign sealed a 15th-place finish, which was deemed fair by the board, who saw the gaffer’s potential.
The decision to stick by him paid off, with Artell guiding Crewe to consecutive improving seasons – 12th in 2018/19 and of course 2nd last term.
To date, Artell has a win percentage of 39.8% as Crewe boss, winning 68 of his 171 competitive games in charge.
One To Watch: Last season’s top scorer Chris Porter is a player for the Pompey squad to keep tabs on throughout the campaign.
The 36-year-old Football League veteran netted 12 league goals for The Alex and 14 in all competitions.
Porter brings height to the Crewe side, using his ability to leap above opposing defenders to his full advantage last time out in League Two – he is able to use his head to score and knock down to assist his teammates.
At 6’ 1”, the Wigan-born forward is still a nuisance to defenders in spite of his age, still returning decent, but not outstanding, goalscoring records as the seasons tick by. Since moving to Gresty Road from Colchester United in 2017, Porter has netted 34 times in 97 competitive matches.
He has previously played for teams such as Bury, Motherwell, Derby County and Sheffield United throughout his 14-year playing career, in which he has netted over 150 times – averaging 10 goals per season.
Signing of the Summer (So Far): Following the expiration of his contract at Accrington Stanley on the 1st of July, Offrande Zanzala wasted no time in sealing a contract at his next club – newly promoted Crewe Alexandra winning the race for the tricky centre-forward’s signature.
The Congolese forward spent 2-and-a-half seasons at Stanley, first joining on loan in January 2018 before making his move permanent from Derby County, where he came through the youth ranks, later that same year.
Offrande Zanzala was born in 1996 in Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, but emigrated along with his family to Austria in 1999 due to the Second Republic of the Congo Civil War.
Crewe Alexandra will act as the 23-year-old’s fifth club since he turned pro in 2015, though he never actually featured for the Rams in the Championship. Zanzala was shipped out on loan on three separate occasions: first to Stevenage, then Chester and finally the aforementioned Stanley, for whom he made 57 appearances and scored 11 goals.
The only other addition so far to Artell’s squad is French striker Mikael Mandron, who joined on a free-transfer from Gillingham on August the 1st.
Season Expectation: Not much is really expected of The Railwaymen this season, though both fans and board alike will be aiming to avoid the drop-zone.
Survival is the target for Crewe Alexandra this season.
Crewe are not blessed with a large budget, however as we have learnt in recent weeks, that could play into their favour as a result of the introduction of the wage cap.
Of the four promoted teams (Crewe themselves, Swindon Town, Plymouth Argyle and Northampton Town), The Alex are tipped to be one of favourites to go straight back down to the basement tier with the bookies.
If they can pull it off, 83-year-old chairman John Bowler may be looking to implement higher expectations of his side, a team of Crewe’s financial structure and historical background are not likely to blow teams away in this division, however we have seen it before with the likes of Yeovil Town and Burton Albion, so who knows!
My Predicted Finish: 19th
Thoughts from Gresty Road – Don’t Write Crewe Off Already!
Ant Evans is an enthusiastic supporter of Crewe Alexandra, following the club over a 12-year period, home and away, whilst also consistently holding a season ticket at Gresty Road.
The long-serving fan is feeling optimistic ahead of the new season, completely putting to shame my prediction of relegation: “I think mid-table is fair, anything more than that is a bonus.” – he told me.
“We won’t be in a relegation scrap and we won’t be challenging for the league title either!” – Ant claimed.
The 31-year-old supporter, who is based in Cheshire, is predicting a mid-table finish, quoting: “Similar to Burton’s recent league finishes.
“We really do have some special talents in Charlie Kirk, Tom Lowery, Ryan Wintle, Perry Ng and Harry Pickering!” – he emphasised, highlighting the continued mass production of talent coming up from the Crewe Alexandra academy.
Weighing up his club’s chances in the third division, coinciding with the addition of the salary cap, Ant told me: “It won’t affect us at all, we have a very small budget compared to other clubs as our fain focus lies with the academy.
“Our two signings so far have been good additions in Mandron and Zanzala, both will add some firepower alongside Chris Porter, bringing with them valuable League One experience.”
Ant then proceeded to respond to the bookies and journalists who are already writing them off in 2020/21, insisting: “We are always favourites to go back down so I don’t take any notice of that, if we keep this group together and add experience in central-midfield and at the back, we will have a successful season.”
“Losing any of our academy talents, such as the ones I have previously mentioned, would be a huge blow. Being the size of club that we are, it’s always a waiting game for another side to make a bid!” – he concluded, stressing the importance of his side retaining the homegrown talent within the squad.
You can follow Ant on Twitter – @AntEvans88
Main photo: Portsmouth FC