Identity and opportunity: How Crewe beat the big clubs on productivity

Academy Manager Aidan Callan (left) and Academy graduate Matus Holicek (centre, right)

Academy Manager Aidan Callan (left) and Academy graduate Matus Holicek (centre, right)

THERE’S one real outlier in our Academy Productivity Rankings, a club that breaks the hegemony of the Premier League and Category One sides.

Crewe Alexandra are the only team from outside the Premier League in the top 10; the only one from Category Two in the top 15. They're ninth, above the likes of Liverpool, Southampton and Aston Villa.

Crewe's Academy Manager is Aidan Callan, who has an association with the club that goes back more than 20 years. He said: “It was a target of ours to try and break into the top 10 (they were 11th in 2020/21), so we are delighted.

“It’s recognition of the hard work that’s gone in, not just from the staff who are here now, but from the past as well. It is a real collective effort. There are some big clubs with much bigger budgets than ours who are spending a lot to try to do what we are doing.

"To be above some big Cat 1s and Premier League clubs is something we have to aim to keep doing.”

Crewe are a club with youth development in their DNA. This is evidenced by the fact they are one of only two sides in League Two with a Category Two Academy (the other being Colchester United) and also by their choice of senior staff.

The current first-team manager, Alex Morris, was an Academy graduate himself, as was his assistant Lee Bell. Morris led the Under-23s last season before being promoted to the top job in April, so he knows who the up-and-coming players are, and how to provide pathways for them.

This season he has already given debuts to three homegrown players - Charlie Finney against Hartlepool in League Two in September and Matus Holicek and Owen Lunt in the EFL Trophy defeat by Leeds United U21s earlier this week.

His predecessor, Dave Artell, also came through the youth system - he was Crewe's Academy Manager before becoming first-team manager in January 2017. Artell gave debuts to nine Academy products last season - Tyreece Onyeka, Joe Robbins, Nathan Woodthorpe, Zac Williams, Connor O’Riordan, Connor Evans, Joel Tabiner, Sean Lawton and Lewis Billington.

Speaking in December last year, he said: “I think our kids are at the best Academy in the country for giving a clear pathway to the first team. The future is bright and as long as the Academy keeps producing them then I will look to give them opportunities.”

You can buy a hard copy of the Academy Productivity Rankings in a special 16-page A4 booklet. This includes:

  • Extra analysis, including top 10 clubs for producing U23 players.
  • Feature on Chelsea Head of Youth Development Neil Bath.
  • Ged Roddy MBE article on a decade of EPPP.
  • Compare productivity of different Academy categories.
  • Directory of Academy Managers.

The price is £6.50, to cover production and postage (UK only).

Callan, who was a scholar at Stoke City before moving into coaching at a young age, told TGG: “It’s no use producing players if that manager won’t play them and that hasn’t been the case here. We’ve got to make sure we keep producing those players for the manager.”

HERITAGE... AND DARK CLOUDS

Crewe’s Academy has been famous for youth development since it was launched by Dario Gradi in the late 1980s. England internationals Danny Murphy, Rob Jones, Seth Johnson and Dean Ashton were among the players to have come through the club's youth system, while England assistant Steve Holland, former Blackpool boss Neil Critchley, Wolves interim manager Steve Davis and his assistant James Collins were among the coaches to have done so.

However, there are still dark clouds hanging over Crewe, following the child abuse scandal that was fully uncovered five years ago, and we can't write a piece about their youth system without referencing this. Former Crewe Academy coach Barry Bennell was sentenced to a total of 34 years in prison in 2020 after being convicted of five counts of child sexual abuse.

An independent review found that Gradi, who had been the club’s manager from 1983 to 2007 and again from 2009 to 2011, “should have done more” to investigate concerns about Bennell, although it concluded that he was not involved in a cover-up.

Gradi subsequently apologised to the survivors and their families and has been suspended from football ever since. None of Crewe’s current staff were involved at the club during Bennell's time, but the scandal has affected the Academy's reputation, perhaps forever.

Artell was only 10 months into his job as manager when the sexual abuse scandal erupted in November 2017 and he remembers reading through the court papers at the time.

"The details were absolutely horrific and your thoughts just go out to the victims and their families,” he told TGG. “I was an employee of the football club, but first and foremost I’m a human being and a father so you can't help but be affected and appalled.”

REALITIES OF SENIOR FOOTBALL

Despite Crewe’s emphasis on youth development, results will always be the main metric when judging the first-team manager, as Artell found to his cost in April this year, when he was sacked following relegation back to League Two.

The sale of five Academy graduates to Championship clubs a year earlier, within the space of nine months, had proved fatal. They were:

  • Defender Perry Ng, to Cardiff City (January 2021)
  • Defender Harry Pickering to Blackburn Rovers (January 2021)
  • Midfielder Ryan Wintle to Cardiff City (June 2021)
  • Winger Charlie Kirk to Charlton Athletic (August 2021)
  • Winger Owen Dale to Blackpool (September 2021)

“They’re all good players,” Artell explained to TGG. “Ryan has gone on to become captain of Cardiff and Harry has done well at Blackburn. He could kick on again, to the Premier League, because he’s that good.

“We already had the smallest budget in League One and Covid exacerbated those financial challenges. It’s in Crewe's business model to allow players to move on and kick on, and I fully understand that, but losing five in such a short space of time made it very tough.”

This season Crewe have continued this pattern of giving opportunities to homegrown players while struggling at senior level. They are 16th in League Two and there have been some grumbles from fans about the style of play.

However, they continue to invest in the Academy and Ben Dickson has recently arrived as Head of Academy Recruitment following five years at Manchester United.

“He’s got a really important job and being ninth in the Productivity Rankings will be a real selling point for him when he’s trying to encourage players and parents to come and join us,” Callan said.

“It will be reference as to where we are and the opportunity that’s given to young players here.”

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