David Artell: Crewe Alexandra boss was always 'quietly confident' of winning promotion

By Ged ScottBBC Sport
Crewe celebrate a goal
Crewe were top of League Two when football was suspended because of coronavirus in March but missed out on the title on a points-per-game basis to Swindon

Crewe Alexandra manager David Artell says he was always "quietly confident" of winning promotion - and that the Railwaymen have been the best team in League Two for 18 months now.

The Alex's place in League One for next season was confirmed on Tuesday when League Two clubs formally voted to end the season in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Artell, appointed in January 2017, told BBC Radio Stoke: "It was a tough first couple of years but for the last 18 months we've been doing well.

"I'd like to have done it [won promotion] last season, but we just left it too late, we just missed out. But since the Christmas before last, we've picked up more points than any other team."

Despite six wins in nine games from late March onwards in 2018-19, Crewe came just too late, finishing six points outside the play-offs, partly undone by a costly derby defeat at Port Vale in early April.

"If we'd gone on to make the play-offs I actually felt we'd have done what we did when I was a player in the 2011-12 season and go all the way," added Artell.

But Artell still points to the 2-1 Boxing Day 2018 home win over runaway leaders Lincoln City, the team who were to be crowned champions, as a crucial turning point in giving the Railwaymen some forward traction.

"We beat Lincoln that day and, since then, we've been on the right track," said Artell.

Now, 18 months on, Crewe are back to where they were prior to relegation from League One in 2016.

The eighth promotion in the club's history is slightly tainted by the fact that they have not gone up as champions.

Although the Alex were in top spot when football was suspended, Swindon's game in hand ensured that, on a points-per-match basis, it was them who were adjudged to have come in first.

But, despite the three-month delay caused by coronavirus and the dissatisfaction in not being able to finish the job, second place is still the joint highest finish in Crewe's history.

"I'm just sorry we lost those eight games," said Artell. "We were going well and I'd have felt good about all of them."

'We knocked them into shape' - Artell

Crewe boss David Artell
David Artell made 82 appearances for Crewe as a player

It should always be remembered that it took even Alex Ferguson over three-and-a-half years to win his first trophy with Manchester United. And, just 30 miles down the M6 from Old Trafford it has taken Artell slightly less time to bring success to Gresty Road.

On the back of relegation from League One in May 2016, Crewe were 18th in League Two when Artell was appointed on 8 January 2017 to succeed the sacked Steve Davis.

Artell had been a key part of the side Davis led up from League Two the last time Crewe won promotion in 2012, a rock at the heart of the Alex defence as they sneaked into the play-offs with a late-season run before finishing the job at Wembley.

But the euphoria engendered by the first of two successful visits to Wembley in successive seasons had long since evaporated by the time he was given his first crack at management.

After inheriting a club at a low ebb, still reeling from the cloud of bad publicity associated with the child sex abuse scandal involving their jailed former academy coach Barry Bennell, initial progress was slow. But the direction since has been gradually upward.

His Alex side have actually lost more games than they have won - 72 to 68 - in his 171 games in charge. But there has been growth year on year. He had the Alex up to 17th by season's end in 2017 before finishing 15th in 18 and 12th 2019.

Now they go up above pre-season favourites Plymouth Argyle, who came third. And just how likely did that seem when Alex old boy Ryan Lowe's Argyle won 3-0 at Gresty Road on the opening day of the campaign back in August?

"Right from the start of this campaign, I was actually quietly confident we'd have a good season," said Artell.

"When we first came in three years ago, we had to pick these lads up by the scruff of the neck, dust them down and give them the belief.

"But we knew they were good enough. We just knocked them into shape. We've been the fittest side in the league and we'll need to be again next year."

Crewe's promotions
1962-63Division FourThird4659
1967-68Division FourFourth4658
1988-89Division FourThird4678
1993-94Division ThreeThird4273
1996-97Division TwoSixth4673
2002-03Division TwoSecond4686
2011-12League TwoSeventh (won play-offs)4672
2019-20League TwoSecond3769

'A great air about the place again' - Bowler

Long-serving Crewe chairman John Bowler's biggest tonic at his side's return to the third tier is not just one of relief at their inevitably improved finances, but also a justification of the club's whole ethos as an academy production line that has developed quality sellable players including Rob Jones, Danny Murphy, Craig Hignett, Robbie Savage, Seth Johnson, Dean Ashton, Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood.

"Getting promotion is a vote of confidence in the strategy we have to take the club forward," Bowler told BBC Radio Stoke. "There's a great air about the place again. A feeling of real ambition.

"I'm just so pleased for David Artell and [assistant manager] Kenny Lunt. They've been prepared to take the risk with the younger kids coming though, giving them the chance and getting some experience in too, and they've got that combination right.

"But I'm also pleased for the people in our academy who are so committed to youth development. It makes it all worth it.

"We've been rewarded with an increase in gates. It's now a big challenge next season, we don't delude ourselves about that. But, if we stick together and have faith in the way we run this club, we can succeed."

'Crewe capable of playing at higher level'

Paul Green
Former Doncaster, Derby and Leeds midfielder Paul Green has been one of the experienced heads in the Crewe side

Analysis - BBC Radio Stoke's Graham McGarry, who has covered six of Crewe's eight promotions

Crewe have been up there all season. They were the highest scorers, the joint highest at home, and the joint highest away. The only disappointment is that they didn't take any silverware because they were bang in form when the season was curtailed.

The way Crewe went down under Steve Davis, sentenced to relegation by a 3-0 defeat at Port Vale, has probably helped. It bought David Artell the time to put in the building blocks. There hasn't been much shouting from the fans.

He's gone about it quietly in his own no-nonsense sort of way, but when he does want to make his point, he's not scared to let people know who's the boss.

In the past, Crewe have raised a lot by selling their most talented young players. But nobody has gone for really big money since Luke Murphy went to Leeds for almost £1m in 2013.

Ryan Colclough went to Wigan for £150,000 and George Cooper to Peterborough for £250,000, but otherwise they have been allowed to hang on to what they've got.

That has meant the evolution of a team who have been allowed to grow up together as footballers, supplemented by the older players he's brought in, such as Eddie Nolan (31), Chris Porter (36) and Nicky Hunt (36) and Paul Green (37).

It's been the classic blend of youth and experience. They've reached a good standard of football in League Two and shown they're capable of playing at a higher level.

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