As skipper David Artell lifted the League Two Play-Off trophy at Wembley on Saturday, he so did it to mark the end of the domestic season for Crewe Alexandra, the culmination of a turnaround of which the remarkability of such has long been documented.
From the frustration of a possible relegation battle back in November to the sense of optimism and joyous emotion that the elongation of the season has brought; many a Crewe fan would have been content with just a place in the festival of the Play-Off tournament but as Artell brought the curtain down on the journey, the true realisation that they had earned promotion was punched home in a flood of ecstasy.
A 2-0 defeat of Cheltenham Town in the searing heat of football’s grandest setting had cemented Crewe’s participation back in the third tier of English football after a three year absence but it was still stigmatised by a feeling of a grandiose dream. For this was never how it was supposed to end, 5 games into the season and 5 defeats, 18th and with the sinful proposition of relegation to the non-league beginning to loom on the horizon after 17 games, somehow the fates were deviated to bring what was the most beautiful of conclusions to the season where, before it had even begun, promotion would have been a distant dream to even the most hardened of optimists.
With 105 metres of Wembley pitch dividing the two sets of fans, the emotions could not have been in more stark contrast. It would have taken a heart cold enough to melt the sun that sweltered above the 24,000 packed inside the stadium on Sunday afternoon not to feel sorry for the Cheltenham contingent, who had watched their side, having been built on a reputation of good football and hard endeavour under Mark Yates, be subjected to another season in League Two.
But the day belonged to Crewe Alexandra’s young side and Steve Davis, whose inaugural league job upon succeeding Dario Gradi back in November has sped past any viable plaudit or degree of comprehension. This relative rookie, a man whose past managerial experience has involved a spell in charge of Northwich Victoria and Nantwich Town in the ramshackle regions of the Conference North, has presided over 32 league matches, winning 16, drawing 12 and losing just four. The latest result, secured in the magic of Wembley, marked 19 unbeaten and most importantly, the chance to continue such a splendid run in the league above.
To find a word to describe the day would be an injustice to its wonder. From encountering the man who put the ground-work to this achievement in place in Dario Gradi at Watford services, it was essentially another crop of his production line of talent that had done the job, to eventually arriving back home after a 14 hour day, everything had been utterly glorious. For the match itself, it was a fine spectacle which saw a superb contribution from both sides and it is this notion where the sympathy towards Cheltenham’s disconsolate fans would be derived. Through the cultured passing of Luke Summerfield, the aerial threat of Ben Burgess and the persistence of Jeff Goulding that saw him crash a 35 yard effort off the bar and also have a goal disallowed for offside, the Robins created more than enough chances to ensure the day was theirs.
Steve Phillips in the Alex goal had to be at the top of his game to deny Burgess and right-winger Jermaine McGlashan, who has seemingly patented the trick of running on the blind-side of the full back, when clean through, whilst Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood both cleared off the line to add the clamour of a clean sheet into the bargain. It was an open game, one that did the setting and the league justice, for this was the sides that finished sixth and seventh remember; the conception that the fourth tier is devoid of quality and armed to the teeth with aging journeymen is now an ancient myth.
Events in the 16th minute put pay to that, Nick Powell receiving the ball from the left side with his back to goal, a simple feint and an unerring first touch sold two defenders, allowing enough room for the most audacious of left-footed half-volleys to fly into the top corner of the net from 25 yards. Any documentation of frustrating performances of recent weeks were vanished to the dust-bin with the utmost conviction; Powell, subject to intense speculation of a possible £4 million transfer to the biggest club in England, re-affirmed his potential that dictates that he will travel to the very summit of his trade.
Bar goalkeeper Phillips and Artell, who made a fine contribution despite his hindrance of a broken toe, nine of the eleven starters for Crewe were from the famed academy production line in south Cheshire whilst another two lay in wait on the bench and it was fitting that the most gifted of this batch should mark the spotlight with an unbelievable strike.
Byron Moore, a player who was on the verge of leaving Gresty Road last summer, added the second with a fine finish mid-way through the second half to allay any nerves and send the Crewe fans behind the net he had just found into divine rapture. The game evaporated and celebrations kicked in for one half of the ground whilst the other retired home under a shadow of disappointment.
Cheltenham had done enough to suggest their time in this league will not linger for much longer under Mark Yates and their day will come again, but this Sunday was Crewe’s day and every monumental effort that has gone into gaining the success of the Steve Davis era deserved recognition. This 46 year old, just 6 months into his debut job tasked with the responsibility of managing a league side, could stand proud and possibly over-awed at the job he had just done as he stood before the crowd that now hold him in worship status. He would be forgiven for having a small period of reflection, like all Crewe fans would have over what has been a beautiful rollercoaster of a journey, but there would also be the over-riding excitement of what is to come.
His next job, which will begin almost immediately, is to start planning the next stage of what could be a very special journey and to make sure Wembley is just the latest stop of a succession for the Railwaymen’s so far fantastic train journey. The trophy went home on the Crewe team bus, but there was a universal feeling as the Crewe following began the exodus from North London, that it could be first of a few more under this bright regime, almost as bright as the sun that shone down on Wembley.
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