Crewe Alexandra, 2017-2022
“We’re sacking the manager, regardless of the result on Saturday. Do you want the job?”
In all honesty, the chairman’s words completely shocked me.
The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I was quite happy in my job in the Crewe academy.
I was getting loads of great coaching experience. Even though the first team wasn’t doing too well, I had never considered that I might be in line for the job.
I told them I had to go away and think about it.
There was no way I was ready. I think I knew that at the time. I’d only recently finished playing, and still had so much to learn in a coaching sense, particularly at first-team level. I had a fair few years’ coaching experience, and had been heading up the Crewe academy for three years, but I hadn’t done any senior-team coaching.
Anyone who says they’re ready for first-team management that early is lying to you. They can’t be.
But when I was considering whether to take the job, I realised the chairman had been prepping me to take over for a while. He’d taken me to fans’ forums, where I’d wondered why I was sitting next to the manager! And I’d been asked to present to the board a few times. That had all been part of the interview process, I came to realise.
They’d been testing me for 18 months, and they were sure about me. They believed that I could do the job.
"I would be stood outside on a cold evening, freezing my arse off, and I absolutely loved it"
There was no discussion about the contract or the deal I was getting. That wasn’t important to me. I thought about what it could do for my career, and decided I couldn’t really lose. It was a fantastic opportunity that I’m so glad I was given.
It was a big job, though. Crewe weren’t far off the League Two relegation zone when I took over in January 2017. There was a genuine chance of us dropping out of the Football League, so it was a big gamble that the club were taking on me.
I had built up a good relationship with them over a number of years, so they knew me well. I played there between 2010 and 2012, and that was when I first became interested in coaching.
Three months into my time at Crewe as a player, I went to Dario Gradi and asked him if I could do some coaching. It was a coaching club; there was a focus on coaches that you don’t get at many other clubs. I’ve since spoken to Dean Ashton, who had also been at some top clubs, about how Crewe is a special place in that regard. He credits Crewe with being where he became the footballer he was.
Over five years while I was still playing, I coached in the evenings with virtually every age group from the Under-9s to the Under-16s. To be honest, that was when I really started to study rather than just watch football. I became a much better player as a result.
I got lots of coaching hours in on the grass, and I loved it. Even the many, many nights through the winters were brilliant. I would be stood outside on a cold evening, freezing my arse off, trying to teach a group of Under-9s how to do a no-touch turn and I absolutely loved it!
I could tell I was good at it, and Crewe must have liked what they saw. In 2014, while I was playing in the Welsh Premier League, they appointed me as academy operations manager.
"I’d taken over in the middle of the January transfer window, but there were no recruitment plans at all"
Although Dario still had the title of academy manager – they couldn’t take it off him – I was overseeing all of what went on in the academy. I got to work with players from all ages groups, and got to know many of the players I would later go on to manage.
I felt like I did a pretty good job while running the academy. We passed the academy football audit with flying colours, and loads of players were making it through the academy into the first team. I worked intensely with the head of recruitment, as well, albeit at academy level, and I was doing loads and loads of coaching. After five years of coaching, and three of those years spent running the academy, I was offered the manager’s job.
So, there I was, all of a sudden, with no first-team coaching experience to my name, in the dugout at Gresty Road to face Nathan Jones’ Luton Town, tasked with keeping Crewe Alexandra in the Football League.
To say I found it daunting would be an understatement.
But I knew what I wanted from my teams, so I set about modernising the first-team philosophy, much like I had started to modernise the academy. I started turning Crewe into a David Artell team.
I’m a purist. I want my players to be able to play football. I want a certain profile of player in each position.
I’d taken over in the middle of the January transfer window, but there were no recruitment plans at all, never mind any plans to go out spending big on new players. Thankfully, I could rely on my relationships with the academy players, and I was also able to bring in one or two older players.
"There were times when I questioned if we were on the right path. I had to stick by what I believed in"
There’s a philosophy at Crewe that dictates things to a certain extent; that managers should bring players through the youth ranks. But they don’t demand managers take it anything like as far as I did.
Straight away, I had youngsters I’d helped bring through playing first-team football. Youth was at the core of my team, and it became a big part of our identity. I knew these players were going to be good players.
The impact was far from immediate. There was no new-manager bounce – which is a myth, by the way – although I did obtain more points in my first 15 matches than the previous 15. I had an overarching framework that we gave to the players, and the hope was that we were giving them the tools to perform to the best of their ability. They weren’t bad players – that wasn’t why they were down at the wrong end of the table – and eventually we started to see results. The players were clearly buying into my way of playing.
We survived comfortably in the end, and that bred confidence in us going forwards.
Honestly, though, the first 18 months were rocky. There were times when I questioned if we were on the right path. I had to stick by what I believed in through some really rough patches.
But over the course of that time and the following season – through the 2017/18 and 2018/19 campaigns – we saw incremental improvements in the team.
We weren’t getting as many results as I’d have liked, but if we were to lose it was becoming more common for us to lose undeservedly. It was through mistakes and sucker punches, rather than us being played off the park. Of course, it was still disappointing to lose, but we were undoubtedly getting better.
"After that run of form, I just knew we were going to get promoted the next season"
We just looked far more convincing as a result of the style of football that I was asking the team to play. The young players I’d brought through and stuck with were improving as time went on, and the team was becoming a better collective unit.
I knew we were on course to get where I wanted to take the team, but there was still plenty of inconsistency. I was fortunate that the chairman, John Bowler, and the fans remained behind the project and kept on believing in me, because by Christmas in 2018/19 we were still in mid-table. People might have been thinking our season could go either way.
But then something clicked. I changed the formation early in that season, as we’d worked on a couple of different shapes in pre-season, and I had decided after five or six matches it didn’t feel quite right.
On Boxing Day, we beat Lincoln City – who had a big budget, were top at the time and went on to win the league – 2-1. It should have been three or four, though; we were brilliant. Their manager at the time, Danny Cowley, admitted as much afterwards.
From that game onwards, we had the best record in the entire league for the remainder of the season. We still only finished 12th, but it was over the course of 23 games – a long time – that we were the best team. After that run of form, I just knew we were going to get promoted the next season.
It wasn’t arrogance, I could just see how good we were. We played a 4-3-3 system and the players understood exactly how it worked.
It was the easiest season to coach. I’d built such a good team. The players could cope with all manner of challenges because they’d got so much experience playing together, and previous adversities were now helping them on the pitch. I didn’t have to worry about the players at all. On the rare occasions they came up against something they hadn’t seen before, I was able to help them through it.
"I WAS SO DISAPPOINTED THAT, DUE TO COVId, THE PLAYERS DIDN’T GET THE SPECIAL MOMENT THAT COMES WITH WINNING PROMOTION"
The success we had was years in the making. Years of coaching these young players to make them first-team ready; years of gearing sessions towards getting my team playing the way I wanted them to play. It didn’t happen overnight.
But when it all came together, it was a fantastic feeling.
We had the third-lowest budget in League Two, so we couldn’t afford to go out and buy a 25-goal-a-season striker. The load was shared around the team, and I think I did a good job of giving the players the confidence to take risks and try new things. If someone missed a one-on-one, for example, I wouldn’t shout at them. I focused on how much had gone right for us to get that one-on-one opportunity. Then, the player who missed the chance and I would have a quiet, calm chat about the specifics of what went wrong in the hope of improving, after I had highlighted how much they had done right. It empowered the players to try again.
The best become the best by failing thousands of times, and it was no different for my players. As they improved and became more certain of how they would be treated if they made a mistake, confidence spread through the team and results were great.
I want my teams to entertain and score goals, and we did just that in 2019/20, finishing as the league’s top scorers and winning promotion to League One. The only disappointment was the season being interrupted due to Covid.
As we were in lockdown, I was doing some work in the garden when I found out. I got a call from my assistant, who had seen the news on Sky Sports! I hadn’t been told anything, so I phoned the chairman. He said that the season finishing early had just been confirmed, as had our promotion.
I went straight back to digging in my garden.
"I wanted back-to-back promotions, which I’d done as a player and knew was possible"
I was so disappointed the players didn’t get the special moment that comes with winning promotion. I’d had it a few times as a player, and I wanted my players to experience it. I wanted fans running on the pitch, kissing them. We were top when the season got stopped, and my players were robbed of that celebration and the chance to win the title properly. That was a real shame.
One huge positive, though, was being named League Two manager of the year. I’m not in this for personal accolades, but to be voted that by my peers was something I’ll never forget. When that happens, you know you’re doing something right.
As always, I had a very busy summer ahead. The work began right away.
Throughout my time at Crewe, I had no head of recruitment, no chief scout, no data analyst; nothing like that. I was doing everything because resources dictated that I had to.
New owners had come in in February 2020. It was meant to be the start of a new dawn, but then the pandemic came – it was very, very hard to find money to invest.
We brought a few players in – all on frees or loans – and I told the squad that we were good enough to get promoted. That was my aim. I wanted back-to-back promotions, which I’d done as a player and knew was possible.
We had to be better across the pitch, but I knew the gap wasn’t huge. I genuinely believed we could do it.
"when clubs started spending again in the summer of 2021, our players attracted a lot of interest"
But the step up was a little too big for us. And yet, with the lowest budget in the league by a distance, we still managed to finish 12th. We were only eight points off the playoffs.
The thing was, bigger teams that would normally have gone out and spent lots of money weren’t actually able to because of the pandemic. That levelled the playing field a little.
We could have contended with them doing so in that season, because we were a really good team. Everyone was excited about the prospect of a promotion hunt, so nobody wanted to leave. The problems came at the end of that season.
Our players had shown just how good they were. Loads of them had proved that they were more than good enough to play even higher, never mind in League One.
So, when clubs started spending again in the summer of 2021, our players attracted a lot of interest. And this was interest from big clubs that could offer big wages and big dreams. Five of our players left for Championship clubs, and that was just the tip of the iceberg.
It was impossible to replace all the players we lost in one summer. We tried to bring through the next crop of youngsters, but they just weren’t ready. The following season, we came bottom of League One. That’s when I was sacked.
There were positives from the season. There were games when we had three teenagers starting in defence, for example. The experience we gave them is only going to help Crewe going forwards.
"I learned so much that now I feel I’m ready and well-equipped for just about anything"
Crewe is a club that works in cycles. I expect that, within three years of me leaving, they will be back up in League One. That squad has bags of potential, and with a bit more experience there’s no reason those players can’t be playing for Crewe in League One again.
There were lots of challenges in that final year. It’s really difficult being a manager in a dressing room that is young and not always getting the rewards their performances warrant. You’ve constantly got to be developing the players to get better, driving standards up, coming at things from a different angle, keeping things exciting. You also can’t focus on results too much. You have to focus on the positives in defeat.
In much the same way, I focus on the positives from my time at Crewe.
We achieved Crewe’s highest finish in 17 years. I became the first person to add promotion as Crewe manager to having done so as a player. I won a match with an entire team of academy graduates, made the club a lot of money in the middle of a pandemic, and worked under really strict financial restrictions. We were unable to call on the kinds of resources or staff – like a head of recruitment – that would be normal at most other clubs at that level.
I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity I got at Crewe. I got experience in recruitment, scouting, loan and transfer strategies, and individual coaching, all on top of being the manager. Not many people can say that, especially in their first job.
I was challenged in all manner of situations, and got experience of just about everything there is in management. I learned so much that now I feel I’m ready and well-equipped for just about anything.
I’m looking forward to working with a group of staff who want to excel, and with players who are as ambitious as I am.
Author: Ali Tweedale