Sunderland host newly promoted Crewe Alexandra tonight at the Stadium of Light, in their sixth match of the 2020/21 League One campaign. The Black Cats beat Swindon 2-0 on Saturday, courtesy of goals from Charlie Wyke and Chris Maguire, which moved them up to 5th place in the table.
On the other hand, David Artell’s team have enjoyed a positive start following their promotion, only losing two matches and sitting comfortably in mid-table. The Railwaymen drew 1-1 with Blackpool at the weekend with their goal coming from ex-Sunderland striker Mika Mandron.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Crewe fan Stuart Price of The Railwaymen Podcast, to discuss how his team have faired since their promotion, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Ex-Sunderland striker Mika Mandron has started his tenure at Crewe on fire, scoring five goals already this season, how are Crewe fans finding their new frontman?
SP: He’s settled in superbly. I think there was a few Crewe fans, myself included, who had reservations about his scoring rate, but with Chris Porter our main striker last year, turning 36 we needed someone younger to lead the line.
The first couple of games we were impressed with lots of his game; his hold up play, his ability to link up with the wingers and his willingness to try and win the ball high up, but we were worried he wouldn’t score enough.
That changed with the MK Dons game, when he got his first goal for the club. Since then I think he’s grown in belief that this team will create chances and he will be able to score and he seems to be full of confidence at the moment.
MC: Crewe were the highest scorers in League Two last season, scoring 67 goals in 37 league games, can Sunderland expect to face an attacking style of play?
SP: Crewe will play 4-3-3 with a lot of their play going through the wide men Charlie Kirk and Daniel Powell, although don’t be surprised if Owen Dale gets a run out.
The key to stopping Crewe is stopping their full backs from overlapping, this was the key to so many goals in League 2 last season and again, already this year.
Perry Ng at right back and Harry Pickering at left back are superb at linking up with their wingers and over loading opposition full backs. This is key as, bar Callum Ainley, the centre midfielders can lack a bit of creativity.
MC: David Artell went straight into management with Crewe following his retirement and won manager of the year last season following the club’s promotion - what is he doing that is working so well?
SP: Simply put, he knows the club. He was a player and in that time with the club he won promotion at Wembley, he then joined the coaching staff before becoming manager following the sacking of Steve Davis.
It hasn’t been purely plain sailing, there’s things he has had to improve, such as; learning to control himself on the touchline, as he has been sent off before and accepted that doesn’t help at all. Some fans actually like this about him, as over the years Crewe have been regarded as push overs, something I don’t think is the case right now.
The club has a philosophy that runs from the U11s to the first team and with so many ex-players now on the coaching staff, Artell is the head of that system. You won’t find many Crewe fans who don’t follow the maxim “In Artell we trust” right now.
MC: Crewe are known for their impressive record of producing quality youth players, such as Dean Ashton or Nick Powell, what enables to the club to do this so effectively?
SP: Parents and young, up-and-coming hopefuls know that at Crewe they will get the benefit of high-class coaching, and when the time comes the club has a proven track record of giving academy players their opportunity when the time is right.
This season the first XI has had about eight or nine academy players in it. This is something that I think should be shouted from the rooftops and be celebrated a lot more than it is.
One thing I think that goes under the radar is the quality of coaching that academy players receive at Crewe. Coaches who made their name at Crewe include Steve Holland, the current England assistant, Neil Critchley, current Blackpool manager and James Collins, current Wolves U23 manager.
MC: The likes of Harry Pickering, Ryan Wintle and Charlie Kirk are the stand out names in Crewe’s current squad of young prospects, do you think of your squad possess Premier League potential?
SP: We’ve talked a lot about the current five who should realistically probably not be at the club anymore. In addition to the three you mentioned I’d add Perry Ng and Tommy Lowery. I would say all five belong in at least the Championship, with some destined to become the latest academy graduate to become a Premier League player, out of those five I’d be least surprised to see Harry Pickering become a PL regular.
What is great though is Crewe now have the next batch of academy players making a name for themselves in the first team alongside this crop. Players such as goalie Will Jääskeläinen (son of Jussi), midfielders Oli Finney and Josh Lundstram, winger Owen Dale and star of the group, centre back Luke Offord.
MC: Throughout the twenty-first century Crewe have fluctuated between the Championship, League One and League Two - where do you think the club realistically should be aspiring to be?
SP: I’m old enough to remember the glory days of the Championship. I think even then we accepted we were probably playing above our natural position. I think the opposite is true for League Two, with our natural position being in League One.
That is just my gut feeling as perhaps our wage budget or fan base don’t compare to some of those other clubs in this division, but ultimately I think Crewe belong in this division rather than playing the likes of Salford and Stevenage.
MC: Due to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, many EFL clubs have expressed uncertainty regarding their future, what state are Crewe in financially?
SP: I think Crewe are in similar circumstances to most lower league clubs right now. They need help from someone, be that a bail out or the revenue that comes from fans being allowed back in the stadium.
Whilst the majority of our fans were against “Operation Big Picture” one of our board members Charles Grant went on 5live to say that he and the club were behind it. Whilst Crewe are not in as much danger as other clubs in the football league, I think there is a realisation that this can’t continue forever.
MC: Who are the eleven Crewe players you expect Artell to select against Sunderland?
SP: 4-3-3: GK – Jääskeläinen RB – Ng (C) CBs – Beckles, Offord LB – Pickering CM – Murphy, Wintle, Ainley RW – Powell LW – Kirk ST - Mandron.
MC: Sunderland and Crewe haven't met in a league fixture since 2005, what is your honest prediction of the final score?
SP: Sunderland have started very strong and look incredibly solid at the back, but so have Crewe over recent weeks. We have only conceded one goal in the last four games, so I’ll go for an optimistic 1-1 draw with Mandron equalising in the last minute.