Sunderland travel to Gresty Road on Saturday, where they face Crewe Alexandra. The Black Cats currently sit fifth in League One, whilst The Railwaymen are placed in 11th, just six points away from the playoffs.
Crewe defender Luke Offord’s own goal awarded Sunderland all three points when the two sides met back in October, but David Artell’s team have shocked many this season by avoiding a battle for relegation, whilst making a quiet push for the playoffs.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Crewe fan Russell Fearn of The Railwaymen Podcast, to find out how ex-Sunderland duo Billy Jones and Mika Mandron are getting on, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: The last time Crewe beat Sunderland was back in 2003, where a certain ex-Sunderland right-back Billy Jones was playing - were you pleased to see him rejoin the club 14 years after he left?
RF: When Billy re-joined the club it was unexpected, and there were certainly question marks. There would be no doubting the quality he possesses at League One level, but fitness worries were concerning. It was an exciting signing, but unfortunately due to injury, Billy has had to return to Rotherham – so you won’t see him this Saturday.
MC: Crewe currently sit 11th in League One, just six points away from the playoffs - would you say David Artell is doing a brilliant job considering you have just been promoted from League Two?
RF: The Crewe Alexandra manager’s job is one of the hardest in football. With an utterly shoe-string budget, and the tricky job of bringing through lots of homegrown talent too, it hasn’t been easy for Artell but he’s doing an incredible job.
Four years ago, we were facing a demotion to the National League but now we’re fighting for promotion to the Championship – albeit being extreme outsiders. The way Dave has developed the youngsters at the club, and the way they’ve performed for him, is a testament to his character and managerial ability.
MC: The Railwaymen sold full-back duo Perry Ng and Harry Pickering to Championship clubs in January, is that a testament to just how effective the Crewe academy is at producing quality players?
RF: Both Perry and ‘Pixie’ (a nickname given to Pickering due to his name and nimble feet) were absolute standout players in League Two, and both found their feet relatively well in League One – which is a much higher standard of football.
We’ve seen lots of excellent talent come from the Crewe Alex academy - Ashley Westwood, Nick Powell, and the aforementioned Billy Jones just to name three. There’s no reason why Ng and Pickering can’t be as good as, or even significantly better than them named. Those two, along with several others, have restored the faith in the academy from the fans in terms of creating an excellent standard of footballer.
MC: On the flip side, since more clubs are seeking young low-wage players to develop in light of the pandemic - are you worried players such as Charlie Kirk, Ryan Wintle, Oliver Finney, and Owen Dale could see your team ripped apart in the summer?
RF: Well you can add the diminutive Tommy Lowery to that list too, and defender Luke Offord to that list too… and Callum Ainley for that matter.
With Ryan Wintle’s contract being up at the end of the season, it’s almost certain that he will leave. Whilst that’ll be gutting, he’s been an excellent servant to the Alex and promotion last season would’ve been near-impossible without him. He deserves a step up. Just like Pickering and Ng, Charlie Kirk has been ready for that move too. Most Crewe fans expect to see him leave this summer, but that’s the Crewe Alex model, and we know that. Finney and Dale are different propositions though. This season has been Finney’s first real one as a starting XI player before his injury, and Owen Dale is still extremely raw at times. With Artell in charge, most fans can see these two staying a little while longer as they get polished up to the level Pickering, Ng, Kirk and Wintle are.
When it comes to the team being ripped apart, there’s always a possibility. But it’s all about the next crop of youth coming through, and how Artell does with recruitment – and that’s something he’s done very well at so far.
MC: Ex-Sunderland striker Mika Mandron is likely to lead the line for Crewe on Saturday, how has he performed since he joined from Gillingham in the summer?
RF: He’s become an instant fans favourite. His passion, work rate, and hold-up play have been outstanding, and he’s fitted incredibly well into the Crewe system. He can be integral to many attacking moves. He started scoring fairly well at the start of the season, but that has all dried-up somewhat. What he brings asides from goals is vital, but some more goals will be nice too.
MC: Crewe also recruited Middlesbrough duo Nathan Wood and Stephen Walker on loan, as well as Antony Evans from Paderborn - what sort of impact have they made so far?
RF: In a word: limited.
Nathan Wood has been introduced over the last couple of games at centre-half but hasn’t looked especially solid, with some question marks over his distribution.
Stephen Walker can be a really exciting player, we had him on loan the second half of last season too and he was electric, but it has been harder for him this time around. He’s barely made an impact on the lineup so far, and when on the pitch he’s not done too much either. He’s one of those kinds of players that could just spark into action at any time though.
Antony Evans is another strange one. Before Finney’s injury it was hard to see where he fit in, but even since then, it’s been Lowery in that position. He did get an assist off the bench on his debut though… but he were 4-0 down at Gillingham at the time.
MC: Crewe have not lost a League One home match since early November, what makes your team so resilient at Gresty Road?
RF: I don’t know! I’m led to believe that we have an average size pitch, and it’s not like our stadium will be intimidating to opposition sides. Our grass quality is usually very good, but due to the recent frost we’ve had then it could be a bit better – not as bad as Peterborough’s though.
MC: Who are the eleven Crewe players you predict David Artell to select against Sunderland and what style of play can Johnson’s side expect to encounter?
RF: Well, having played a 4-3-3 for four years straight, on Tuesday, Artell decided to play two target-men in a 4-4-2 diamond midfield. It was strange but it worked. A 2-0 win against Accrington is very good. However, I’d expect us to return to the 4-3-3 due to that formation giving us more pace to hit you on the counter.
Expect Dave Richards to start in goal, the Welsh keeper came from the cold to replace Jaaskelainen after a few dodgy weeks, and despite being dodgy himself, he’s yet to make a goal-conceding clanger. You’ll likely see Donervon Daniels at right-back, making only his third league start after recovering from injury. At centre back, expect the young Nathan Wood and the imperious Omar Beckles. Left-back will be Harry Pickering (Blackburn loaned him back in Jan). Holding midfielder will be the ever-present Ryan Wintle, with Luke Murphy and Tommy Lowery on either side to make it a trio. Kirk on the left-wing, Mandron up front and I think Owen Dale will return on the right-wing to give your full-back a headache – hopefully.
MC: Sunderland beat Crewe 1-0 back in October, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
RF: It’ll be tricky, but I reckon a hard-fought 1-1.