As a kid Matt Owen looked up at Rail House as it cast a shadow over his beloved football club. Years later, having followed his team up and down the country, his passion for Crewe Alexandra is undiminished. Working life is a desk on the eleventh floor of that high-rise office block, now allowing him to keep tabs on things below…
“Growing up on Manor Way I was never far from ‘The Alex’. The nearby cattle market off Barker Street was my playground, and along with my mates we’d all pretend that we were superstars. Of course, I was always an Alex player! We painted goalposts on a wall and spent hours playing football, often arguing whether the ball had hit the post. We also used to sneak onto the club’s Astro pitch behind the old, wooden main stand. We couldn’t afford to hire it; so playing on that flat surface with mini goals was like Wembley to us. My dad wasn’t a football fanatic, so he only took me to the occasional Bank Holiday fixture. I wanted more than that and I was hooked from an early age. So I was always nagging friends and neighbours to take me with them. By the late ‘80s I was a regular at home matches, using my own pocket money to get in. But I wasn’t old enough to travel to away games, so I was devastated that I missed the promotion party at Tranmere at the end of that season.”
Despite pressure from friends at school, there was only ever one team for Matt. “Other kids used to ask me which ‘proper’ club I supported. They couldn’t understand that I was only interested in Crewe Alex. That changed when I got my first real taste of cup action, a game against the mighty Liverpool – home and away in the League Cup. I managed to secure tickets for both games and my mates were really jealous. It was the usual story, although they supported Liverpool or Man United, few of them had seen them live. What made it really special was going to a big match on a school night! It was a fantastic experience, seeing my favourite players take on internationals that I had only seen on TV before. My hero, Andy Sussex, put us 1-0 up that night and ‘The Kop’ was momentarily silenced. Although we lost the leg 5-1, I was incredibly proud to be an Alex fan. I didn’t shed a tear that night, or when we were relegated or missed out on promotions over the following years. In fact, the only time I did was when a teacher told me that we’d sold Andy Sussex to Southend for £100,000. As far as I was concerned, he was priceless.”
For most fans the bad times are, thankfully, tempered by the occasional promotion. For one schoolboy the good times started in May 1994, away at one of Crewe’s local rivals. “My first proper experience of promotion was at Chester’s Deva Stadium when we won on the last day. I just remember jumping up and down, delirious that we were going up. It felt that the club was really moving forward with Dario Gradi, who was already a respected manager. But the promotion season three years later took us to new heights, and it was a crazy time for me. I had my GCSE exams that year but my life revolved around the football, so I squeezed a bit of revision in when I could. The play-off semi-final at Luton stands out for me, mainly because of the fans. The noise was phenomenal and I remember how much it meant to the players. The way they celebrated after the goals and the scenes at the end of the game were amazing. Knowing that we were going to Wembley was the icing on the cake. Everything about that day in late May 1997 was special – on the supporters’ coach, there and back on the day. It was hot, the build-up to the match was exciting and the game was tense, far too tense! We should have beaten Brentford by three or four goals, but we had to wait until the final whistle to know that a single strike from Shaun Smith was enough to take us to the second tier of English football. It didn’t sink in for a while, even when we were back on Nantwich Road singing and dancing outside the pubs. The flags were waving and horns blasted up and down the busy street. It’s those special moments that make it all worthwhile.”
Observers of the game often talk about supporter loyalty, but this was sorely tested years later when Crewe Alexandra’s long-serving manager stepped aside and allowed his apprentice to take control of the first team. “The Steve Holland era followed Dario’s demise as a manager. We had a fantastic adventure in the higher division, for nearly tens years, but I suppose we all knew it had to end. It was the way we fell back down the leagues that disappointed supporters. I felt that Holland was pushed into the job and, as usual, the fans didn’t have a say in matters. He was given a chance but he didn’t win games. We’d had a bad run and with him in charge it looked as though we were going down again. So I was part of a very vocal protest that took place at the Alex and several away games leading up to his departure. The way the whole saga ended disappointed me, not because of our protests but the way the club’s senior management conducted themselves. The process was drawn out over months. It should have been done sooner. In my opinion, they made Holland suffer. I was disappointed that he didn’t succeed because he was a Crewe man. He played and coached here for years. But he often said in press conferences that it was a results game. So he failed. When we played Leyton Orient at home, his final game, I’d say that half of the crowd were against the manager. He had to go.”
Changes happen at all football clubs, but for Matt the biggest disappointment has been what he sees as a growing divide between supporters and senior management. “It used to be a real family occasion at the Alex. There’s still a good bunch of people who meet up, enjoy a few beers and some banter, and yet it doesn’t feel the same. You don’t get to meet as many players or club officials after the game and everything has become very formal. Promotion in 1997 was a fantastic achievement and we went on to build the new main stand, but the atmosphere disappeared. After that, I feel that we have stood still. Financial deals by some of the directors have left fans suspicious and I sometimes feel like an outsider. I’d like to see stability at the club again, as we had that for years. But I feel that the people running the club have lost touch. This is a community club but I no longer see it as a family club. Over the years it’s hard to imagine the amount of miles that have been clocked up supporting Crewe Alexandra. Getting to games became a priority when I was a teenager, and so many things have been put to one side because of football. But I love the club. When my job with Atos Origin took me to the top of Rail House I was delighted. I can’t stop myself taking a look down at the pitch each day, watching the ground staff and seeing if the games are going to be playable when it’s cold and icy. I sometimes fall out with the players and people who run the club, but ‘The Alex’ will always be a part of my life…”
Matt’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; all forty stories will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire. A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy from September 2016.