It’s not often that Blues find a mercurial talent that lives up to the billing. Christophe Dugarry was the first in my lifetime but his best days went as quick as they came. Ravel Morrison was sensational during the second half of Lee Clark’s first season in charge but we only saw his best, consistently, for two months. Jon Toral matched an impressive physique with a footballing brain that belied his age but chose Rangers as his next destination once his loan deal ended.
In Dan Crowley, Blues may have just found another. Crucially, unlike the others, he’s young and ours to keep.
It was a surprise to many that Crowley decided to join Birmingham City in spite of interest from Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven, both of whom are playing Europa League football and dream of taking the Eredivisie title back from Ajax, but Crowley has never been scared to make a big decision about his career.
This is a player who, at 19, decided to abandon the potential riches of English football to learn his trade in Holland. When game time was limited, he took a pay cut to play football in the Dutch second tier.
He thrived last season, starting every league game as Willem II finished in their highest league position for four years and reached the cup final. The one-time Arsenal prodigy scored five, assisted seven and, as he confessed to Sam Wallace in November 2018, he was maturing and thinking more about the collective rather than his personal exploits.
Not short of self-confidence, Crowley’s good form allowed him to begin plotting his way back to the top. He believes he is good enough to play in the Premier League but also acknowledges he has plenty to prove. PSV and Feyenoord were attractive options but Crowley wanted to play the game at a higher-pace which is why the Championship was so appealing.
Most Blues supporters would think him nuts for believing we were the best option but ambition is high in the boardroom. Crowley clearly thinks we can offer him a route to stardom.
That route to stardom must have looked further away when he was dropped after three league games.
It wasn’t Crowley’s fault, in fairness. He was supposed to be the man Blues built around, a 3-4-1-2 system in which he was the ‘1’ but Pep Clotet soon found no use for a player in the number 10 position. We simply lacked the knowhow in possession to keep him involved and play through the opposition.
Simplicity was sought and Crowley would have to fit in rather than be built around. He didn’t get a kick against Barnsley, was given a measly 14 minutes with the side already 3-0 down at Swansea City and when Jefferson Montero was struck by injury against Stoke City, Jude Bellingham was preferred.
In the same game, Crowley replaced an underperforming Fran Villalba and completely changed the game from an unfamiliar left-midfield position. We are told that good players can make things happen from anywhere on the pitch and Crowley was about to prove that point.
For a player whose temperament and outspoken nature has led to issues when not playing football matches, Crowley hasn’t kicked up a fuss at St.Andrews.
Instead of bemoaning the change of system and his lack of game time, the Coventry-born star has got his head down, worked his socks off for the benefit of the team and taken the mantle of chief creator from both the right and left flank. Clotet has given Crowley the freedom to come inside from his side of the pitch, provide an option for the full-backs, strikers and central midfielders in a bid to get Blues moving the right way.
He played key passes in the build up to Jutkiewicz’s header against Stoke City and Jude Bellingham’s winner at The Valley before registering his first assists versus Derby County (a corner headed home by Gary Gardner) and Middlesbrough (the cross for that Odin Bailey goal).
No Blues player passes the ball per 90 minutes, his 14 key passes, excluding set-pieces, is 4 more than any other Blues player and his pass success rate of 86.7% is the 20th best in the entire division. All this despite predominantly playing out wide for a team that, on average, has kept less possession than every side in the division except for Millwall and Cardiff City.
The challenge now is for Crowley to keep that form up in his first full Championship season while playing for one of the divisions most infuriating outfits. Blues’ challenge is to keep Crowley happy and involved in games.
The other challenge that represents Blues is keeping hold of Crowley should his form continue to improve.
Reportedly, the owners want to mount a push for promotion this season and surely 2020/21 is about going one step closer. Crowley spoke last year about still believing he is good enough to play for Arsenal and wanting to become one of the best number 10’s in the world.
If he is to stay, Blues need to meet his ambition. The additions of Clarke-Salter, Sunjic and Villalba were positive and high-profile but that momentum has to continue into January and next summer if we are to walk the walk. Bring in better players, extend the deals of those at the club and who knows, Crowley could be proven right by committing himself to this project.
The pessimist in me lives in most Blues fans. We are petrified of what is to come. Our manager remains a caretaker, our owners are having a heavy influence in the team and our transfer business. If this all went pear-shaped it would not be the first time a new era fell flat on its face yet Crowley represents the positives from our summer of mayhem and will hopefully come to embody the future our owners envision.
Then again, mercurial talents rarely shine for long at St.Andrews. Let’s just enjoy him while we can.
Photo Courtesy: Roy Smiljanic / BCFC