It had only taken 13 games but Lee Johnson was completely sold on the abilities of an 18-year-old midfielder he’d taken on loan from Arsenal in 2015.
“He’s probably one of the best – or the best – and most talented 18-year-olds I’ve ever seen. I believe at some point this boy will play for the England national team.”
The boy in question was Dan Crowley who, in truth, had likely grown accustomed to that level of praise. For he was a teenage sensation; a young footballer of such talent that he was constantly playing above his age group.
At the age of 12 he was turning out for Aston Villa Under-16s. At 15 years old he was featuring for the Under-18s. And yet, despite always being less physically developed than his team-mates, he stood out.
An excellent dribbler with the ability to play neat passes and finish chances, Crowley seemingly had the lot. Comparisons were quickly made and he was dubbed the next Jack Wilshere when such a statement had far more stock than it does today.
But in truth his style was more reminiscent of Eden Hazard; scurrying around the pitch at great speed with the ball, yet always keeping it under his control.
The back story
Villa knew the talent they had but in the unforgiving world of the Premier League, were unable to keep Crowley within their youth system.
He left the club in the summer of 2013, shortly before his 16th birthday, and joined Arsenal, leading to Wilshere himself tweeting: “Trust me when I say this kid is a player. Big future.”
The Midlands side received £200,000 in compensation for the youngster, a fee deemed so derisory that Villa lodged a complaint with the Premier League about Elite Player Performance Plan compensation scheme.
During his first two years with the Gunners Crowley signed his first professional contract and became an influential figure for the club’s under-18s and under-21s.
Then at the start of the 2015 campaign, he was taken on the first-team’s pre-season tour of Singapore and featured in the opening game, a 6-0 victory over a Singapore XI.
On returning to the UK, Crowley was loaned to Barnsley, where he worked under Johnson. But he returned to Arsenal before Christmas, either at the Gunners’ behest or because he wasn’t able to deal with League One football. There’s never been a clear answer.
The following summer would see the midfielder loaned out again to League One, this time to Oxford United. In his first 11 games he struck three goals but was dropped to the bench for a game against Shrewsbury Town and then left out the squad altogether the following week against Coventry City.
“There are a couple of issues I want to make sure are addressed in terms of what he does on and off the field,” U’s boss Micheal Appleton said in November, 2016. “He’s a 19-year-old lad who has fantastic ability, but his professionalism at times lets him down.”
The following month Crowley’s loan deal was ended by Oxford.
“When a team starts losing, the easy option is to drop the youngest in the team,” Crowley explained in an interview with the Daily Mail in 2017.
“That happens but I know I’ve been to blame as well. I’ve been in the wrong. I’ve had too much to say for myself and I was doing it in the wrong places. I know I can rub people up the wrong way.
“I’m not going to change my whole personality. It’s who I am. I still need to have my opinion heard. But it’s something I knew I had to change or I wouldn’t have a career. I’ve learned so much about myself.”
Crowley spent the second half of the 2016/17 campaign on loan at Go Ahead Eagles (main picture) in the Eredivisie. Away from English football he settled, making 16 appearances for the club and scoring twice. However, he couldn’t saved them from relegation.
Yet the youngster, who has represented England and Ireland at youth level, felt Dutch football suited him and so, despite having a year remaining on his deal at Arsenal, he left the club and signed with Willem II.
A career slowly kickstarted
His first season with the Tricolores started well, with Crowley in the side and featuring in the club’s first four Eredivisie matches of the season. But then he dropped out the starting XI and was regularly an unused substitute.
Not wanting to miss out on furthering his development he joined SC Cambuur, a Dutch second tier side, in January and was soon thriving in the starting XI.
Deployed as a No.10, or even in a deep midfield role, Crowley played 17 times for the club, scored four goals and registered eight assists. It was enough to prove to Willem II he was ready for first-team football.
“Coming to Holland was good for me and my career, I think I was too immature when I was on loan in England, you live and you learn,” he said in an interview with the Irish Independent.
“We get good crowds here, and I like playing in front of them, I flourish from playing in front of a big crowd. When I played under-23s football in England you have 50 people at the match so it’s nice to play in front of 11,000 at our home games.”
So far this term he has started all six of Willem’s Eredivisie games, in the No.10 role. He has two goals to his name but, as Football Whispers‘ persona radar below indicates, his game is based on fashioning chances for his team-mates.
His style hasn’t greatly changed. He is still at his most threatening with the ball at his feet – his dribbles per 90 of 3.25 is the second-highest in the Dutch top flight – but only four midfielders better his 41.82 accurate passes per 90, while he is tenth for forward passes per 90 (13.71).
Crowley has been given the keys to the Willem II side and he has, so far, taken on the increased responsibility; a further mark of his maturity.
“People forget sometimes that I am still young, I have just turned 21, so many players have different career paths,” he added in his interview with the Irish Independent.
“I am under contract here at Willem II until 2020 and I am enjoying it. I do want to come back to England at some stage, that was always the plan, but I am happy here.”
Crowley is certainly saying the right things – which hasn’t always been the case – and is proving himself at last. The Premier League may come but, after a difficult few seasons, the city of Tilburg is exactly where he should stay.