Gradi still keen to see youth make the grade
Cheshire could be termed the forgotten county in football terms. Both of its League clubs, Crewe Alexandra and Macclesfield Town, lie in the unattractive reaches of League Two, keen to avoid a replication of the struggles suffered by their stricken neighbour Chester City. Draped in footballing glory? Not quite.
But there has always been something quite admirable about one of these clubs. Or someone to be more precise.
Mention Crewe Alexandra to most casual observers and you will probably get little more than a blank face and a shrug of disinterest. To those who do take an interest, however, one man will spring to mind.
Step forward Dario Gradi, who in 2007 became English League Football’s longest serving manager. Sir Alex Ferguson is set to steal that mantle soon enough, but in the trigger-happy world of the lower leagues, Gradi will not be beaten.
When the Milan-born Gradi arrived at Crewe back in 1983, the Railwaymen were languishing in deep trouble at the foot of the Football League. The club had re-applied for league membership on several occasions to avoid the dreaded drop, each time succeeding by the skin of their teeth.
It had been a dismal quarter-of-a-century before Gradi came along, Crewe eventually gaining promotion to Division Two before lifting themselves to the second tier after a brief spell back in the basement. One step back, two steps forward and all that.
During the mid-1980s, Gradi even entered negotiations for the vacant managerial post at Portuguese giants Benfica, a testament to the unique managerial style he crafted at the Alex.
But just how could a man known only for his then-modest work in the Football League get close to such heights?
Well, just ask Geoff Thomas, Danny Murphy, David Platt, Dean Ashton, Robbie Savage and Neil Lennon. Throw in Seth Johnson, David Vaughan and Nicky Maynard for good measure and you have a handsome set of footballing talent on your hands.
All have passed through the youth ranks at Crewe in the last twelve years before forging impressive careers of their own elsewhere at bigger clubs.
Crewe has essentially become a football academy for potential stars to spread their wings and fly. Countless top players have developed under the intelligent stewardship of Gradi and profited through subsequent achievements at a higher level — and this is certainly no fluke.
Crewe have indeed gained recognition from the FA as an official Youth Academy as a result of the 69-year-old’s work at Gresty Road and are subsequently one of the only Football League clubs making profit as a result of their youth success.
Look through the Crewe Alexandra squad today and, unsurprisingly, Gradi’s work shines through. For example, the side which demolished Accrington Stanley 5-1 last season possessed an average age of 22.
This summer has so far seen the arrival of 27-year-old midfielder Lee Bell and 32-year-old goalkeeper Steve Phillips, but the latter will have competition from Rhys Taylor, who has joined The Alex on a two-month loan deal from the Premier League champions Chelsea. Meanwhile, fellow goalkeeper Adam Legzdins has moved on to League Two rivals Burton Albion.
Dario Gradi won’t be at Crewe forever. His time spent associated with the club currently stands a few years shy of 30 — although not all of it has been spent as manager. During a brief spell of just over two years between 2007 and 2009, control of the club was handed over to relieve the ageing Gradi of some of his duties, with the man himself moving to a role upstairs.
Things didn’t go well without him. First team coach Steve Holland oversaw a narrow escape from relegation to League Two in the first year without Gradi, before Gudjon Thordasson finally did take Crewe down the year after. Both went without a whimper and Gradi regained control, albeit as caretaker manager, a position which he has occupied since last October.
The revolving door of youth at Crewe Alexandra may or may not continue without the 69-year-old at the helm. But it is safe to say that Gradi will leave an untouchable legacy at Gresty Road, a place where he is simply idolised by all.
More recently, two more young prospects – John Brayford and James Bailey – moved on to Championship side Derby County at the tail end of last season, netting the club a potential £1 million in the process.
But perhaps the most significant deal of the summer so far for Gradi’s side has been the capture of non-league star Antoni Sarcevic from Woodley Sports, who signed for the Railwaymen despite interest from Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn.
Many young players still feel their best chance of development is to move to Crewe.
Well, they aren’t there for the trainspotting, are they?
Written by: Joe Brewin