The Monday Profile: Dario Gradi
Geoff Thomas, Seth Johnson, Neil Lennon, Luke Varney and David Vaughan are others who emerged from Gresty Road – indeed, in Ian Ridley’s recently published book, There’s a Golden Sky, Alex’s joint academy director James Collins claims you can tell by watching Vaughan that “he is one of our players. He does certain things on the ball.” As the near personification of Crewe Alexandra Football Club, Gradi creates that mould.
When an FA Cup tie between Chelsea and Burnley was postponed in Febryary 1978, my Dad and I decided to tarry in west London and make our way to Griffin Park for a Division 4 fixture between Brentford and Crewe. The Bees won 5-1 and it’s hard to overstate just how much the Cheshire club epitomised the word “unfashionable” in those days. Between 1894 and 1982, Alex finished last of the 92 clubs on 8 occasions – more than any other – and they applied for re-election more times than Vladimir Putin.
All that changed when Gradi took over in 1983. The Milan born gaffer led Crewe to the second level of English football three times between 1994 and 2003 – an extraordinary achievement for a club of their size but full vindication of the policy to nurture assets before chasing in and building again. The youth system at Gresty Road was developed far more keenly than at clubs of similar size and the ball was kept on the floor amid an atmosphere advocating an appealing football philosophy.
Gradi himself seemed to thrive against a backcloth of slow progress. It’s often forgotten that he started his managerial career as an assistant at Chelsea during one of their most storied periods, as well as enjoying top flight stewardship with Crystal Palace, albeit ending in relegation. He also took the old Wimbledon up and out of Division 4 and led Surrey non-league duo Sutton United and Tooting & Mitcham.
But it was up north that he was to really make this name and if a contract that reputedly allows him to take a cut of any sell on fee was highlighted by David Conn in The Beautiful Game?, it would be churlish to deny his positive influence. After stepping upstairs to the role of Technical Director in 2007, Steve Holland and Guðjón Þórðarson failed to set the blue touch paper on fire and the old timer was to return.
Continuity was quickly re-established and youngsters such as Nick Powell and Max Clayton are England under-17 regulars, even if Matt Lund and Ben Marshall were allowed to leave for local rivals Stoke for £110,000 – the latter has gone on to etch up over 80 league appearances on loan, many of them with Carlisle, although he now resides at Sheffield Wednesday.
But defender Carl Martin’s comments after the recent 3-1 loss against Aldershot set off some alarm bells and these became louder after Saturday’s 3-0 thumping by Torquay, with some fans voicing the unthinkable – that the septuagenarian manager should step down. Indeed, the result leaves Crewe in a precarious position just above the relegation zone and without a league win in their own building since September 10.
Gradi has said he has no intention of quitting and the Alex faithful should remember the lesson learned by Port Vale when a minority of their fans inexplicably felt they had had enough of John Rudge in 1999. Since leaving, he has enjoyed unparalleled success across the Potteries at Stoke. The new crop of academy graduates are still green and they – and Gradi – deserve another chance to build a new Crewe – whether EPPP will allow that cycle of excellence to continue is doubtful however.