On April 27th 2013, Crewe Alexandra made what manager Steve Davis called “a little piece of history”. It was an event nearly unheard of in modern football, and the culmination of 30 years of hard work for one man, Crewe Alex named a starting eleven entirely made up of players produced by their very own, fantastic academy. It is an academy that has been fundamental in Crewe’s defiance of the odds over the years, and is the only one of its kind outside of the Premier League and Championship to be graded a Category Two academy. Steve Davis, himself a former Crewe player was the manager for that historic match against Walsall, but it his Davis’ former manager and current Director of Football Dario Gradi who must take the plaudits.
Having begun coaching at Chelsea aged just 29 years old; Gradi joined Crewe in 1983, his third management position, and the start of a love affair that has lasted until this day. Prior Gradi’s appointment, Crewe were “perpetually propping up the bottom of the Fourth Division”, finishing last in the Football League a record eight times. This was all to change however. Trust in Gradi eventually put an end to 25 years in the league’s basement division, with promotion won in the 1988/89 season. Despite occasional setbacks, under Gradi Crewe continued to overachieve, eventually reaching Division One in 1997.
With an average attendance akin to a League Two club and a maximum capacity of just 10,000, Crewe still managed to defy their low income and stature to remain in Division One until 2002. Able to bounce back in the 2003/2004 season, Crewe would eventually be relegated from the Championship in 2006. Despite this, their time in Division One remains a remarkable achievement made even better considering the style of football employed. Slick passing and superb technical play is an ethos that has been engrained in Crewe during Gradi’s association with the club, and is a big contributor to what makes their academy so impressive.
This spell, the best in the club’s history was built upon Gradi’s devotion to technical football and youth. Not only were Crewe able to punch above their weight in style, they did it with home grown players. The likes of David Platt, Robbie Savage and Neil Lennon all made their names at Crewe, but more impressive are the likes of Danny Murphy, Seth Johnson and Dean Ashton who all came up through the academy. The quality of the players coming through, and the fees raised through their sales, is what allowed Crewe to play at such a high level, for so long, with such a low income.
Inevitably, once Dario Gradi stepped back from managing the first team to focus on the academy in 2007, Crewe suffered a slide, eventually finding themselves back in League Two, with Gradi twice having to step in and steady the ship. However, under Steven Davis, Crewe have been back on track in the past couple of seasons, earning promotion to League One via the playoffs in 2012 and winning the Football League Trophy in 2013. All the while, Dario Gradi’s academy continues to churn out players, with Ashley Westwood, Nick Powell and Luke Murphy all now shining for teams in the Premier League or Championship.
The sales of these players keeps Crewe going, and whilst of course the loss of such quality has its effect, with Crewe fighting for League One survival currently, what Alex fans can always rely on is new blood stepping up. Matt Tootle has been the best of the current crop, but it looks to be Max Clayton next out of the door. The young attacker looks unlikely to renew his contract, and despite not having had the most prolific of seasons, his undoubted potential is sure to have a number of suitors jockeying for his signature.