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.
Where has it all gone wrong for Crewe Alexandra?
After four tumultuous years, two great escapes on the final day, Lady Luck finally deserted the Railwaymen and Crewe Alexandra suffered relegation from League One for the first time in seven years. Their season began, and ultimately ended, against local rivals Port Vale, with their doom sealed in a 3-0 drubbing at Vale Park with five games to spare.
So just where did it all go wrong for the Alex? Be it recruitment last summer, another slow start to their campaign, a key 3-2 defeat to Doncaster in December conceding twice in the final five minutes, injuries at key periods to utility man Brad Inman or selling star player Ryan Colclough to Wigan Athletic for in January, it has been obvious for some time that Crewe have been hovering over the trapdoor in recent seasons.
Throughout these campaigns a distinct lack of quality has been evident, and the absence of passion, fight and spirit in certain games including a 1-5 reverse at home to Peterborough will be most disappointing for Alex supporters, along with the constant theme of letting leads slip and conceding late goals. Their performance in bowing down 3-0 to their closest rivals to put the nail in the coffin will have done little more to inspire any optimism going forward. But for a club at which the sky appeared to be the limit in 2013, crowned Johnstone’s Paint Trophy champions at Wembley having won promotion back to the third tier the season prior via the playoffs, the post-mortem will inevitably begin as to how the situation at the club became so desperate so quickly.
This isn’t however rock bottom for a Crewe side that has tasted defeat in a staggering 77 of their last 150 games. But the club is in the eye of a storm, with little funds to supplement the first team and an increased reliability on its youngsters, but the stalling of its famed academy system with the lack of a six-figure sale for the past three years will also ring alarm bells within the Alex hierarchy. The South Cheshire outfit is in severe need of a lift from its recent state of malaise, with the club slipping into a negative “survival equals success” mindset. With momentum slowing and having lost sight of its winning mentality, getting the club back on course is proving difficult terrain to traverse.
However, it is a task current manager Steve Davis has successfully undertaken before. Despite ongoing fan protests against him, he has already stated that he has no desire to quit the Gresty Road hotseat despite an unwanted century of defeats as manager. The Alex were languishing in 18th place in League Two when he first took the reins from club idol Dario Gradi in 2011, before an unprecedented 16 match unbeaten run in the league led the club to the playoffs and eventual promotion under the Wembley arch. But the same quality and leadership in the squad back then, a squad that had talent but lacked in confidence and belief, is distinctly lacking this time round and it will take far more hard work if the Alex are to bounce back. Davis himself has acknowledged that this is a time for looking forward, rather than dwelling on successes of the past. Crewe haven’t achieved a top six finish in any division for the past 13 years, with only four other clubs in the country boasting worse-off records. Thus it is doubtful that the bookmakers will be tipping Crewe for an immediate return to the third tier.
Davis has already spoken of the scale of the task in hand in rebuilding the Alex, and even with a large contingency of players whose contracts are up in the next couple of months, the majority of what many supporters would assume to be Crewe’s starting eleven next season are already in-house, most having graduated from the academy. With little summer transfer activity on the cards, the biggest job will, therefore, be to lift a group of young players who look bereft of confidence having suffered endless setbacks in arguably the most disappointing spell at the club since Dario Gradi laid the foundations for his dynasty back in the 80s.
Relegation will have been a crushing blow for Crewe’s younger players, many of which are still finding their feet in the first-team and are forced into taking the setback of relegation to the basement tier of the Football League on the chin. Of course how can these players who have been at the club throughout their development as teenagers possibly comprehend what has happened at the club in the few months that their generation has been blooded into the first-team? It is a predicament that according to the manager has reduced some of his players to tears.
There are indeed more questions than answers at Gresty Road at this stage, but the one on most supporters’ lips is what exactly was the goal this season for Davis and his Crewe side? The message in pre-season was to endeavour for a better style of football on the pitch; the fabled “Crewe way” of dynamic passing football, whilst starting the season strongly, bringing through youngsters and more importantly, selling one for a hefty fee were always likely to be priorities. These supposed targets however were not remotely close to being met, bar arguably the sale of Ryan Colclough, the downside of which left the Alex with a real uphill battle to stay in League One; a mountain which ultimately they would not scale.
So just when did winning games and retaining their League One status come into the equation, if at all? Mid-season loan additions have pulled the Alex out of the fire in recent seasons, but this time around they simply didn’t arrive. With changes to the loan system ready to be implemented next season, the Alex will be unable to rely on borrowed help much longer. Davis’ optimism in keeping several loan players who have helped the club in the past has also been blighted by the board’s inability to stump up the required funds, leaving the manager without the necessary resources to build a team around a solid core of players that will enable the club to survive in the division, hence the absence of depth and experience that was so critical in properly integrating youngsters into the first team as well as in the club’s promotion back to the third tier four years ago.
Key loan players in keeping the team up in recent seasons such as forward Nicky Ajose, midfielder Chuks Aneke, experienced centre half Alan Tate, and left back Greg Leigh, were all deemed out of the Alex’s price range. Players whom Davis was keen to keep hold of. This lack of experience and know-how in the squad has been a contributing factor to the Alex’s tendency of throwing away leads in the closing minutes of key matches. The club also managed to shoot themselves in the foot in letting key defensive midfielder Anthony Grant leave in the summer, citing the player’s “negative influence in the dressing room” and the fact that he was one of the highest earners at the club, to justify his release with regards to not getting value for money. He would eventually cross the A500 to join local rivals Port Vale, where he won their Supporters’ Player of the Year award. How Crewe could have done with such a figure to take charge of their midfield this season.
The lack of arrivals throughout the summer and indeed the whole campaign hasn’t been helped by the sudden lack of productivity in the academy either. The last player to depart for a six-figure fee was Luke Murphy, who left for Leeds United for £1m in 2013. Ryan Colclough’s official transfer fee in his move to Wigan remains undisclosed, but it was the first time Crewe had sold a player for a fee since the sale of Murphy. Three years between such departures is certainly a worrying statistic for what has been an effective and revolutionary production line at a club which depends on flogging its youngsters to survive. This reliability has progressed to the extent that the first-team has somehow been allowed to play second fiddle to the academy system, with Dario Gradi’s post-relegation statement that the academy warrants far more importance than the club’s first-team, which will have done nothing to quell the fire of anger from the club’s supporters over the current state of affairs at the Alex.
However, one point of his is understandable. Unless the club’s youngsters are properly coached and educated, they will not develop and succeed in the first team. However he and the club’s hierarchy seem to neglect the fact that the success of the academy and the first team are tied together. Without a successful academy, due to the philosophy of the club, the first team equally cannot be successful and vice versa. With budget cuts to the first team, the talent line has also seemingly stalled; another reason as to why the club has recently struggled. Davis and his coaching staff must make astute decisions in the summer or the tendency of the club to proverbially wrap the academy system in cotton wool whilst neglecting to address the overall situation at Gresty Road, may lead the Alex down a dangerous road indeed.
With little funds being injected by the board, Steve Davis has far too often been the despondent spokesman for the club with his hands ultimately tied, trying desperately to drum up some optimism amongst the club’s supporters, something that must change in the lead up to next season to help instill some confidence into a club and a fanbase that has had very little to shout about since the start of its downward spiral after the Wembley highs of 2012 and 2013. Highs from which the club has dramatically crashed back to earth. The growing division within the club between the hierarchy and supporters must also be bridged, a division highlighted by an away following of just 549 Crewe fans to the fixture at Vale Park. The two clubs are 13 miles from each other.
With relegation from League One, the club has effectively lost its safety net and the dangers of slipping into the abyss of non-league football will now feel far more real. Hence the hard graft must start now to halt the worrying decline at Gresty Road. A further relegation would be unfathomable, if over 30 years’ worth of work building the club in the Gradi era were to culminate in such a shameful waste. Unthinkable as it may seem that this club may slip through the non-league trapdoor, a critical few months await in South Cheshire as the Railwaymen simply cannot afford another disastrous start to their fourth tier campaign, a recurring issue that has plagued the club in its last three seasons in League One.
So what hope is there for the Alex going forward? Solace can be taken from the fact that in a squad mainly comprised of academy players, there is promising talent, but a lack of experience, knowledge and understanding of the game. The only way however to instill confidence and experience into young players is to get them winning games, which will mean drawing a line under what has been a dismal campaign.
Of the current crop of youngsters, promise lies at the feet of players such as George Cooper, Callum Saunders, Charlie Kirk and Callum Ainley. Yet with the club’s capacity to retain key senior players such as Brad Inman, Zoumana Bakayogo and David Fox uncertain, the club has effectively tied its fate and its hopes for the future to a group of teenagers. These teenagers may or may not prove good enough, a seemingly great risk, though arguably this has been the Alex way throughout the Gradi years.
The club however quickly needs a youngster touted as a million pound player, to perform like one. The impact the likes of Dean Ashton, Nick Powell, Ashley Westwood, Luke Murphy and Max Clayton had in their outings for the Alex will be fondly remembered, along with the big money their eventual sales brought into the club. With the squad in desperate need of somebody in the dressing room to take charge and show the necessary character and leadership, now it is the turn of the club’s current crop of youngsters to step up and make the grade.
So what can the club do to get the conveyor belt moving again? In Gradi’s lauding of the academy’s importance, he also seemed to overlook the fact that the progress of the club’s academy players has stagnated. The likes of Powell, Westwood, Murphy, Clayton and Colclough all arguably earned their moves of their own accord, doing so through their own individual talent with little assistance from tactics or coaching. With the possible exception of Callum Ainley, the current Alex academy graduates do not fall into that category, with several having a greater reliance on coaching to help with their development. For one reason or another, they do not seem to be getting that at present.
So the prognosis is that the players, who hold the key to the future of the club, desperately need a sound manager with the nous on the touchline to guide them; a responsibility which will be left once more with Steve Davis who has so far failed to deliver. He talks a good game about recruitment, but only time will tell if his summer business will actually prove fruitful after three straight years of failure, even to the point of admitting he has been unable to get the best out of his players at times. His ability to remedy the situation will prove critical to the immediate future of Crewe Alexandra, but in doing so he must realise that the defensive philosophy he preaches, staying in games and attempting to nick a goal, requires a complete overhaul if the Alex are to navigate the tempest they find themselves in. With rumours that experienced striker Ryan Lowe may be returning to the club, he may already be making a step in the right direction. But if the words “relegation battle” are allowed to reverberate around Gresty Road again next season, he will surely then be on borrowed time having dodged the axe for so long already.
If League One was an overachievement at Crewe, then surely some hope must remain that with a summer of hard graft, the class of 2016/17 can deliver and the club can bounce back in the fourth tier to help the Alex and its disillusioned fanbase look forward to a more hopeful future. Any other outcome simply doesn’t warrant consideration. In the midst of this dark and difficult period for Cheshire’s only league club, only time will tell if there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Eptas88
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