Dario Gradi: Crewe is where the heart is for the great survivor

The League's longest-serving manager talks to Steve Morgan as he prepares to welcome Sir Alex Ferguson's United in the Carling Cup
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For those whose eyes are fixed on the Premiership firmament, events at the Alexandra Stadium tonight may be little more than a footnote. For statistics buffs, or the game's incurable romantics, Crewe Alexandra taking on Manchester United is football's equivalent of Halley's Comet.

The sides, just 35 miles but worlds apart, have met only four times in the League. The last encounter was in 1895 - when United were plain old Newton Heath. "I remember it well," laughs Crewe's manager, Dario Gradi, before adding, just in case there was any doubt, "even I wasn't here then."

Rather more significantly, the Carling Cup third-round meeting is the first time Gradi, the Football League's longest-serving manager at 21 years and five months, has crossed paths with the man second in the endurance stakes: Sir Alex Ferguson, nearly three-and-a half years behind in the queue for a gold watch.

If you needed any reminding of just how long it has been since Gradi - initially attracted to the job because "they were always stuck at the bottom of the League" - pitched up at Crewe, he took over four months before Neil Kinnock became leader of the Labour Party.

While Gradi and Ferguson's records during 39 cumulative years in charge of their respective clubs do not bear obvious comparison - four promotions sit modestly alongside eight Premiership titles - Gradi's achievements are no less impressive, especially given the scene at Gresty Road when he arrived. He had found the challenge he was after all right - and luckily a set of players desperate to change the club's image.

"I enjoyed it from day one," he recalls. "The players were terrific, so pleased someone was coming in and having a go. They hadn't got anywhere to train. Some of these guys were experienced pros who'd been in the lower leagues all their lives, and they really appreciated it.

"We ran down to the local school, climbed over the fence, played, climbed back, got in a minibus someone had sponsored for us and drove back to the ground."

Results picked up almost immediately, culminating in a half-way finish in his first season, from which he has rarely looked back. Twice in the frame for the technical director's job at the FA, you believe him when he says he has no regrets about staying put.

"I'd like to have done it, but don't think I'd have wanted to give up my job here. Even now, I don't think I'd get so much fun out of it - in fact, I know I wouldn't. The important thing at my age is not what I'm going to achieve, but how much fun I'm going to have."

Like Ferguson, Gradi is not afraid to give youth a chance and acutely understands the importance of loyalty, as well as possessing the paternal touch one might expect from a former teacher.

Astonishingly, only one player, Mark Rivers, has ever asked him for a transfer, and he rejoined the club in the close season. In his own world, Gradi is every inch Ferguson's equal - a man synonymous with his club, who has similarly revolutionised internal affairs. Consider Crewe's international alumni: David Platt, Danny Murphy, Neil Lennon, Robbie Savage, Rob Jones, Geoff Thomas and Seth Johnson. All thrived under Gradi's spell, honing their talents after being discarded by bigger clubs - Manchester United in Platt's case - poached from reserve sides, or discovered by Gradi himself. Johnson, a teenage prodigy found on a club tour in Devon, was sold five years later for £3m.

Of the current crop, striker Dean Ashton and David Vaughan, England and Wales Under-21 internationals respectively, are tipped for bigger things. Ashton's strike partner, the Northern Ireland international Steve Jones, signed from Leigh RMI for £75,000, was the subject of a failed bid from Derby last summer, and has since been linked with a move to Blackburn Rovers. Gradi warmly describes him as "closer to the Rooney type of player if you like, while Dean's more of a target man".

Made an MBE in 1998 and now 63, Gradi shows little sign of letting up, despite heart surgery in September 2003. The Alexandra Stadium - the old Gresty Road moniker has been supplanted - now holds 10,000 and is a neat, compact affair. Away from the numbers, Crewe's academy - one of the game's first - is a cottage industry. Gradi's enthusiasm for the game at grass roots is as keen as ever, recognised by April's PFA Merit Award.

"The exciting thing is being able to involve yourself right through the club. I was watching the seven, eights, nines and 10s last night, which I haven't done for a while. The first thing that struck me was how good the coaches were. Not just in terms of content, but movement too, a lot of ball work, not a lot of standing about. There's some terrific players there. So, let's see, if they're seven years old now, that's another 12 years... I'll be 75 by then."

That is the future. The more pressing concern is working out how to stop a Manchester United buoyant after conquering Arsenal. Gradi admits the game will be "a bit of a relief from the pressure of having to get points".

He added: "We're playing Manchester United in the cup. That's exciting - we're playing them at home, which is even more exciting because the place will be full and it'll be a terrific atmosphere, which is in stark contrast to my early days here."

Eight goals shipped against Wigan and Reading is hardly ideal preparation for what he acknowledges is the biggest game of his Crewe tenancy. But as he has tried to do for two decades plus, he will enjoy the game. United were beaten by Championship opposition in the shape of West Bromwich in last year's fourth round, and Ferguson's Carling Cup habit of keeping his powder dry gives Crewe a whiff of a chance.

"We're not bothering to try to spy on them, because we haven't got a clue what their team will be," he concludes.

Mind games, anyone?

Paupers and Princes: How Gradi and Ferguson compare

Dario Gradi

Born: 8 July 1941

Place of birth: Milan, Italy

Supported as a boy: Fulham

Appointed: June 1983

Playing career: One FA Cup appearance for non-league Sutton United against Leeds United in 1970.

Previous clubs managed: Crystal Palace (Feb 1981- Nov 1981); Wimbledon (Jan 1977 - Jan 1981).

Other Interests: Works 70 to 80 hours each week and rarely takes a day off, but likes to play golf and has his own tennis court at home.

Managerial record at Crewe Alexandra: P 1098, W 422, L 412, D 264.

Winning percentage: 39

Honours with Crewe: Won promotion four times, twice from old Fourth Division and twice from old Third.

Most spent on a player: £650,000 for Rodney Jack from Torquay United in July 1998.

Personal achievements: Received MBE in 1998 for services to football.

Became the first manager in English leagues to complete 1000 games in charge.

Alex Ferguson

Born: 31 December 1941

Place of birth: Govan, Scotland.

Supported as a boy: Rangers

Appointed: November 1986

Playing career: Queen's Park; St Johnstone; Dunfermline; Rangers; Falkirk; Ayr.

Previous clubs managed: St Mirren (Aug 1975 - June 1978); Aberdeen (Aug 1978 - May 1986)

Other Interests: Owns numerous racehorses. Enjoys wine, food and music.

Managerial record at Manchester United: P 922, W 558, L 187, D 247.

Winning percentage: 56

Honours with United : Eight Premier League titles; Five FA Cup wins; Champions' League winners 1999; League Cup 1992; European Cup Winners' Cup 1991.

Most spent on a player: £30m for Rio Ferdinand from Leeds in July 2002.

Personal achievements: Received a knighthood in June 1999.