Crewe learn a few harsh truths

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Crewe Alexandra 2 West Bromwich Albion 3

The smiles belonged to Ray Harford, the latest manager charged with restoring West Brom's dimly recalled past glory, and Lee Hughes, whose two late goals swung the game. But there was even the hint of one on Dario Gradi's lips, that of a coach watching a theory proved.

"I've had suspicions about our defence for some time," he said. "Our midfield has been so good it has disguised the other problems elsewhere. The fact is that our defence is not good enough. You've seen it here: we've never been under siege but we've conceded three goals. You make mistakes at this level and you are punished. My under-14s would have defended the last goal better."

The level, of course, is new to Crewe. Perennial stalwarts of the lower divisions, Gradi's youthful side crept into the uncharted territory of the First Division through the play-offs. They look uncomfortable there so far, perhaps unnerved by the intensity of competition.

It poses a dilemma for Gradi, renowned master of football's foremost finishing school. Principles dictate that he continues his grooming of bright-eyed young men yet even Gresty Road's educated audience will not accept failure lightly.

Strength and experience keep strikers of Andy Hunt's calibre at bay, qualities that the likes of Ashley Westwood, Crewe's 20-year-old centre- back, will have to wait a while to acquire. Not that defenders of the necessary standard are easily found. Gradi signed John Pemberton from Leeds, a player with Premiership pedigree, only to discover during a Coca- Cola Cup defeat against Bury last week that howlers are not the preserve merely of greenhorns.

Even so, there were things to admire in Crewe's game as Gresty Road witnessed its opening First Division fixture. Kenny Lunt, a 17-year-old summoned with team-mate Seth Johnson into England's under-18 squad last week, brought composure beyond his years to the midfield once dominated by Neil Lennon, Danny Murphy and Robbie Savage, the latest of Gradi's Premiership graduates.

Dele Adebola, his 22-year-old centre-forward, ploughed a lone furrow with tireless effort even in draining heat, and Mark Rivers, a 21-year- old who might also go on to greater things, worked a splendid goal with the help of Steve Garvey's precise return pass.

But it was another 21-year-old who stole the show. Lee Hughes, a prolific goalscorer with Kidderminster in the GM Vauxhall Conference, joined West Brom for pounds 200,000 in the summer to fulfil a lifetime's dream as a dyed-in-the-wool Baggie. He celebrated like one, too, as Crewe's defence collapsed in the last five minutes, allowing him twice to shoot past Jason Kearton with an ease that left them shamefaced.

Hughes thus gave Harford six points from two matches to reflect a summer of calculated squad building at The Hawthorns, where every senior player now has an understudy waiting to fill his shoes at the first hint of failing form. West Brom may yet mount a promotion challenge, even in the company of more fancied rivals. Crewe, on the other hand, will need to learn quickly, one suspects, even to stand still.

Goals: Hunt (25 pen) 0-1; Adebola (35) 1-1; Rivers (63) 2-1; Hughes (85) 2-2; Hughes (90) 2-3.

Crewe Alexandra (5-2-2-1): Kearton; Unsworth, Westwood, Lightfoot, Smith, Johnson; Lunt, Charnock; Garvey, Rivers; Adebola. Substitutes not used: Pope, Moralee, Street.

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Miller; Holmes, Mardon, Murphy, Nicholson; Flynn (Smith, 82), Sneekes (Hamilton, 65), Butler, Kilbane; Peschisolido (Hughes, 57), Hunt.

Referee: A Leake (Darwen). Bookings: Crewe Westwood; Albion Flynn, Butler, Kilbane.

Man of the match: Hughes. Attendance: 5,234.