In one of his earliest matches on being elevated to manager, 19 years ago this month, Gradi was thankful for a 0-0 draw at Crewe Alexandra before 1,800 souls. The height of the Dons' ambition then was to escape the re- election zone in their first season after graduating from the Southern League. On Saturday, when a full house assembles to see the fixture recreated in the third round of the FA Cup, victory for Gradi's Crewe side would rank as a major giant-killing feat.
For Gradi, now remarkably in his 14th year at Gresty Road and newly contracted until 2007, the chance to pit his principles and prodigies against top- flight opposition who just happen to be his former employers makes it the perfect tie. His only regret that Sam Hammam, the Wimbledon owner, will not be present as Crewe set out to prove that other small fry have also made substantial waves.
"I rang Sam as soon as I heard the draw and he told me he wouldn't be able to come because he'd booked a skiing holiday," Gradi said. "He couldn't cancel it because he's got family coming from all over the world. I said: `Right, I'm coming with you because I want to see your face when we humiliate you!'"
The friendship dates back to the late 1970s when Hammam, a Lebanese businessman with interests in London, joined the Wimbledon board. "Sam got bitten by the football bug," Gradi recalled. Whenever he came over from Saudi we took him with us to matches. We had to explain the offside rule to him several times, but he had this terrific enthusiasm."
Gradi was already established as manager, having been promoted by Ron Noades, who was chairman in SW19 before moving over to Crystal Palace. Though he plays down his role, the former England amateur international laid the foundations for Wimbledon's extraordinary rise to become championship challengers.
For it was during his reign that Dave Bassett, who eventually led them into the former First Division, was elevated from the playing ranks to be assistant manager. "I don't claim the credit for that," Gradi said. "Ron Noades always recognised Dave's ability. I came to see that it would be a good appointment and it worked very well."
The "Crazy Gang" mentality was a reflection of Bassett's personality. Hammam, understanding its value in terms of team spirit, carried it on. "It's not my way," Gradi said, "though I don't knock it because it has worked for them."
Yet it was Gradi who effectively launched the gang show by blooding Wally Downes at 17, recruiting Alan Cork from Derby reserves and signing Dave Beasant from Edgware. "He trained with us for a week and he was poor. But Dave Bassett had a feeling for him so we played him in the reserves at Brighton, and I got Mike Kelly, the goalkeeping coach, to go and stand behind the goal. He came back and said `I'd sign him'. So we did, for pounds 750 plus a set of strip."
Gradi's task was to turn a bunch of rough diamonds into a "proper" League team. "It was an exciting time because we were able to build a new club. They'd gone in thinking they could succeed as part-timers, but they couldn't. We had people turning up for training at all hours and I couldn't say anything to them because they had their jobs to think about.
"The good ones went full-time and we stuck with one semi-pro, Dave Donaldson. He was an air-traffic controller at Heathrow, aged about 36, and he just used to ask when and where we were playing and say: `See you there.'"
Long before Beasant made history, saving a penalty and lifting the Cup itself as captain in 1988, Gradi had become history at Wimbledon. Following a brief reunion with Noades at Palace, he began his long affair with Crewe.
He is possibly unique in having been "not at all surprised" about either the shock Wimbledon gave Liverpool at Wembley or the way they continue to mock predictions of their demise. "I said at the time that they'd win the Cup with a set-play, and they did. As for being a force in the Premiership, I don't have to pinch myself because when I was manager and Sam joined the board, we drew up a five-year plan to get to that level.
"I really did see it developing because we had such a good youth scheme. I've also been a party to it behind the scenes through my association with Sam. We used to discuss Wimbledon's woes on the phone, but now he has the experience to handle them himself. We still talk - mostly about Crewe's problems - though I usually have to spell out my name when I ring their switchboard."
The clubs have yet to do transfer business. As Gradi points out, his players, schooled in a passing game, are not ideal for the muscular directness Wimbledon have tended to favour. "Although," he added, "when I told Sam that we'd got a big coloured boy here, a striker who was 6ft 4in and 15st, he said straight away: `I'll take him. A million'."
Dele Adebola is still at Crewe, along with other targets for the big clubs such as Gareth Whalley, the captain, and Danny Murphy, an England Under-19 international. After selling Wayne Collins to Sheffield Wednesday and Neil Lennon to Leicester - the latest in a line of home-produced gems that have included David Platt and Rob Jones - Gradi again has a stylish side pushing for First Division status.
Could they, in time, emulate Wimbledon? "I don't think so. There aren't many Sam Hammams about. He's had to underwrite it almost single-handedly, and he's not that rich a man that he can gamble all his family's money. We're the opposite of that, a very democratic club where we all sit round a table and the majority wins, but no one here has a lot of money.
"There is a similarity between us in that they've got the problem we've got: not being able to balance the books, though having said that we don't owe anyone anything at the moment. It's very difficult for Wimbledon to keep competing against clubs like Manchester United or Arsenal who are awash with cash. The only way they can break even is by selling players - exactly like us."
For that reason, as well as for old time's sake, Gradi derives great satisfaction from seeing Wimbledon thriving "from a football point of view, if not commercially". The revenue from satellite television and sponsorship have created the possibility, he fears, of the rich becoming so rich that "no one can stand up to them".
Whatever the reality of their financial situation, Wimbledon will be forced into the unfamiliar role of members of a wealthy elite on Saturday. Their prospects of progress may depend, ironically, on how successfully they summon the spirit which Dario Gradi helped to foster in those far- off days at Plough Lane.Reuse content