Fan's eye view: Back on the right tracks

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The Independent Online
WHEN Crewe Alexandra met York City at Bootham Crescent on the opening day of the season it meant more to us Alex fans than simply a clash of two once-great railway towns.

At the end of the 1992-93 season, the headline writers told of Crewe going off the track at Wembley when they lost to York on penalties in the Third Division play-off final. Having conquered Chester, their old Cheshire rivals, in the final match of last season, this time Crewe's meeting with York meant they ere back in the Second Division with the one-touch, close-passing style that has brought a lot of admirers but no trophies over the years.

The cognoscenti know all about babes in arms doing tricks with the ball that would make Gazza yearn to be fit again. At Gresty Road, Bruce Grobbelaar was the goalkeeper who converted - rather than feared - the penalty kick, David Platt established himself on the road to fame and fortune and Rob Jones was years ahead of his time. Even Peter Robinson, Liverpool's chief executive, was once Crewe's secretary.

Liverpool might even have snapped up our manager, Dario Gradi, the Houdini of the lower reaches and beloved by the local bank manager for his ability to liquidate seemingly prime assets, if he could have proved an Anfield pedigree. He may be only the second longest-serving manager but he's certainly the most revered.

It didn't used to be fancy shirts and sponsors' logos. Nor could you watch in comfort at Gresty Road, where railway sleepers served as terracing and much of the action could be lost in the smoke of a passing train. In those days, those who deigned to stand in the Paddock were among the few supporters able to leave the game without having to despatch all their clothes to the dolly-tub after 90 minutes at the Railway End.

I was one of the 20,000 who saw Crewe hold Spurs only to suffer the ignominy, via the wonders of wireless, when the aristocrats exacted their 13-goal revenge. In those days, even non-Leaguers like South Shields could put five past the Alex.

I don't suppose Jimmy McGill's Scottish invective was ever politically correct, but Clive Colbridge had the slippery skills of Ryan Giggs down the left flank - no shades, coiffure or glossy mags, at least not beyond the Soccer Star, but he still had plenty of cred in Crewe streets.

There were so many long, and mostly fruitless, days on half-filled trains to those forgotten outposts of the Football League - Southport, Gateshead, Barrow, Workington and Bradford Park Avenue. Accrington Stanley played their last-ever League game under the cruel night snow of Gresty Road, conceding four goals before slipping under the accountant's final column. With southern upstarts like Wycombe Wanderers snapping at Crewe's achilles heels, it is good to know that all of those clubs have re-emerged, albeit as lesser northern lights.

A 3-1 defeat at Elland Road wasn't a bad result in the FA Cup last season, especially as it was 1-1 for part of the game. The likes of Aston Villa, West Ham, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest have all been tested in recent times and, when the youth policy has not worked, Crewe have even been able to indulge in the rare luxury of paying transfer fees.

Perhaps the 2-1 defeat of York was not as good a start as the seven that went past Barnet three seasons ago, but it was sufficient to exact revenge on the Yorkshiremen. Fifty years ago it might have read 'LMS derails LNER'.