Football / FA Cup Fourth Round: Whalley looks genuine article: Crewe go off the rails

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The Independent Online
Crewe Alexandra. . .0

Blackburn Rovers . .3

IN THE END it was a game of two halves - Blackburn's blue and white variety - but for those not on the march with Kenny's army, the memory will be of a 19-year-old Crewe midfielder destined for plusher quarters than Gresty Road.

Gareth Whalley warmed a slate-grey afternoon, displaying portentous assurance and skill against what is in theory England's fourth-best side. Dario Gradi, the Crewe manager, admits that the player he first took under his wing at the age of 11 is not yet ready to follow David Platt, Geoff Thomas, Rob Jones and Craig Hignett to higher things, though it can only be a matter of time.

'Whalley is what I call a proper player,' Gradi enthused, as if forgetting that his weakened Third Division team had ultimately been overrun. 'He's not a striker or a sweeper or anything, but I can play him wherever I've got problems. Whether it's right-wing, left-back or central midfield, he's always got time on the ball.'

So would Crewe eventually lose Whalley? 'I hope so,' said Gradi, who has designs on a full-size plastic practice pitch such a deal might finance. However, the pounds 500,000 Middlesbrough paid for Hignett means he is under no pressure to sell. Besides, he added, it suited both player and club for him to turn out for Crewe rather than in someone's reserves.

'I could have sold Rob Jones to Nottingham Forest long before he went to Liverpool, but they said he'd have to start in the second team,' Gradi recalled. 'When Graeme Souness came in for him I asked what he had in mind and he told me Jones would be going straight in against Manchester United on the Sunday, which he did.'

Physically, Whalley is not unlike Gary Speed or Ryan Giggs, though he has yet to develop the strength and goal sense of one and will never possess the pace of the other. He actually left Crewe once because a youth coach thought him too slow. But one man's slowness is another's composure, and he was constantly making room in which to play, placing the pass of the match inside the full-back to Rob Edwards, whose return to Whalley in front of goal was blocked.

More often, the hosts were elaborate to a fault, while Dalglish's men were directness itself. While neither Roy Wegerle nor Mike Newell is an Alan Shearer, each has the ability to receive, turn and run at defenders, which Crewe rarely encounter. Wegerle struck early, although only in the final 11 minutes, with Gradi gambling on an extra attacker, did Newell and Kevin Moran ensure a more realistic scoreline.

The main difference, though, was not one of technique or finishing. Player for player Blackburn looked fitter and faster, but above all, bigger and stronger; the dominant traits of the 'whole new ball game'. With Shearer restored, at least one of the three major trophies is within their capabilities. Meanwhile, the test awaiting the likes of Whalley may now be one of coping with the sheer physicality of the Premier League.

Goals: Wegerle (9) 0-1; Newell (79) 0-2; Moran (85) 0-3.

Crewe Alexandra: Greygoose; Annan, Smith (Duffield, 64), Wilson, Macauley, Hughes, Harvey, Whalley, Clarkson (Evans, 64), Gardiner, Edwards.

Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; May, Wright (Atkins, 33), Sherwood, Hendry, Moran, Ripley, Cowans, Wegerle, Newell, Wilcox. Substitute not used: Andersson.

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

(Photograph omitted)