"I started when I was about 15," he said, after helping to carry in the team kit to their overnight hotel in Shepperton before Crewe Alexandra's game at Queen's Park Rangers yesterday. "Even before then I had always had this interest in coaching teams, and not just football. I went to an all-boys grammar school and was a house captain and coached all the teams. Basketball, tennis, cricket, athletics, the lot. I have always enjoyed having a say in what people should be doing and my greatest asset as a player was a desire to organise the people around me."
Having played the sport which you plan to coach is essential, according to the Crewe manager, now in his 16th year with the club, the longest- serving manager in the land. "But you can't suddenly finish playing football and say 'OK, I'll be a coach now', which a lot of people do. I don't think that works, though there are those who have done it.
"That's not my conception of the job. It's the same as anything else, if you are going to be really good you have to have an aptitude for it, though if you have exposure to the right things and are intelligent you can learn enough, so you can be manufactured."
Gradi cites Kevin Keegan as a prime example of the manufactured coach. "He has played at the highest level, so he has had the exposure. Added to his aptitude, that gives him the greatest chance of being a good coach. I haven't had that same exposure but I have the right to think I've got the aptitude and have also been exposed to some good coaches along the way, like Dave Sexton. And there was also the benefit of starting at an earlier age."
Gradi, born in Milan of an Italian father and English mother, played for England as an amateur and for Sutton United but was never a marquee name professionally. "Having played the game yourself enables you to understand how a footballer thinks. But there are some people, and I won't name them, who have done very well without even playing at the level I did."
Gradi managed Wimbledon when they first got into the Football League and went on for spells with Crystal Palace, Chelsea, Derby, Bristol Rovers and Leyton Orient before settling at Crewe in 1983, the year Margaret Thatcher started her second term of office. It is a spell which saw him appointed MBE this year for "services to football".
Those services, he feels, are in a way of life that is fast disappearing - the manager who runs everything. "These days the manager has to be a coach, with the club being run by a businessman, a chief executive, which is the way it has been on the Continent for years.
"Alex Ferguson has said that his like will not be seen again, in that he knows everything that happens at Manchester United, from top to bottom of the club. So he is in the same mould as me, but obviously on a higher level, an old-time manager who can coach, and who is aware of how his 16-year-old and under-14 boys are doing. But the job is now so demanding that people aren't able to do that.
"Ferguson's strength, like mine, is stability. Our staffs have stayed and that has enabled his schemes to flourish and the kids to develop and prosper. If the manager leaves and takes his staff with him or if a new man comes in and changes all the staff, then I don't think anybody can ever build anything satisfactory."
While Ferguson has watched the likes of Beckham, Scholes and Butt develop into first-team regulars, Gradi has seen such as David Platt, Geoff Thomas, Rob Jones, Mike Newell, Neil Lennon, Craig Hignett and Ashley Ward come through and then be sold on to finance the survival of Crewe. But, he insists, there are more where they came from.
"We have youth schemes at Crewe from the age of eight. I don't take the eight, nine, 10 or 11-year-olds but I have a lot to do with the 12s, I take that team on a Sunday. My main job is trying to develop a team that wins, but with the 12 to 18-year-olds I am trying to produce players. We have a belief in this country that 12-year-olds should be allowed to go out and express themselves. What that means is that they learn to make really poor decisions and that becomes a habit.
"The beauty of my Sunday work is that I can say to a kid 'Hold the ball, show me some skill, take your time.' On Saturdays I don't have that freedom, I've got to try to win the game."
Crewe are at present struggling at the foot of the First Division and Gradi is frequently asked if he might have to sacrifice his ideals to survive. "I tell people I would do whatever is necessary to win but with the players I have and the road we have taken, the only way is to improve our skills. The alternative is to get big guys in and lump it up the field, but then I'd have to change my whole attitude - what I am coaching the kids for."Reuse content