Football: Hemmings makes inroads via pragmatic route: Phil Shaw reports from an outpost of sanity in the long-ball nightmare

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The Independent Online
A FORMER non-League ground, nestling between a designated area of natural beauty and an industrial estate, seemed an unfavourable setting for a contribution to the debate over British football's future.

But Adams Park, where Wycombe Wanderers closed on Crewe Alexandra in the promotion pecking order by beating them 3-1, is no ordinary Third Division venue. And despite their defeat, Crewe are no ordinary team, rather a model for those who reject the cynical view that long-ball brutalism is the best way to escape the basement section.

Nearly 6,200 fans, every one under cover in Wycombe's splendidly furbished home of three years, turned this quiet corner of Buckinghamshire into a crisis exclusion zone. They left purring over the opportunism of Tony Hemmings, who scored twice for Martin O'Neill's men, though not before applauding the losers' part in an entertaining contest.

Dario Gradi, the Crewe manager, was anxious that people did not draw the wrong conclusions. 'We got beaten because we were bad at the back, not because we played a passing game,' he said. 'If we didn't defend poorly we'd be miles ahead at the top.'

Gradi is one of the few in his profession to look beyond the pursuit of points to developing technique among local schoolboy players. 'There's no shortage of talent - our kids are born as good as the Italians,' he insisted. 'But there is too much 11-a-side football at an early age, that's for certain.'

Even someone with Premiership pedigree like Martyn Booty, his recent recruit from Coventry, was expected to work more on passing, Gradi said. He may, however, have been guilty of exaggeration in his depressing claim that Crewe were an isolated centre of enlightenment.

O'Neill, recalling a similar display by Shrewsbury at Wycombe, reported that the Vauxhall Conference champions had encountered a surprising variety of styles. Next Saturday, they face Crewe's antithesis, John Beck's table-topping Preston, on the Deepdale plastic.

The former Northern Ireland captain could also afford a wry smile at Gradi's dismissal of his side as 'the same as everybody else' in that they did not build from the back. Ironically, over-elaboration by Crewe led to the opening goal. Meanwhile in Steve Guppy, a wide midfielder with a winger's skills and wing-half's discipline, Wycombe had the game's best individual. He and Hemmings ensured that Keith Scott, now of Swindon, was hardly missed.

Two months ago, Hemmings was made redundant and trials with everyone from West Ham to Dundee had come to naught. Then O'Neill ventured pounds 25,000 to prise the pacy 26-year-old from Northwich - under Gradi's nose - and the outlay was finally vindicated by his first goals.

They did not follow flowing one-touch moves, as did Crewe's, but O'Neill believes purism should be tempered by pragmatism. 'However much you pass the ball around, you have to get it in the box eventually,' he argued. 'The great Brazilian side of the 70s were nice and pure when they were 2-0 up - but they had to get 2-0 up.'

Goals: T Evans (10) 1-0; Hemmings (19) 2-0; Rowbotham (20) 2-1; Hemmings (66) 3-1.

Wycombe Wanderers (4-4-2): Hyde; Cousins, T Evans, Crossley, Horton; Carroll, Hayrettin, Ryan, Guppy; Langford (Hutchinson, 80), Hemmings. Subtitutes not used: Creaser, Moussaddik (gk).

Crewe Alexandra (5-3-2): M Smith; Booty, Macauley (Hughes, 44), S Smith, S Evans, Gardiner; Collins (Tierney, 74), Lennon, Edwards; Naylor, Rowbotham. Substitute not used: Wilkinson (gk).

Referee: P Alcock (Redhill, Surrey).