Football: New faces for 1999 - Johnson in with the right Crewe

A midfield dynamo from Dawlish is Dario Gradi's latest promising youngster.
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RARELY IS a disgraced and beaten player also the outstanding force for good in a match but Crewe Alexandra's visit to Sheffield United last autumn provided an exception. One youngster was so outstanding that Bramall Lane's stands took on the appearance of a swarm of butterflies as people flicked through the programme to find out who he was.

Seth Johnson was the name they were searching for and one that so interested the referee he took it down twice, dismissing the midfield player for two bookable offences. On that night he had been the victim of his own enthusiasm as he tried to match the physical Blades with force of his own. Nevertheless, the verve of his performance as he buccaneered around midfield rebuffing the red and white shirts was reminiscent of a young Bryan Robson.

It is a comparison that has struck a chord with other observers, too, and Liverpool, Newcastle United and Leicester City have made enquiries about the 19-year-old. Stockport County made a bid of pounds 1m in October, an offer scornfully dismissed from Gresty Road as Johnson made his England Under-21 debut two days later.

Not that Johnson's manager, Dario Gradi, could be accused of over-estimating the value of his charges. Crewe have to sell to survive but they will not let anyone go if they are not going to be in a Premiership first team. The club has to be ready and so has the player.

"He has to work hard just to keep his place in my team," Gradi said, dismissively, but then he added: "He has the potential to be as good as any of the players who have been here." As Gradi's former pupils include David Platt, Rob Jones and Neil Lennon, that is praise.

Johnson was first spotted by Gradi when Crewe were on a pre-season tour of Devon and Cornwall. A match with Dawlish Generals had been cancelled but when an 11-year-old, who had not heard the game was off, turned up he was allowed to train with the first team squad. Contact was maintained .

"I've taken teams to Dawlish since my time at Chelsea. I thought it would be nice if we allowed one of their boys to come up to Crewe for a week. I didn't expect much, but Seth proved better than we thought."

It was Johnson's enthusiasm that struck Gradi first, but there was more than mere eagerness to learn and he made his debut at 17, scored on his debut for England Under-18s (the winner in a 3-2 victory over Russia) and came on as a 72nd-minute substitute for the England Under-21s against Luxembourg last autumn. It is already an impressive CV.

Johnson has played in a variety of positions for Crewe and Gradi admits he is not sure where he will end up. "We try to develop the kids here as all-round footballers and not pigeon hole them. Seth has the ability to become a good midfield player but he's just starting."

And the next Robson? "Bryan is the best midfield player Britain has produced in my time," Gradi replied, "so it is not fair to make a comparison. Seth can create goals and stop goals but he doesn't score goals like Robson did when he was young. "

Once that ingredient is added Johnson will almost certainly be sold to keep Crewe afloat. "I haven't a clue when that will be," Gradi said. "but it won't be until he has gone up a level from where he is now. It's up to him to work hard."

The likelihood is the labour will be worth it.