When you are replacing a legend as manager – a man who was in charge of your club for 1,404 matches and whose protégés included six players who went on to win England caps – the first thing you hope for is a good start. Spare a thought, therefore, for Steve Davis, who took charge of Crewe Alexandra for the first time on Saturday after Dario Gradi's sideways move to concentrate on the Staffordshire club's academy.
Davis's debut was an FA Cup first-round tie at home to Colchester United. With Byron Moore giving Crewe an early lead, everything was going smoothly until Ashley Westwood, the home captain, was sent off after making a rash tackle. Lloyd James' equaliser on the hour opened the floodgates, Colchester eventually winning 4-1.
While Gradi's latter days as manager were not his finest – he was booed by some fans after the previous weekend's 3-0 defeat at home to Torquay had left the club six places off the bottom of League Two – his retreat from the front line has as much to do with Crewe's need to keep producing football talent. Incoming transfer fees have been crucial to Crewe's well-being over the years, but the impending introduction of the Elite Players Performance Plan, to which Football League representatives agreed to sign up last month, will be a challenge to all clubs.
Under an overhaul of the academy system, Premier League clubs should find it easier to recruit young players. For the first time clubs will be able to sign Under-16s who live more than 90 minutes away, while the tribunal system for deciding transfer fees will be scrapped. It will be replaced by a scale of fees according to how long players have spent at their club. Fees will be substantially lower than those set by tribunals.
"It was always the long-term plan for me to return to the academy and with the introduction of the new rules, the time is now right," Gradi, 70, told Crewe's official website. "I will enjoy the challenge in the academy. I will not be running it as such, but will be there to offer assistance to the coaches to make sure we continue to produce good, technical players for our first team and sell on."
Gradi has spent a professional lifetime turning promising youngsters into fully fledged professionals. He never played at League level but made his name as manager of Wimbledon, went to Crystal Palace and moved in 1983 to Crewe, who had just been forced to seek re-election to the Football League for the fourth time in five seasons. He was manager until 2007, after which he had two years as technical director before returning to the dugout for a final two-year spell.
In 1997 Gradi took Crewe into what is now the Championship for the first time in their history. They stayed there, punching well above their weight, for five years. Even when they were relegated they bounced back 12 months later, holding on to their place for another three seasons.
Perhaps the greater achievement, however, has been Gradi's ability to identify and realise potential. David Platt, Danny Murphy, Geoff Thomas, Rob Jones, Dean Ashton and Seth Johnson all came through the Crewe system and went on to win England caps, while Robbie Savage and David Vaughan represented Wales and Neil Lennon played for Northern Ireland.
Most came through Crewe's youth set-up – which was so successful that in 1998 they became one of the initial 24 clubs awarded academy status – but Gradi also has an eye for players who slip through the net at bigger clubs. Platt and Savage both joined from Manchester United.
Platt moved on to Aston Villa for £200,000 in 1988 and in future years the club's transfer record was repeatedly broken. Lennon was sold to Leicester City for £750,000 in 1996, Murphy to Liverpool for £1.5m in 1997, Johnson to Derby County for £3m in 1999 and Ashton to Norwich City for £3m in 2005.
Other current professionals who owe so much to Gradi include Rob Hulse (QPR), Dele Adebola (Hull City), Luke Varney (Portsmouth), Nicky Maynard (Bristol City) and Derby County's James Bailey and John Brayford. With Gradi now focusing on youth, Crewe will be hoping they will not be the last.
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