Powell heads Crewe's next generation
Gillingham 3 Crewe 4
Nick Powell collected a loose ball about 35 yards from goal, turned away from a challenge, looked up, then with barely a hint of backlift, arrowed a stunning drive inside the top far corner of the Gillingham goal. In the Medway Stand two rows of scouts bowed their heads and began scribbling furiously.
Powell was not the only youngster these sharp-eyed men had come to a League Two match in north Kent to assess, but none can have impressed them more. In a match so dominated by youth it should have been sponsored by Clearasil, the 17-year-old stood out, scoring two goals and making one as Crewe edged a fine match 4-3 in the 95th-minute.
The match-winner was another 17-year-old, Max Clayton, who like Powell had played for England Under-18s at Gresty Road in midweek. That meant Crewe had to do without them at Rotherham where the Alex dropped two potentially crucial points in their pursuit of promotion. Not that there was a club v country row, Crewe manager Steve Davis freely releasing his players for what he described as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play for their country in front of their home crowd".
Crewe have long done things differently when it comes to developing young players. To start with, they play them. Nine of the XI at Priestfield Stadium were academy graduates, the oldest 24. Few of Powell and Clayton's England team-mates in the squad which reached the quarter-finals of last summer's Under-17 World Cup in Mexico are gaining first-team experience, certainly not the captain Mat Chalobah, of Chelsea, or the skilful winger Raheem Sterling, whom Liverpool paid Queen's Park Rangers an initial £600,000 fee for. Neither has made a first-team appearance. Clayton has been in 22 matches, Powell 52. That is starting to show, with 11 goals in his last 25 games. Not bad for a player England use in midfield.
"He can play there because he can spray the ball around, but he is a goal threat so he is wasted deep," said Davis. Powell, a leggy player who combines tight close control, clever movement and finishing with a readiness to do the "dirty jobs" like tracking back, is being monitored by the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool. Davis admitted: "Nick can go all the way. He is ready to go [from here] very shortly. We don't know how long we can hold on to these boys when they show that sort of ability."
He will not be leaving because he and an agent demand it. "It'll be financial pressure [on us]," said Davis. "He's a Crewe lad and he enjoys playing here, but he's not going to play England Under-21s playing for Crewe."
This is how Crewe balance the books: groom players, show them off to Alex fans for a couple of seasons, then sell. It is a marriage between football principles and business practices created by Dario Gradi, now in his 70s and still very much involved in the academy.
Not that the visitors were the only ones with prodigies. Gillingham have also produced Premier League players – Matt Jarvis, Andrew Crofts and Nyron Nosworthy – in recent years and they started with four under-21s, including another 17-year-old scorer, Ashley Miller.
Powell's strike had been cancelled out by Jack Payne but Crewe, passing the ball sweetly in midfield where Luke Murphy shone, went 3-1 up. Ajay Leitch-Smith turned in a Powell cross, then Powell neatly volleyed in Murphy's pass. Chris Whelpdale and Miller levelled but as the Gills chased a fifth straight win Danny Spiller lunged into a tackle and was dismissed. Clayton's deft header for 4-3 doubled his punishment.
Davis, who played under Gradi at Crewe, later said that the Premier League-backed Elite Player Performance Plan should not affect Alex. "We won't lose many players, we lose some lower down anyway, when they are 12, 13, mainly because their dads are pushing them, but you can't really tell at that age. We'll still get enough to put in the first team."
And that, greedy and star-struck dads take note, is where they may flourish like Powell, Clayton and Murphy.
Gillingham: GAZZANIGA, CLEE, ESSEM, KING, JACKMAN, WHELPDALE, O LEE, PAYNE, OLI, MILLER
Crewe: PHILLIPS, DAVIS, ARTELL, DUGDALE, TOOTLE, MOORE, MURPHY, WESTWOOD, SHELLEY, LEITCH-SMITH, POWELL
Scorers: Gillingham Whelpdale 67, Payne 48, Miller 73. Crewe Powell 27, 53. Leitch-Smith 52, Clayton 90,
Substitutes: Gillingham Kedwell (O Lee, h-t ), Spiller (C Lee, 68), Evans ( Oli, 78) Crewe Brown (Shelley, 75), Clayton (Leitch-Smith, 77). Booked: Gillingham Jackman, C Lee, Payne. Montrose Crewe Tootle, Davis .Sent off: Gillingham Spiller (68). Man of the match Powell. Match rating 7/10. Attempts on target: Gillingham 8 Crewe 12.Referee K Stroud (Hampshire). Att 5,428.
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