Crewe Alexandra may sit bottom of League One but there is always the hope of a brighter tomorrow at Gresty Road.
That was the lesson of their game against Coventry City last week when 17-year-old forward George Cooper – one of six home-grown players in Crewe’s line-up – secured a much-needed victory for the manager, Steve Davis, with a spectacular winner on his first home start. “He scored the winning goal with a free-kick,” says Dario Gradi proudly.
Gradi, now 73, is in his fourth decade at Crewe, where he arrived as manager in 1983 and established one of English football’s leading youth development centres. Now Crewe’s director of football, the man who schooled future England players like Danny Murphy and David Platt is still running the academy and still getting a buzz from seeing the likes of Cooper come through.
“I’ve just picked up the paper and read that [Pep] Guardiola said he would really like to coach youngsters one day and I thought, ‘Good for you’,” Gradi says. “That is what I enjoy doing, working on young players and seeing them develop.”
From the outside, Crewe’s league position, five points adrift of safety, might beg the question whether it is harder in the modern game to survive by producing your own – not least with the Elite Player Performance Plan weighed so heavily in favour of Premier League clubs. Gradi’s view is that it is “harder to recruit the young boys” with the big Merseyside and Manchester clubs hoovering up talent in the region “at six or seven”.
Once they get a boy, though, Crewe are confident he will stay. “Most of the clubs in the lower league more or less accept now that their best players are going to go. We don’t accept that because our players know they have a good chance of getting into the first team. We haven’t lost any kids since Dan Smith went to Liverpool [in 2012].”
If Crewe’s plight is a concern, their youngsters have shown promise and there are big hopes in particular for “high-flier” Cooper and striker Callum Saunders, son of former Liverpool and Aston Villa striker Dean.
The Under-21s won last season’s Professional Development League Two title and, as Gradi says, Crewe need this conveyor belt to keep rolling. In 2012 they sold Nick Powell to Manchester United and Ashley Westwood to Aston Villa. Last year it was Luke Murphy to Leeds.
“We have to produce either £3m players or £1m players for the benefit of the club financially,” says Gradi of a club which budgets to lose £700,000 annually. It did not help this summer that Max Clayton, the England Under-20 forward, was lost to Bolton for an estimated £300,000 compensation fee. “Clayton broke his leg, missed the whole season and his contract expired. We expected to get good money and in the end we didn’t.”
A member of Greg Dyke’s Football Association Commission, Gradi – a man ahead of his time, recalling how Crewe’s kids were playing “small-sided games over 20 years ago” – has his doubts about its effectiveness. “I don’t know whether I am encouraged or frustrated,” he says. “Our attitude towards coaching doesn’t breed really clever players, it is more methodical. I don’t think there is enough emphasis on flair in the way we try to produce players.
“I take the Under-14s on a Sunday and the opposition are always saying: ‘Keep the ball, pass it, keep it.’ I am shouting: ‘Take him on. I want you to beat him, show me some skills.’ That is an English trait that I probably managed to avoid, being born in Italy. I didn’t get the feeling on the Commission that people were taking that on board.”Reuse content