Gradi tames the stress levels

Simon O'Hagan meets football's contented manager for all seasons
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It has been a bad week for managers but then there is nothing unusual about that. Steve Coppell resigns because of the threat to his health; Arsene Wenger has to run the gauntlet of smear and rumour; and with a disastrous sequence of results overshadowing the 10th anniversary of his taking charge at Manchester United, even Alex Ferguson is not immune.

The job is impossible without strife, it seems. Or is it? A visit to Crewe Alexandra suggests otherwise. There they have the longest-serving manager in the four divisions, at nearly 14 years - a man envied by other managers, who says he can do virtually what he wants, is a member of the board himself, and is just about to sign a 10-year contract in the absolute belief that the club will stick by him and he will stick by the club. So, Dario Gradi, what's the secret?

"A stable environment," he said. "The board of directors has hardly changed since I got here. I've got a very good relationship with them. They're very supportive. We work together."

And what's the board's view? "We're a small club," explained the Crewe chairman, John Bowler. "We decided long ago that developing young players was central to our business plan, and we were very fortunate to find a man who was totally dedicated to this side of the job."

It would be naive to suggest that the pressures at modest Second Division Crewe compared with those in the Premiership; Gradi does not pretend otherwise. He also accepts that the emphasis on long-term security rather than short-term success has helped to keep the stress levels down. None the less, it's an amazing example of mutual loyalty in a business where sackings and resignations seem to occur almost daily.

The key to the length of the Gradi-Crewe alliance is its record of nurturing young talent for future profit. All lower-division clubs know that to sell is the only way to survive, but few have invested in youth to the same extent as Crewe, where there are no fewer than three training grounds (the norm at this level is none) and their own school of excellence which provides coaching for more than 100 of the area's best youngsters between the ages of 8 and 16.

The result, down the years, has been a roll-call of high-fliers who owe much to the coaching they received under Gradi - among them David Platt, Rob Jones, John Pemberton, Geoff Thomas, Craig Hignett and Neil Lennon - and the emergence of a team whose skilful, passing football has won respect throughout the game and taken them, for the first time in their history, to the brink of the First Division.

It all looked very differentwhen Gradi took over in June 1983. In the month that Margaret Thatcher won her second general election, Michael Foot resigned as leader of the Labour Party and Alex Ferguson was basking in the glory of his European Cup- Winners' Cup victory with Aberdeen, Gradi joined a club that had just had to apply for re- election to the old Fourth Division for the fourth time in five years. "If you go somewhere that's bad enough, there's always a chance of making progress," he said. "I'd had the sack a few times and I didn't really want to be sacked again, so I had to pick carefully where I went. With Crewe I felt I could achieve something."

Gradi, who is 55, is unusual in that he never played professionally. Born in Milan to an Italian father and an English mother, he trained to become a teacher, but his football ability - he played for England amateurs - led him into coaching. He worked at Chelsea, Sutton United and Derby County before spending three years as manager of Wimbledon just after they had joined the Football League. That was followed by an unhappy 10 months as manager of Crystal Palace and a year and a half running the youth team at Orient before he got the chance to join Crewe.

Although progress has not been uninterrupted - promotion in 1989, relegation in 1991, promotion again in 1994 - it is easier to see why Crewe have kept faith with Gradi than why Gradi has kept faith with Crewe. Hasn't he been tempted to have a go at a higher level? "I've been sounded out a few times," he said. "At one point I might have gone back to Wimbledon. I usually shrug my shoulders and say I'll think about it if the opportunity arises and it generally doesn't come to anything because people don't like to be turned down. To be honest I'm happy not to be asked because I'd hate to have to make that decision. I'd be letting people down if I left. In any case, I don't think you could have a bigger challenge than trying to get this lot into the First Division."

In the last year Gradi has had talks with the Football Association about the role of technical director. But he has pulled out of the running. "It's not particularly working with players, and that's what gives me the buzz." It is also what represents Gradi's lasting contribution to the game.