The hosts are coming to terms with new realities of the bottom division, financial hardship and predatory bigger clubs, while the visitors are happy to be playing their second season in the League. Charles Morris reports
I first went to Crewe Alexandra’s ground in early, wide-eyed childhood. Ever since it has been a place capable of conjuring up some much-needed magic amid the industrial surroundings of Coronation Street-style houses to the west and the town’s railway station and sidings to the east.
It is as if the emotions of hope, disappointment and elation experienced there never quite disappear with the final whistle, but are held by the surrounding stands to provide an aura that energises every reassembled crowd. So on entering Gresty Road for the match against Aldershot Town, it was a jolt not to feel that frisson of anticipated drama and excitement. The usual buzz was missing and the atmosphere was flatter than the nearby Cheshire plain.
On reflection, it is not surprising. The club has returned to the Football League’s lowest flight for the first time in 15 years after scaling historic highs, and supporters are bruised and disillusioned after two dire seasons and a relegation.
The timing of last May’s drop into League Two could not have been worse either. It coincided with the new Football League broadcasting deal which, although it throws more money at clubs in all three divisions, considerably widens the wealth gap between Championship, League One and League Two sides. While the total sum for the three divisions rises from £32 million to £88m, Championship clubs receive 80 per cent of the extra money but League One and Two teams get only 12 per cent and eight per cent respectively. As the income gap expands, the chances of Crewe returning to the Championship or Aldershot reaching it for the first time diminish.
The relegation was also in the midst of the economic recession. A glance at the match programme provides one crude but perhaps telling barometer of this. Only two Crewe players have attracted the full supporters’ sponsorship for kit, boots and socks. However, the business of driving instruction at least seems to be bearing up locally, with Gail Tomlin Automatic Driving Tuition (telephone number included) being the most generous sponsor, providing the kit for both defender Mat Mitchel-King and skipper Billy Jones.
In addition to financial hard times, a reminder of another sore point greets home supporters in the form of a pitch-perimeter advertisement for Radio Stoke, the local station. Stoke is more of a four-letter than a five-letter word in Crewe and Monday-morning football banter at work has been all one way recently as the Alex’s descent has coincided with City’s rise to the Premier League. The team who only seven years ago were in a lower league than Crewe, can no longer be dismissed as “Joke City”.
Crewe fans inevitably remain prisoners to their division of history into BD and AD – Before Dario and After Dario. Dario Gradi became manager in 1983 and began transforming the underachieving club. He eventually took Crewe to what is now the Championship for a total of eight seasons, enabled them to rebuild a decrepit stadium, establish first-class training facilities and develop an academy with one of the best reputations in the country. No messiah lasts forever, though, and when it came time for Gradi to ascend to the realms of technical director after 24 years in the dugout, the worst fears were realised. The board decided to appoint as coach Steve Holland, who as head of the academy had nurtured the likes of Danny Murphy, Seth Johnson, Dean Ashton, Rob Hulse and Nicky Maynard.
It seemed a sensible decision, one providing some rare continuity amid the mad merry-go-round of football management. Unfortunately, a fine coach does not always make a manager and only Bournemouth’s points deduction kept Crewe in League One in 2007-08. There was no such fortune to save Holland from the sack at the end of last year after another disastrous half-season. Having been once bitten, the board opted for experience in the shape of Gudjon Thordarson, the Icelander who had previously managed Stoke, Barnsley and Notts County, but despite a rally (including four consecutive wins in February) he was unable to ward off relegation.
Memories of Gradi’s great years linger, and supporters fed on games against clubs such as Leeds, Leicester and Southampton find the likes of Aldershot unappetising. Nevertheless, the day’s meagre 3,661 gate is a worrying drop even for this season. Ironically, the absent fans are to miss some fine entertainment, even if they do spare themselves a heap of frustration.
Before kick-off, the Aldershot players partake of a group huddle, which hints at an inferiority complex in facing a club with such past success. In fact, the teams begin the game separated by only one point, with the home side in sixth position and the visitors eighth. And Aldershot, in contrast to their hosts, are a club on a roll.
After the old Aldershot FC collapsed financially in 1992 and lost their League place, Aldershot Town were formed the same year and began life in Diadora Isthmian League Division Three. An impressive series of promotions saw them gain League status at the start of last season and finish in a respectable 15th position.
The Shots begin the game with some neat passing, as one would expect from a side managed by Gary Waddock, formerly of Queens Park Rangers. But after five minutes the pattern is set. This involves the Alex laying siege to the opposition goal, with Waddock’s men summoning all their garrison town spirit to repel virtually everything and launching the odd counter-attack to devastating effect. Prominent early on are the two men who will play crucial parts in determining the result – lanky home striker Calvin Zola and Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz, the Shots goalkeeper. Jaimez-Ruiz, who was born in Venezuela, wears a pair of enormous white gloves and black leggings under his shorts and socks, despite it being a mild afternoon. If he finds Cheshire chilly in late September, one can expect him to sport a full Arctic body suit come January.
His centre-back team-mate Anthony Charles soon raises the temperature, however, with a cynical trip on winger Shaun Miller when clean through. Crewe attacker Joel Grant, a former Aldershot favourite, then cuts in from the left but shoots wide. He soon makes amends, threading a sublime pass to Miller, who coolly sidefoots past the advancing Jaimez-Ruiz to open the scoring on 16 minutes. At this point even the band of Shots fans assembled near the halfway line must have been fearing a massacre. Crewe have more flair and speed, the fans are roused from their torpor, aided by the Gresty Road End drummer. Thordarson, who favours a natty suit over a tracksuit and is a pitchside prowler rather than a dugout recluse, is quietly orchestrating his team like a kindly headmaster to what looks like an easy win.
But after 34 minutes the Shots gain a free-kick 30 yards out and midfielder Scott Donnelly’s powerful drive takes a deflection off the wall. Goalkeeper David Button, wrong-footed, can only watch the ball glide into the net. The away fans go ape at this stroke of luck, with one so excited that he runs on to the pitch and has to be bundled away by stewards.
Undeterred, Crewe resume their attacks, only for Zola to somehow fire over an empty goal after Jaimez-Ruiz had rushed out to parry a Miller shot and the big target man again clears the bar with a header from another presentable opportunity. The home side’s biggest misfortune comes just before the interval when Grant provides the game’s one moment of brilliance. He weaves past two men on the left side of the penalty area and fires past the keeper, only for his shot to glance off a defender’s head on the line.
Half-time chat inevitably includes a rueing of missed chances, but also the threat to the club from what Dario Gradi has described to the Crewe Chronicle as the “stealing, nicking of other people’s players” by big clubs. His comments followed Chelsea’s transfer ban for signing Gaël Kakuta from Lens and Gradi was in turn incensed by Liverpool’s attempts to lure his outstanding youngster, Max Clayton, 15, to Anfield. “We know our best [young] players are approached by everybody,” Gradi added. “We probably lose two or three a year – we recently lost our best 12-year-old to Everton. If I had lost young players all the time I’ve been at the club then there might not now be a Crewe, it’s as serious as that. The authorities must act quickly to stop this.”
Back out for the second half, Crewe again set up camp in the Shots’ half. The sucker punch, however, arrives in the 65th minute when the visitors’ Kirk Hudson, sporting a name reminiscent of an American B-movie actor, steals the limelight and the game. He elegantly turns past a home defence, possibly dozing after having so little to do, and blasts the ball beyond Button. Thordarson sends on another forward, but as Aldershot’s confidence rises his side’s moves become more headless chicken-like than controlled, attacking incisiveness. Zola at last gets a shot on target but Jaimez-Ruiz sticks out an oversized glove to save well.
Miller fluffs a good chance, but could justifiably blame lady luck when the game’s one slice of comedy arrives in the 78th minute. His low, powerful shot hits the goalkeeper’s nether regions and the ball becomes wedged between his upper legs. For a moment it disappears from view as Jaimez-Ruiz literally sits on it. “He grabbed the ball with his arse,” Thordarson says ruefully afterwards.
Crewe continue the bombardment until the end. A header is cleared off the line, Zola misses another sitter, has another piledriver blocked and his miserable day ends with a booking for diving and boos from a frustrated crowd. The lasting statistic will be the final score of 2-1, but the shots per side is telling – 23 for the Alex and six for Aldershot. Waddock tells the press that winning at somewhere like Crewe will give his improving team immense confidence.
Thordarson’s short-term hope, meanwhile, is that his players rediscover their shooting boots. Long term, he needs Premier League clubs to keep their sticky fingers out of his academy honey pot if he is ever to emulate Gradi’s glory years.
From WSC 273 November 2009