Charles Morris interviews John Bowler, chairman of the club which, in these uncertain times, many see as an example to the rest, Crewe Alexandra
Nine years ago Crewe Alexandra lost a Third Division play-off final at Wembley on penalties to York City. Today, Crewe are enjoying their fifth consecutive season in the First Division, while York flounder near the bottom of the Third, having only just been saved from bankruptcy and oblivion. The contrasting fortunes of these two small clubs could not be more marked, and fans of York, Bury, Swindon and other clubs now fearing for their futures must wonder what particular magic Crewe worked that escaped their own directors.
The obvious answer is summed up in two words: Dario Gradi. For this is the manager who spotted, nurtured and sold David Platt, Rob Jones, Neil Lennon, Danny Murphy, Seth Johnson and Robbie Savage, and who in four years from 1994 took his side from the Third Division to finish 11th in the First.
Yet while Gradi is unquestionably an outstanding coach, he could not have succeeded in isolation. The answers to why Gradi’s talents were allowed to blossom at Gresty Road lie with John Bowler, Crewe’s chairman since 1988. He was a member of the board that appointed Gradi in 1983 when the club was in its then traditional position – the lower reaches of the old Fourth Division.
At 65, Bowler cuts an avuncular figure in an open-necked shirt and Pringle sweater, and so his initial reference to the drugs industry as playing a key role in Crewe’s success comes as a surprise. He is not talking about nandrolone or other performance-enhancing substances, however, but his previous career as an executive with the Wellcome Foundation, the pharmaceuticals company that has since merged with Glaxo.
“I came from an industry where you spend a long time on developing a product without any guarantee of success, and you need patience,” he explains. “It became obvious that in the Crewe area we did not have a big fan base or business base, and the only answer was to invest in the development of our own players. In fact, it was so obvious that I cannot understand why it is not obvious to anyone else. The happy coincidence with Dario was that the development of young players was also his passion, and I believe we have the finest youth coach in the country.”
This shared long-term strategy between manager and directors eventually resulted in Gradi being given a ten-year contract and a seat on the board – conditions of employment unheard of by most managers. “Before the contract I asked Dario what he wanted in life, and he said ‘a nice house with a swimming pool and tennis court, and a pension’. I said I thought we could manage that here, and that was it.”
Bowler stresses it was vital that the fans also understood this plan and did not develop expectations that were beyond the club. One advantage of being a small club with an undistinguished past was that supporters “did not have the expectation base of clubs like Wolves and West Brom”. The proceeds of significant transfers have also been invested in the future. The ground has been rebuilt, with the new main stand boosting capacity to 10,000. “Within the club we call it ‘Seth’s stand’, because Seth Johnson’s transfer [to Derby] paid for it.”
Three million pounds has been spent on the training ground and youth academy, and Crewe is the smallest club in the country to boast an FA-registered ac- ademy. The chairman sees this as crucial to developing youngsters and attracting them to the Alex. Yet for all the progress, Bowler holds no illusions about reaching the Premiership. “We do not have the catchment area to survive and compete against the big boys. Our plan is to consolidate as a mid-First Division club and our supporters know that.”
But he believes the slim chances of gaining Premiership status will improve, for the spending on the club’s infrastructure is virtually complete and in future more will be available for the team. “We have to try to be less of a selling club and retain the good players.” The Bosman-inspired changes to the transfer system have only affected Crewe in one way directly, he says. “We have to gamble on awarding long contracts to young players earlier, before we are really sure about them.”
Yet the biggest question regarding the future is how to replace Gradi. His contract ends in 2006 when he will be 64, although Bowler says there are no automatic plans for him to quit then. But when he does, will the club appoint from within or from outside? Bowler’s answer again fits with his development strategy. “We already have the people. Anyone who leaves themselves without good understudies is an idiot. I would expect the next manager to be here [already] because if he is not, we have failed. But if he is not here we will not wait, we will act.” The incentive for assistant manager Neil Baker and the rest of the coaching staff is clear.
As a member of the Football League management committee, Bowler is passionate about preserving as many professional clubs as possible. “But small clubs have got to accept that they are responsible for running the business in a profitable manner.”He castigates many for allowing the financial windfall from television to disappear in player wages. “It is right that the top players earn good wages but the problem is that this has escalated down the divisions, so the average wage has gone up everywhere. There should be no correlation between what David Beckham gets and what a Third Division player receives – there has to be a halt to that.”
While Crewe have not been able to resist all inflationary wage pressures, relegation would not be a financial disaster because the salary structure has been controlled. Bowler is open-minded on structural changes that could help smaller clubs, such as salary caps, limits on squad sizes, regional divisions and nursery clubs. But he veers towards a free-market approach on financial matters. “If I find Crewe’s version of Elton John, then why should I be prevented from spending his funding? It is the same thing with the guy who is chairman at Darlington now.”
He believes there is plenty of scope for more formal links between big and small clubs, provided the tenets of sporting competition and integrity are not breached – always a problem with conventional nursery clubs. He cites Crewe’s revolutionary “alliance” with Liverpool, established in 1997. The aim was that Liverpool should tap into Gradi’s ideas on youth training while the Alex gleaned commercial expertise in return.
Bowler is satisfied with the experiment so far. “For example, when we were rebuilding our ground, we spent a lot of time with Liverpool looking at their stadium, and how their ticket office worked. We share ideas, the two coaching staffs talk to each other a lot. I think clubs should share best practice, provided everything else is at arm’s length. There is collaboration and there are benefits.”
From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month