12 May ~ After Chelsea's astonishing 2-2 draw at Barcelona to secure a place in next Saturday's Champions League final and Manchester City inexplicably dropping points at home to QPR tomorrow to hand the title to Manchester United (you heard it here first), Crewe Alexandra are another striking example that anything can happen in football. In the history of the English game, no team has ever lost their first four games in the fourth tier and managed to stay up. Crewe did just that. They lost to Swindon 3-0, Gillingham 2-1, Rotherham 2-1 and Shrewsbury 2-0, yet at 5.30pm today, Crewe will be a maximum 330 minutes away from promotion as they kick off against Southend United at Gresty Road in the League Two play-offs.
How has this happened? In Dario Gradi's last league game in charge of Crewe in November, the team were beaten 3-0 by Torquay at home. The performance was so bad that various pockets of fans were in open mutiny against the legendary manager, who came to the club in 1983 and oversaw almost a quarter of a century of progress until relegation from the Championship in 2006. Within a week, Gradi had stepped down to take up a new role as technical director.
In came Steve Davis, Gradi's assistant, but fans were sceptical. The restless mood was not eased after Crewe were thrashed 4-1 in Davis's first game, an FA Cup first round tie at home to Colchester. "Dario clone" was the phrase many fans chose to use in November. In May, that could not sound any more stupid.
Davis's league record since that Colchester defeat reads as follows: P29 W14 D11 L4. Crewe have risen from 18th (19 points) to seventh (72 points) after last Saturday's 2-2 home draw to Aldershot, which secured a play-off spot. Big, bad and more streetwise teams would love to play against Crewe under Gradi, but they are now unbeaten in 16 games. A number of late goals to win and draw games is hardly a coincidence, either. Davis has got the players in a much fitter state, mentally as well as physically.
Yet for all of Davis's superb work, it is unlikely Crewe would be in the play-offs without Nick Powell, the 18-year-old who is currently one of the most exciting talents in the country. Having scored a series of outrageous goals, Powell appears to be on his way to the Premier League, with Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes present at the Aldershot game. Many believe he will be the best ever player to graduate from Crewe's academy.
Crewe's only grievance is that they now face a demanding two-legged tie against Southend, one of the most accomplished teams in the division and one that should have gone up automatically. With players of the calibre of Freddy Eastwood, Neil Harris and Bilel Moshni, Southend are the favourites to go through to the final at Wembley. As for Crewe, the last time they lost a game of football was February 18. Have a guess to which team they lost. James Morris