Forever young

wsc299James Morris looks back on Dario Grado’s 26 years in management at Crewe Alexandra, as he steps aside to oversee the youth academy

Dario Gradi was not exactly a stranger to the experience of Crewe Alexandra fans calling for his head. Absurd as it sounds now, with the club currently sat in League Two, chants of “we want Gradi out” were doing the rounds even when the club was punching way above its weight in the Championship.

Gradi had always appeared aloof to such questions over his leadership. But after the dreadful 3-0 home loss to Torquay on November 5, in which various pockets of fans called for him to go, the 70-year-old sounded genuinely hurt in a post-match interview with BBC Radio Stoke. Just five days later, Gradi handed his duties to assistant manager Steve Davis – who as a player was one of Gradi’s first signings at Crewe when he took charge in 1983. Gradi is now director of football, hoping to ease the club’s renowned academy through the challenges brought about by the Elite Player Performance Plan (the perils of which were highlighted in WSC 298).

Despite his total of 26 years managing the club, the change was no real shock. Gradi had handed over managerial duties once before, in summer 2007, and results were inconsistent all season. Unfortunately, the disastrous reigns of his two successors – Steve Holland and Gudjon Thordarson – put Crewe in such turmoil that in late 2009 Gradi was forced to take back the managerial role for the club’s own safety.

Perhaps those fans booing Gradi at the Torquay game should have recalled the two years he spent away from first-team duties, during which he was also the director of football. This period included relegation to League Two in May 2009 – the club’s first spell in the fourth tier since 1994 – and some of the worst football seen at Gresty Road since the pre-Gradi era, when Crewe, forever applying for re-election to the Football League, were seen as the country’s joke club.

It was perplexing to see Crewe, a model of stability for quarter of a century, being forced into sacking Holland and Thordarson within a year of each other. But it was time for Gradi to step back in, and typically for a man whose football philosophy revolves around youth development, he immediately reinvigorated the team with academy graduates who had been largely ignored by Thordarson.

After steering Crewe to a mid-table finish when another fight against relegation had looked possible, Gradi had set the template for 2010-11, where the Alex finished just three points below the play-offs in tenth. However, rather than pushing on this season, Crewe have had to adapt to their status as financial minnows in League Two – despite being a Championship club as recently as 2006. Their budget depends on selling star players for big prices, but the most recent sale of monetary significance was Nicky Maynard’s £3.5 million move to Bristol City back in 2008. Since then, Crewe have not had a player of Maynard’s star calibre to sell for such a sum.

As a result, Gradi was unable to offer last season’s 29-goal striker Clayton Donaldson attractive enough terms when his contract expired. Without any cash to replace him (Crewe signed one player in the summer, the reserve goalkeeper Alan Martin on a free transfer), a huge burden has been left on the young strikers Shaun Miller and Ajay Leitch-Smith – one they have struggled to deal with. Many fans questioned Gradi’s decision to release target man Calvin Zola, who could have relieved the pressure on Miller and Leitch-Smith.

With Gradi now focusing on the academy, Davis has a big job to do at a key point in Crewe’s history. Sceptics who thought he was merely a Gradi clone were immediately relieved when he spoke out against the players’ alleged poor fitness and lack of winning mentality. Of course, that was the easy part for Davis. He now has to shape a more resistant team who, for all their technical ability, can often resemble jellyfish when facing powerful opposition.

The final word must go to Gradi’s legendary legacy, which was embodied in his last ever team selection for a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie at Oldham on November 8. It featured seven players from the club’s academy and a further four home-grown players on the bench. For a Premier League club, that would be headline news but for Crewe under Gradi such self-sufficiency was 
absolute normality.

From WSC 299 January 2012