John Buchan and Paul Wilkinson describe to WSC the worst ever season as a fan of Crewe Alexandra

The Crewe Alexandra of today is vastly different to the club that long-suffering fans remember. Today’s role model for small clubs was once the perennial re-election struggler for whom success meant simply finishing in the top half of the Fourth Division.

Until 1958 there were two regional Third Divisions, and the Alex certainly saw off the old format in style, finishing bottom of Division Three North in each of its last three seasons, never exceeding 28 points and conceding a hefty 308 goals.

Alex came last in the League a further three times. In 1971-72 they began with a 3-1 victory over Stockport but two months later the mercurial Stan Bowles, snap­ped up from Man City a year earlier, was sold to Carlisle while Pat Morrissey, twice a scorer in that opening game, went to Wat­ford. November was marked by a first round FA Cup defeat at home to Blyth Spartans, one of the seven occasions that we’ve been knocked out by a non-League club in postwar times. Crewe finished bottom with 29 points and, for the only time in their history, were the worst-supported team in the League with an average of 2,104. Even Match of the Day joked that the Division must be upside down when good early season form saw the Alex near the top in 1974.

We amassed a measly 26 points in finshing bottom of the pile again in 1978-79. To most visitors Gresty Road looked destined to become a non-League ground. Many fans still recall the “ash-bank” standing areas. Even then chairman Norman Rowlinson admitted it was shabby: “There was an old tin shed at the Gresty Road end. The Railway End wasn’t much better, with shale forming the terrace. And the old wooden main stand probably belonged to the 1950s.”

However, change was just around the corner. Government assistance and club lotteries provided a financial lifeline, and in 1980, John Bowler, now Alex chairman, joined the board. But he and his fellow directors had yet to endure the torture that was 1981-82. The squad, under the leadership of ex-Wales international Arfon Griffiths, included seven players with First Division experience, including former Liverpool  and England winger Ian Callaghan who dropped by  in mid season on a free from Cork Hibernians. Nonetheless the season began with eight straight defeats and finished with another six; we only reached the FA Cup second round courtesy of a 1-0 win at mighty Willenhall Town. The final match, Colchester’s 3-1 victory at Gresty Road, was watched by just 1,226. Despite it being three points for a win, Crewe ended bottom with 27 points – equivalent to the 21 points earned in 1956-57. Horrible.

As the absolute nadir, 1981-82 probably shades it as the Worst Season but, looking back, it really marked the start of Crewe’s renaissance. The following season saw Griffiths replaced by Peter Morris, who lifted the club off the bottom – just – to 23rd. Morris stepped down after seven months and in June 1983 Dario Gradi was appointed manager. In his book The Gradi Years, Jules Hornbrook writes that Dario “had a clean slate, a multitude of new ideas, nothing to live up to and things could only get better”. When any young Crewe fan today gets depressed at a temporary downturn in the team’s fortunes we know just what to say.

From WSC 171 May 2001. What was happening this month

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