Dario Gradi arrived at Crewe on June 16th 1983 after a last minute interview for the manager’s job that Peter Morris had just vacated.
The club at the time were the butt of many footballing jokes. Having finished in the bottom two of the Football League four times in the five season prior to Dario’s arrival, Crewe were definitely on the brink of falling into oblivion.
Dario arrived with a long term plan though; five seasons under his guidance had seen a steady improvement on league positions. 16th, 10th, 12th, 17th & 17th were nothing to shout about but it was a lot nicer than having to rely on re-election to keep your Football League status.
Dario’s vision of nurturing young talent through to the first team was always there. He took players on who weren’t deemed good enough at other clubs, a certain Geoff Thomas was signed from when Rochdale released him and David Platt joined the Alex after a loan spell from Man Utd. No-one would have guessed that those two would be England internationals in a few years.
It wasn’t just cast-offs though, Dario wanted a place for Crewe youngsters to learn the game and after a couple of failed attempts Dario and chairman John Bowler had the idea of putting a astro-turf pitch behind the main stand. It would be where the renowned Crewe Alexandra Academy would be born.
1988/89 saw the Crewe rise above the bottom league for the first time in 25 years. Money from the sales of Thomas (£50,000) and Platt (£400,000) was being plowed straight back into Dario’s quest for youth. The season saw others start raising eyebrows at the action at little Crewe – the club spent little periods at the top of Division Four and young players like Steve Walters and Rob Jones were being recognised with England youth call-ups.
It was promotion that made people sit up and look though. The Alex went to Tranmere on the final day of the season needing a point (and Leyton Orient to win). Orient duly obliged and a 1-1 draw at 2nd place Tranmere was only the start of Dario’s legacy.
Dario’s first season in Division Three was a relatively comfortable one with a 12th placed finish but a second season proved too much and despite a battle, Crewe were relegated back to Division Four in 1991. Had the bubble burst?
Crewe weren’t about to let Division Three go away from them without a fight. 1991/1992 saw 6th place finish and a play-off appearance but Wembley wasn’t to be, crashing out 4-2 on aggregate to Scunthorpe United.
Off pitch growth continued though. That season a 20 year old Rob Jones left Crewe for £300,000 to Liverpool, his debut for Liverpool was soon talk of the country as he kept Man Utd’s Ryan Giggs quiet for 90 minutes.
The money meant even more investing in the club’s facilities. With the help of a grant the ground refurbishment continued in summer 1992 with The Railway End receiving it’s massive face lift.
1992/1993 saw the Premiership introduced and Division Four had become Division Three and Crewe now had their sights set on Division Two. Very confusing. Yet again though, it was a 6th place finish and another play-off failure. This time Crewe got to Wembley, for the first time in the club’s history, but, despite being favourites after a 9-2 thrashing of Walsall, York proved trickier. 1-1 meant penalties and penalties meant no promotion. 3-5 to York meant another season in Division Three. Fans started wondering if they had used their lives up
Another high-profile sale came mid-way through the 92/93 season with Craig Hignett leaving for Middlesbrough in a club record £500,000 sale; fans were far from happy with it but Dario continued to insist that the sale was needed for the club to progress.
Te summer saw changes behind the scenes, Kenny Swain left his post as assistant manager to be replaced by Brian Eastwick – both of whom are now managers at England youth level – whilst a young man named Steve Holland joined the coaching staff.
1993/1994 was the year when all Dario’s work started to click into place. After play-off agony the previous two years, the only way that could be put right was through automatic promotion and 3rd place saw the club rise to the 2nd division. Tony Naylor moving to Port Vale in a £150,000 transfer at the end of the season disgruntled fans but Dario found a replacement in a young player released from Man Utd – Robbie Savage.
For the 1994/1995 season changes continued behind the scenes. Neil Baker was appointed as Dario’s assistant after Eastwick left and so began a successful partnership.
Midway through the season and another sale to upset fans. Fans favourite Ashley Ward was on his way to Norwich for £500,000 despite sitting pretty in the table. The money wasn’t to be spent on the playing side either, with much of it going towards the ground refrbishment with the Gresty Road End on the agenda.
With over £3million in transfer fees alone in Dario’s first 10 years the club continued to back Dario’s youth policy and announced a £750,000 project to build a training ground and youth facilities in Reaseheath – Dario’s vision was coming together.
The sale of Ward did nothing to dent the club’s progression on the pitch. The end of the 94/95 season saw Crewe surprise others by finishing 3rd in Division Two, heartbreaking though it was to miss out on promotion by 2 points it had made everyone take Crewe seriously – and there was still chance of promotion via the play-offs!
But the club’s unlucky streak in the play-offs continued. Bristol Rovers provided opposition in the semi’s but after a 0-0 in the first game, and a 1-0 lead to the 80th minute in the 2nd leg Britol broke Crewe hearts when an 80th minute equaliser sent Crewe crashing to defeat on the away goal ruling.
1995-1996 saw the club as a whole continue to progress. The ground was now looking neat and tidy. On the pitch things continued to look up and promotion to Division One for the first time ever was looking good. Crewe’s form early on was unstoppable but late form scuppered automatic chances, maybe down to the sale of striker Paul Edwards to Wrexham for £150,000 came at the wrong time.
Crewe finished 5th and had to face the play-offs. Again. Again, though, luck wasn’t with the Alex and Notts County claimed a 2-2 draw at Gresty Road before completing the job with a 1-0 win in the 2nd leg. Yet more play-off misery for the Alex.
February of ’96 also saw yet another high profile sale. Neil Lennon left for Leicester City for a new record sum of £750,000. Martin O’Neill, the then Leicester manager, had long admired Lennon during his days as Wycombe manager, but it wasn’t any comfort to Crewe fans who were having to get used to their best players leaving time and time again.
1996/1997 will no doubt be the season that will go down in Crewe’s history. Crewe finally secured play-off success after a 6th place finish in the league. A 4-3 aggregate win over Luton in the semis was followed by a thrashing of Brentford at Wembley – although it finished 1-0, it could have been so much more.
Crewe had reached the dizzy heights of Division One – just a league below the likes of Man Utd & Liverpool. It was an unthinkable achievement during the years of re-election and there was only one man to thank.
Dario’s achievements weren’t going unnoticed and after 15 years at the club he was being tempted away with new jobs. Benfica were one who came calling although Dario never really thought about taking it but when the FA asked him to take a top job down in London he was tempted, but a last minute change of heart saw him continue at Gresty Road. To signal his intentions he signed a groundbreaking 10 year contract in 1996.
The summer of 1997 saw Danny Murphy move on to the Premiership. Smashing the club record transfer he went for £3million in July. Prior to that former local non-league talent Wayne Collins went for £600,000. Robbie Savage soon followed, days before the season began he made a £400,000 moved to join former team mate Neil Lennon at Leicester City, swelling the club’s bank account beyond recognition.
1997/1998 was historic. The first time in Division One and we weren’t to be embarrassed. A respectable 11th place finish had smashed all pundits pre-season predictions of a relegation for the Railwaymen. Everyone in football took notice – Crewe were no longer propping up the football league and Dario Gradi was getting his just praise.
New Year 1998 was special for Dario. He was name in the New Years Honours List to receive a MBE for his services to football. The least he deserves although it has long been asked why it has never been followed up with a CBE, OBE or even a Knighthood.
February ’98 and another player was on his way. Dele Adebola’s £1million move to Birmingham City meant the Alex had seen £5million in transfer fees in less than a year. Crewe’s reputation was now that of a selling club, rather than Division Four failures.
Summer ’98 saw a controversial move by Gareth Whalley when he joined Bradford City for £600,000, but after the most successful season in the clubs history Dario felt improvement was needed and smashed the club’s record fee on Rodney Jack. £650,000 to Torquay secured the services of the young and very pacey St Vincent international.
Crewe found the second Division One season tough and safety was never secured till the final day, when 5 teams were separated by one point. A 0-0 draw at Hudddersfield was enough though an a third successive season in Division One was to be had.
It would be without Seth Johnson though. The young midfielder who Dario spotting during a pre-season trip to Devon was on his way to Derby for £3million. Seth was legendary stats when he dalayed his move to the midlands in order to secure Crewe’s Division One status.
Yet another fee was going towards the progression of the club with a new 5,000 seater main stand being built ready for the 99/00 season. A landmark for the club as the ground refurbishment was done.
In 17 years Dario had headed Crewe’s turn around. From a tin-pot club with no real future to fantastic facilities with ambitions to break all previous records.
Two more years in Division One saw relegation battles and more players coming through the ever growing production line. Rob Hulse and Dean Ashton were the new names on people’s lips as they forged a fantastic partnership in the latter end of the the 2000-2001 season, which was the reason the Alex stayed up.
Crewe’s affair with Division One came to a sticky end though. Relegation in 2002 came after an exciting season which saw Crewe hit headlines with FA Cup 5th Round exploits vs Everton, forcing the big Merseysiders to come to Gresty Road in a replay. Despite 5 games in hand at one point Crewe couldn’t muster the points to get themselves out of trouble.
Few big sales in the summer meant a return was on the cards though and Dario delivered. Stunning football saw the club finish 2nd and promoted back into Division One, now the Championship.
Rob Hulse left in the summer of 2003 for £1million to West Brom after rejecting a contract extension. Dario had already signed a long term replacement though, Luke Varney from a unkown club called Quorn arrived in a £75k deal.
But possibly Dario’s two biggest talents yet were to take centre stage. Dean Ashton had been long hyped up 2003/2004 saw him finally show us the quality with 20 goals to his name by the end of the season.
Making his debut that season was a 16 year old Billy Jones. Billy made an instant impact and fans were soon rating him as the best ever to come out of the academy, but a massive fee expected was not to be.
In October 2003 Dario went into hospital for a scheduled heart operation. If there was ever a wake up call for life without Dario it was then. Neil Baker took the reigns. 4 defeats, 1 draw and only two goals scored left fans wondering if this is what to expect without Dario’s guidance but fears were soon forgotten – for now- when Dario made a surprise return less than a month after going into hospital. Crewe beat Derby 2-0 in a comfortable performance.
Crewe finished the season 2 points off the relegation zone without ever being troubled massively. It was just the usual limp over the line that left fans with hearts in their mouths.
2004/2005 will be remember as the start of unrest. Dario was on course for a historic season. 7th by New Year there were serious calls for the Premiership… Crewe, in the Premiership? Unfortunately no.
January 3rd saw Dean Ashton’s last appearance for the club as he was sold to Norwich for £3million. Having scored 21 goals before the new year it was an impossible task for the club to keep him.
What followed was a disaster. Dario failed to sign a replacement striker and Crewe went 20 games without a win, slipping right in the relegation mire. It took a last minute goal at Forest vs Gillingham to save Crewe from heading back to Division Two but it was also helped by a 2-1 win on the last day of the season over Coventry City.
2005/2006 saw calls for Dario to go and true unrest in camp. Crewe rarely got going in a season of misery and relegation was on the cards from day one. A brief revival was helped when a unknown Algerian defender, Madjid Bougherra, signed on loan. His stunning performances warranted a permanent contract but interest in him was rife and in the summer he opted for Sheffield Wednesday.
Throughout the season various attempts at replacing Dean Ashton continued. Pavol Suhaj, Michael Higdon, Luke Varney, Luke Rodgers and Gareth Taylor were all tried but goals weren’t happening and a leaky defence saw the club relegated back to League One (Division Two), 8 points behind safety.
It wasn’t a happy summer in Crewe and there wasn’t much hope for the season that followed and 2006/2007 also started poorly. Still no striker, still no wins and Crewe slumped to the bottom of League One.
Soon though, fortunes changed. Luke Varney and 19 year old sensation Nicky Maynard started firing Crewe up the table. Whilst the season ended in a boring 13th place finish, Maynard and Varney hit the headlines with their 45 goal partnership.
Crewe fan’s hopes of keeping Varney were dashed when Charlton announced they had agreed to sign the Leicester born striker in a deal worth £2.5million.
In April 2007 the club announced that Dario Gradi was leaving his job as manager behind as of July 1st 2007. Dario will take up a job as Technical Director with Steve Holland, who’s been an Academy coach for 14 years, taking on role as the First Team Coach. Whilst Dario remains in charge of football in general at Crewe, Steve Holland will be the one leading the team on match days.
Dario’s 24 years in charge of Crewe have been dramatic and amazing. He’s not only turned the club around but he’s provided a lot to English football as a whole.
Crewe fans have not only seen the club rise through the leagues but virtually a new ground and training facilities that match Premiership club’s. We’ve seen a host of players like David Platt, Neil Lennon, Dean Ashton, Danny Murphy, Seth Johnson and Geoff Thomas come and go and we continue to see them progress to the top leagues. It’s part and parcel of being a Crewe fan.
A new era has now begun and Dario will involved Steve Holland in that era, without doubt the new man to take on the managers job when Dario lets go completely. We’ve already seen a mass of changes this summer and the future looks bright – but if it wasn’t for the last 24 years, who knows where this club would now be?
Dario Gradi. The ultimate football genius.
Dario Gradi – 24 Years At The Club
Dario Gradi arrived at Crewe on June 16th 1983 after a last minute interview for the manager’s job that Peter Morris had just vacated.