Success in football is most often quantified by trophies and awards, matches won and points accrued. A career in football is rarely deemed a success unless it is accompanied by silverware.
Claudio Ranieri serves as a recent example of a coach who, despite always performing well at a number of top clubs, had struggled for recognition having found titles elusive, only to prove his worth by leading Leicester to their remarkable Premier League title win. Manuel Pellegrini is another who found his CV questioned once things got rough at Manchester City. Further down the leagues, recognition can be even harder to come by. When managing clubs with limited resources, success is more about exceeding expectations than it is trophies and medals.
Crewe is a small town, with a population of under 100,000 people. Serving as a focal point for train lines in the north-west, Crewe has the interesting distinction of being a town named after a rail station, rather than the other way round. The train station remains an important part of the town’s economy. It is fitting, then, that Crewe’s football team are known as the Railwaymen. Playing at the cosy 10,000-seater Gresty Road, it should come as no surprise that Crewe Alexandra have never troubled the European elite, or even graced the Premier League.
Founded in 1877, Crewe did enjoy some early success, reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1888 before joining the Football League Second Division, albeit as a founding member. Their league status would last just four seasons and would not join again until 1921, this time in the newly formed Third Division.
It is there they would stay until the 1950s, when a record winless streak of 56 matches away from home starting in 1955 would set the tone for a decade that would see Crewe drop into the fourth tier of English football in 1958. The 1960s would be slightly more positive, with notable cup results against Tottenham and Chelsea, along with the first promotion of the Railwaymen’s history in 1963 back to the Third Division, followed by immediate relegation. A brief return in 1969 would again end in relegation and Crewe would remain in the fourth tier until the 1980s. Crewe hold the dubious honour of propping up the Football League more times than any other club, finishing rock bottom eight times between 1894 and 1982.
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Read | The pioneering work of Crewe Alexandra’s academy
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Enter Dario Gradi. Born in Milan in 1941, Gradi and his family would move to London after the Second World War. His playing career was without distinction, taking in Sutton United and Tooting & Mitcham United and would end in 1971 when Gradi became a coach at just 29. One of his first posts was as an assistant coach at Chelsea. After leading Wimbledon to their first ever promotion from the Fourth Division in 1979, Gradi would move on to an unsuccessful spell at Crystal Palace, failing to save them from relegation in 1981, resigning in November of that year after a poor start to the following season.
Upon joining Crewe then, neither club nor manager had enjoyed much success and it seemed very much like a lower league manager joining small-time club. Success would be not having to apply for re-election to the Fourth Division in order to remain in the Football League as the club had already had to do several times, including the season prior.
Slowly but surely, Gradi would exceed those expectations. With a focus on youth and attractive football, Gradi set about building up a club that could never hope to attract big names or hold onto star players. Nevertheless, after several years of solid, steady progress in which Crewe avoided the humiliation of finishing bottom of the Football League, Gradi led the Railwaymen out of the Fourth Division in 1989.
Progress was slow and Crew would suffer relegation from the Third Division in 1991, but Gradi was laying the foundations for better things and establishing a fine academy. A return to the English third tier – now the Second Division after the establishment of the Premier League – would come in 1994 with Neil Lennon becoming the first Crewe player to gain an international cap in 60 years. By that stage David Platt had already left the club for Aston Villa, having made his debut under Gradi in ’85.
That promoted side would feature Danny Murphy and Robbie Savage, along with Lennon, as Gradi began to build a reputation for nurturing young talent. Despite being a newly promoted side, Crewe would reach the Second Division play-offs in the next two seasons, making it third time lucky and achieving promotion to the First Division in 1997.
That summer, both Murphy and Savage would leave the club, with Lennon having left the season previous. With a miniscule budget and loss of key players, Crewe were tipped as amongst the favourites for relegation in the 1997-98 season, but would remain in Division One until 2002. By this stage, Gradi had managed over a thousand matches for Crewe and was the Football League’s longest serving manager, despite reported interest from Benfica in the 1980s. It would have been easy for Crewe to slip back down the leagues, but Gradi oversaw an immediate return to the First Division.
The Railwaymen would retain their place in England’s second tier in the 2003-04 season, with Dean Ashton prominently emerging in a team that also featured David Vaughan and Billy Jones. Ashton would carry that form into the newly branded Championship the following season, leaving the club comfortably mid-table by January. His scoring exploits did not go unnoticed, however, with Premier League side Norwich signing Ashton that winter. Crewe would not win another game until the final day of the season, when a narrow win over Coventry earned survival on goal difference.
Next season would see Crewe’s luck run out, with relegation from the Championship in 2006. A comfortable mid-table finish would follow in 2007 with Nicky Maynard the breakout star that season. Having established an academy that could compete with any in the country and with the club on sound footing, if not hitting the heights managed in the early noughties, Gradi stepped down as Crewe manager just shy of his 66th birthday, moving into a new role as Technical Director.
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Read | Dean Ashton: the England great that never was
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Despite never winning a trophy or title during his time in charge of Crewe, Gradi has been recognised by his peers, winning the PFA Merit Award in 2004 and the Outstanding Contribution to League Football in 2011. With no silverware in his closet, Gradi must still stand amongst the best managers to have graced English football. It is impossible to equate winning a Premier League title with keeping Crewe in the Championship, but Gradi defied all the odds, surpassing clubs with much larger budgets and support, and doing so with style.
Gradi’s replacement at Crewe, Steve Holland, would fail to replicate his predecessor’s success, narrowly avoiding relegation to League Two in 2008. The poor form would carry over into the next season and Holland would be relieved of his duties in November, with Gudjon Thordarson appointed in December. Thordarson could not arrest the slide and Crewe were relegated in 2009. The following season, Thordarson continued to struggle and was sacked in October, with Gradi taking the helm. Despite steadying the ship and avoiding the threat of relegation out of the Football League, Gradi could not manage promotion in 2010 or 2011, but did hand a debut to the talented Nick Powell and established other academy graduates Luke Murphy and Ashley Westwood as regulars in the first team. The three would be crucial in securing a return to League One under Steve Davis in 2011.
Davis, who played under Gradi for Crewe in the 1980s, has continued Gradi’s legacy of placing trust in youth, leading the club to their first real title in 2013, an excellent Luke Murphy volley at Wembley securing the Football League Trophy. That same season, the Railwaymen would cap a comfortable mid-table finish by fielding an entire starting 11 of Crewe Academy graduates in the final match of the season. Davis has struggled to maintain those standards, with Crewe recording disappointing positions in the 2014 and 2015 seasons before eventually suffering relegation back to League Two last season.
The fourth tier is probably Crewe’s level at the moment. Although fans have directed criticism at Davis, the fact remains that before Gradi the club would regularly prop up the bottom of the Football League. The Italian continues to work at Gresty Road as Director of Football, which has continued to churn out players, with Max Clayton amongst the latest to leave. However, without his influence as manager, the club have returned to the level at which he joined them.
That is perhaps the best testament to his success as a manager: Gradi not only surpassed all expectations at Crewe, he redefined them, building a club in his image and keeping them at a level way beyond their expected status for years.
By Adam Durack. Follow @AdamDurack