Life is still the same for long-life Gradi as he marks 70

Back in the summer of 1983, Dario Gradi was offered a route back into club football management after being cast into the wilderness as a result of failure at Crystal Palace. That June, he embarked on an unbelievable journey that begins its 28th year at Gresty Road in charge of Crewe Alexandra. Crewe are now an established side in the fourth tier of the football league and as humble as that may seem, it is a far cry from the animal he originally took charge of, constantly applying for re-election to avoid slipping into the Northern Premier League.

Born in Milan and raised in London after immigrating to post-war Britain, Gradi took the educational route and after a spell in teaching, he spent two years as a player in the lower leagues, turning out for Sutton United and Tooting and Mitcham. He shortly discarded that to become assistant coach at Chelsea aged 29, before starting a managerial career which took him to a variety of clubs that eventually settled with Crewe. The club began to move away from the basement under his guide, resulting in promotion to the third division in the 88-89 season. Relegation occurred soon after, but Gradi rebuilt and lead them back into the newly formed division two in 1994. Quite remarkably for a club of its size, progression continued in the form of elevation into division one for the first time in their history.

 Throughout the rise, Gradi never compromised his beliefs that the sport should be played the correct way, and his Crewe team has been synonymous with short, sharp passing football since the early 90s, while his side has one the fair play trophy 13 times in 17 years. Huge endeavour has been invested into an academy, in which its inductees were ingrained in this philosophy and it reaped superb reward. Neil Lennon, Danny Murphy and Seth Johnson all graduated to go onto become Premier League players, while the catchment area of the Northwest was taken advantage of to sign Robbie Savage and David Platt, who were both released by Manchester United. Gradi ensured these players moved on for a profit, and this allowed for reinvestment into the academy to keep the club surviving whilst a reliance on finances started to play more of a role in the game.

The youth set-up still remains such a vital asset to the club. Costing £1 million a year to run, it provides the fuel off which the club runs. This summer, they are waiting on a fee from the potential sale of Nicky Maynard from Bristol City after inserting a sell on fee into his contract when sold back in 2008. James Bailey was sold to Derby County together with John Brayford the previous July, raising a total of £1.6 Million. Luke Varney, acquired from Quorn thanks to an extensive scouting network in the amateur leagues, was sold for £2 Million in 2007. The policy of developing players in a state of the art facility at Reaseheath has paid such dividends and it is the hard work of Gradi and a coaching staff which included Steve Holland, now forging a career as first team coach in Andre Villas Boas’ fresh era at Chelsea, that has made it such a vital asset.

    The set-up achieved official status as a F.A recognised academy in the late 90s and is third only to Manchester United and West Ham in the amount of graduates that are still remaining in English League football. Thirty-eight of which, the probably most celebrated of the lot is the most significant absentee, Dean Ashton having his career so tragically cut short by injury after leading Crewe to the pinnacle of their history of 6th in the Championship, before being sold to Norwich. Gradi relinquished first team duties in 2008 to Holland, who was given over £1 Million to spend by the board on players, but the move backfired and Gradi had to step back in with the club at the bottom of League One with 9 points from 19 games. The reigns were then passed to Gudjon Thordarson who struggled in League Two after originally failing to save them from relegation in a year of heavy transition.

So it is here that Gradi still finds himself, in charge for a 26th season which will begin at Swindon in August, and the fire still remains as bright as it did from day 1. The academy still continues to churn out its treasure, Nick Powell, Max Clayton and Ben Garratt all represented England at the under 17 World Cup in Mexico this summer and are all tipped to have bright futures. They will all have to be moulded further, but there is nobody better than Gradi to do it. An English football hall of fame inductee back in 2004, he has garnered massive respect from the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Robson. Such a career could have taken him to the upper echelons of the sport, he was offered a coaching development role with the FA in 1996, but there will be nowhere he will rather be come August, than standing on the touchline at Gresty Road.

Adam Gray

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