Lombardy and Cheshire are not two locations that you would necessarily associate with each other. But for Milan-born Dario Gradi, his relationship with Crewe Alexandra has been a traditional love story from the start.
In 1983, Crewe Alexandra were statistically the 91st worst team in the Football League. A long season had just ended with the Railwaymen sat second to bottom of the Fourth Division. In fact, such a lowly position was not a surprise- Crewe were no strangers to languishing in the basement of league football. They were resigned to occupying the status of Football League also-rans forever more.
Peter Morris had taken over for the last six months of the season, but a win ratio of less than one in four couldn’t buy him more time in the hot seat. The board had decided to look in another direction.
Dario Gradi had had a subdued playing career, plying his trade at clubs down the pyramid such as Sutton United and Tooting & Mitcham. It wasn’t until Gradi turned to football coaching that he began to register on most people’s radars.
After several low-key posts, Gradi was appointed as manager of Wimbledon in 1978, immediately guiding them to promotion to the Third Division. They were relegated the following season, but an immediate return to the third tier looked likely as the Dons eased their way through the Fourth Division again.
But Gradi’s successes had not evaded the attention of bigger clubs. First Division Crystal Palace turned to Gradi when they were at a low point. But Gradi couldn’t work his magic, as The Eagles were relegated from the top tier. After a poor start to the following season, Gradi resigned.
After being out of football for over two years, Gradi was handed the unenviable task of transforming Crewe Alexandra football club into a cost-effective and successful outfit.
His reputation bruised after the ill-fated spell in the capital, Gradi had no choice but to succeed at the club. Without any hesitation, Gradi adopted the slow and steady approach to basement division football and, after six seasons of solid improvement, Crewe achieved promotion.
It was a feat that was wildly beyond the dreams of supporters when Gradi had arrived six years previous. It may have taken a while, but there was finally a basis to build on.
A brief encounter back in Division Three was quickly remedied by promotion to Division Two in 1994. After more steady progress, Crewe reached the second tier of English football in 1997.
After fourteen years of hard work from Gradi and his staff, in a journey that had more twists and turns than a B-road, little Crewe had defied all the odds. A dead-end club when he took over, Gradi had transformed the Railwaymen into a fairytale story- everyone’s favourite second team.
But he had not been a wheeler-dealer, scouring the leagues for journeymen looking to pick up a final wage packet before retirement. Instead, Gradi’s focus on youth won him countless admirers.
Dean Ashton, David Platt, Neil Lennon, Danny Murphy and more. The list of graduates from the ‘University’ of Crewe is extensive and remarkable.
Gradi continued in the hotseat until 2007, when he announced he would take up a backseat role at the club in a position that focused on developing youth, a massive 24 years after first joining.
Such commitment and endeavour did not go unnoticed. Indeed, the late Sir Bobby Robson led the plaudits, describing Gradi as ‘honest, diligent and remarkable’ upon his induction to the Football Hall of Fame while Arsene Wenger compared Gradi’s relationship with Crewe to a ‘great marriage’.
Compare the successes of the 1990’s Crewe team with today’s equivalent and the contrast is colossal. Back in the bottom tier of the Football League, Crewe sit in 17th position below the likes of Macclesfield and Accrington Stanley.
Last week, ex-manager Gudjon Thordarson was relieved of his duties. With the club in such disarray, there was only one man to turn to.
Gradi took to the dugout for last Saturday’s 3-2 defeat against Rotherham and looks like he’s preparing to be there for the foreseeable future.
“I’m planning on being here for the long term and I think we’ve got a good bunch of lads to work with,” Gradi told Sky Sports.
“If I had inherited that lot when I started here 20-odd years ago I would have been well pleased.”
But what about the hiatus since he last managed the club? Has he lost his touch? Perhaps a stupid question for a man with his track record.
“I feel that I’m a better manager now than I’ve ever been because of that experience,” Gradi said this week.
“I’m still fit and energetic and I couldn’t resist the temptation to come back. I’ve made the right decision.”
After a short break, it’s up to Dario Gradi to rekindle his love affair with Crewe Alexandra Football Club. And few people are likely to bet against Gradi turning their season around. After all, his task is much simpler this time around.
Crewe are only 85th in the Football League.