8 April 2013

So solid Crewe

Crewe Alexandra celebrate their victory in the Football League Trophy final.

It's hard to find anyone who has a bad word to say about Crewe Alexandra as a football club.

That's why it was so pleasing to see Crewe add a trophy to their cabinet yesterday when they defeated Southend United 2-0 to take home the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. Their victory at Wembley was their first in a national cup final, if you disregard the two Welsh Cups they lifted in the 1930s.

What's more, they did it with a core of youth academy graduates. Their captain Luke Murphy is one of them, and he set the ball rolling with a sublime opening goal after six minutes. The 23-year-old midfielder, who has made over 150 senior appearances since his debut in 2008, is a Cheshire boy born and bred.

Crewe's other goal came four minutes into the second half, and it was scored by their star striker. Max Clayton was born in the north-western railway town, his father Paul also represented the Railwaymen, and his brother Harry is on their books as well.

In 68 senior appearances, Clayton has scored 13 goals, and he is still only 18 years of age. It's no wonder that more and more people are starting to hear more about this sublime talent, but he's not quite a household name yet. When announcing yesterday's result on Absolute Radio, DJ Mark Crossley (no relation to the former Nottingham Forest keeper) referred to Max as 'Adam Clayton'.

Murphy and Clayton will surely be in demand when the transfer window swings open ahead of next season. They could very well follow in the footsteps of another Crewe youth starlet who scored in a major Wembley final, and get a big-money move to the Premier League.

It was the League Two Play-Off Final on 27 May last year when Alex midfielder Nick Powell introduced himself to top-flight suitors with a stunning strike against Cheltenham Town. Powell, then 18, had scored the 16th goal of his first season as a first-team regular. A few days later, a little known manager called Sir Alex Ferguson asked Crewe if he could sign Powell for his Manchester United side. They said yes, and got around £3million in return.

A few months later, Crewe sold another graduate - midfielder Ashley Westwood - to Aston Villa on deadline day. Westwood has been one of the few shining lights in a dark season overall for Paul Lambert's Villans.

Thanks to the money that their youth players generate in transfer fees, the Railwaymen are considered to be one of the most financially-stable clubs in English professional football. Indeed, they are one of those Football League members that have never entered administration, because they spend very prudently and focus on developing youngsters through the academy.

That is a legacy of Dario Gradi, who was manager between 1983 and 2007, and then again between 2009 and 2011. Gradi is still at the club as technical director, and to say that the Italian-born Londoner is popular at the Alexandra Stadium is like saying that a few people have heard of Barack Obama. To Alex fans, he is almost a deity.

Gradi promoted, and still promotes, attractive technical football at Crewe, and he also promoted countless teenage talents to the first-team ranks during his tenure. The most successful products of the club's academy have included Dean Ashton, Seth Johnson, Rob Jones, Danny Murphy and David Vaughan. Gradi also helped turn Neil Lennon, David Platt and Robbie Savage into stars after they were rejected by bigger clubs.

Gradi's managerial mantle has been taken up by Steve Davis, architect of last season's promotion to League One. After winning them their first major trophy, Davis and his team will now conclude a league campaign in which they look to set to finish comfortably in mid-table.

Davis' class of 2013 is full of Alex academy stars. Byron Moore, the scorer of Crewe's other goal in that Play-Off Final, started against Southend. He came through the youth team, as did Harry Davis (Steve's son), Kelvin Mellor and Matt Tootle. Add in Murphy and Clayton, along with the three substitutes, and that's nine youth products out of the 14 players that took part in yesterday's match.

It would have been 10 out of 14 had tragedy not struck defender Adam Dugdale on the eve of the trip to Wembley. Adam and his partner Nicola sadly lost their newborn son Jude recently, and fans from both Crewe and Southend paid tribute to the Alex number 6 by applauding and chanting his name in the 6th minute.

Crewe Alexandra are as family-friendly a club as they come in the Football League. They have been around for 136 years, but still have a very bright future to look forward to. With their emphasis on developing young players and playing attractive football, they are sure to pick up plenty of new admirers over the next few years.

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