By Matt Rowson
Another Saturday, another away game somewhere in the North. And once again a question is posed to which there is no definitive answer. Not "If?", which is invariably the first issue to resolve, rather "How?".
First discount the club coaches as being claustrophobic dungeons of crossed legs and nasty smells, an option only for the profoundly masochistic and for trips to St.Andrews. Discount flying as ridiculously ostentatious, as much part of an away trip as prawn sandwiches or ballroom dancing. Discount energetic options like cycling or walking as plain silly.
No, if you're travelling to Gresty Road on Saturday, the chances are that you'll either be travelling by car or by train. And assuming that the two are both viable options, the choice between them is never an easy one. Indeed, it's rarely straightforward to weigh up these alternatives in terms of the simplest criteria.
Cost, for example. A fairly absolute measure, surely...the cost of however many tankfuls of petrol divided by the number of passengers who are neither poor students nor attending under duress, versus the cost of a train ticket, dependent on how early you've booked, the IQ and disposition of the railway employee who sold you the ticket, the time of day, the passengers' average weight, and the colour of your father's garage door.
Okay, scrub that. Think about convenience. The train is surely less hassle all round...less need for planning. No pain-in-the-arse map-reading as you navigate the outskirts of the town, trying to translate the programme directions into English, naÔvely looking for helpful signposts and ending up halfway to Scotland. Instead you're at the mercy of the British rail network's liquid interpretation of timetables so beloved of BSaD* before negotiating with locals to find your way to either a pub or the ground (or very occasionally both). Ho hum.
Safety, then. The car surely wins out here...the railway station is an obvious magnet for cavemen of either party looking to exchange match programmes, share stories about away trips to Carlisle and punch seven shades of hell out of each other. Then you've still got the chance that you might run into Cardiff City on their way back from some black shell of an ex-away ground. Alternatively, you could leave your car in a quiet-looking side-street. And try to find your way back to it whilst closing your jacket over your shirt and trying to look local.
At least on the trains you get the occasional unexpected bonus of a chance encounter with one of evolution's failed experiments. The Aldershot fan on the train back from Newcastle last season who boasted to us how the few quid he saved breaking into Exeter's ground justified the broken ribs he suffered as a result is already the stuff of legend. Then again, the greater proportion of fellow travellers are the shapeless, faceless masses with noisy children, disdain for football supporters, or Manchester United season tickets (often all three).
On balance, the one thing that sets rail travel above driving is that it gives me something to pad a Crewe preview with. Because the fact is, there's little to say about Crewe that can't be taken as read. Crewe Alexandra are a Good Thing, long may Dario MBE continue to do things The Right Way by bringing through young players and playing attractive football as long as they continue to not beat us. Which you knew anyway.
In actual fact, that Dario is pushing sixty (making a mockery of recent local suggestions naming him as GT's successor) makes you wonder how Crewe are planning to cope with their own accession question. When he arrived at Gresty Road in 1983, the Alex were bottom of the entire league having applied for re-election four times in the previous five seasons. Running to stand still in Division One represents no small progress, particularly given recent investment in a stand worthy of the name, albeit looking slightly out of place in its current environs.
This week, Crewe have also been linked with the highly rated Hartlepool midfielder Tommy Miller. This in an age when most managers would rather gamble a couple of million on a Paraguayan bricklayer than a less glamorous punt in the lower divisions. What a novel concept.
In goal for Crewe will Nigerian Ademola "George" Bankole, back at Gresty Road after a spell with QPR. Regular keeper, the reliable Jason Kearton, has been missing with a shoulder injury and was then granted leave. He is expected to return to Australia when his contract expires in the summer. Cover is provided by Derek Griffiths lookalike, Trinidadian Clayton Ince.
Crewe's defence has looked solid during a recent strong run that has yet to see them lose a league game in 2001. However, they are rumoured to be susceptible when faced with pace and tricks, so it's a shame that we've got nobody on form with those attributes. Tee hee.
Right back will be twenty-year-old former youth-team captain David Wright, linked with several Premiership clubs. On the left, set-piece expert and club captain Shaun Smith has made over three hundred appearances for Alex. In the centre, commanding Geordie David Walton is Crewe's record signing (at £700k from Shrewsbury), whilst Steve Macauley is a local hero, although nervously whispered rumours suggest that he is past his expiry date at this level.
The most obvious means of injecting pace into the backline would be the reintroduction of bandanna-adorned Nigerian centre-back Efe Sodje, who lost his place when Walton returned from injury. The occasional howler has marred Sodje's impressive all-round play; he was this week, along with striker Rodney Jack, linked with a move to Gillingham.
Other defensive options include imposing youngster Stephen Foster, who made his debut in the return fixture at the Vic in September, and Dean Howell. The versatile Chris Lightfoot has been made available for loan, whilst young left-back Anthony Charles is on loan at Hyde United.
In midfield, talented Lilleshall graduate Kenny Lunt is on fine form, whilst Neil Sorvel came close to the player-of-the-season award last year on his return from a sabbatical with Macclesfield. Versatile Crewe-born trier Kevin Street makes up the trio, although Gradi appears to be looking for more cover in this area with Kilmarnock's Gary Holt, linked to every Division One club this season, mentioned alongside Miller. Other options include ex-Stockport man Jim Gannon, whilst Phil Charnock is building up his fitness after five months out. Paul Tait plays the Gudmundsson role; his presence on the bench is seen as an indicator of severe injury problems.
Up front is Crewe's problem area, as the goals have been hard to come by. Jack's goal at Carrow Road was his first since September, whilst six-footer Rob Hulse is very much one for the future. Mark Rivers wingplay is always a threat, although he is said to prefer a central role, whilst Colin Little floats unconvincingly in and out of the side. Seventeen year old Dean Ashton is making quite an impression, but Colin Cramb looks to be on his way out having been linked with clubs at home and abroad.
Last week's dropped two points and Tuesday night's contest with Blackburn mean that three points at Crewe are particularly vital. It would appear that Crewe's weaknesses complement our own... a decent defence to match our capable forward line, a competent midfield to match our own and a limp attack. Logic dictates that with us at the top of the table and Crewe struggling, we should have the edge. That we haven't lost at Crewe since October 1976 is perhaps a cause for optimism.
In any case, I'll be contemplating the outcome in the car by 5.30 on Saturday. Trains might be occasionally cheaper, sporadically more reliable and sometimes safer, but until they're playing Radio 5 across the tannoy I'll stick to the motor.
* For further reading on how rubbish trains are capable of being, see here. And here. Oh, and here. Yes, and here. And lots of other places too, probably.