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Nationwide Division One, 16/9/00
Crewe Alexandra
Stoke this, Stoke that
By Ian Grant

It was the greatest moment in the history of football phone-ins. If, like me, you're slightly in awe of the childish, innocent, uncluttered stupidity of Dougal in "Father Ted", you would've loved this. A total waste of telecoms equipment and BBC airtime, and absolutely wonderful with it.

A Crewe fan called "606" as we travelled back from Huddersfield on the opening day of the season. He'd phoned to complain about media victimisation of his side. When asked to explain how this evil conspiracy manifested itself, he could come up with nothing more than to bellow "WELL, IT'S ALL STOKE THIS, STOKE THAT!". Pressed again, the shouted answer was much the same - "IT'S ALL STOKE THIS, STOKE THAT!". Over and over and over, no listening to reason or pausing for thought. Idiotic, ridiculous and bloody brilliant. If you're reading this, sir, then this preview is dedicated to you.

Really, unless you're completely immersed in the local politics of the region, the idea that it's all Stoke this and Stoke that is as laughable as claiming that the national newspapers spend far too much time covering Colchester United. Since the Port Vale directors did away with John Rudge, the status of Crewe as everyone's "I hope they stay up" club is absolutely undisputed...and, although there's always a slightly patronising tone to the coverage, the general well-wishing certainly extends to the media.

As with those vintage Rudge sides, if Crewe were ugly and physical, then they'd be a complete pain in the arse and everyone would be delighted to get rid of them. How many tears were shed when Bury were relegated? Quite. But Dario Gradi has managed to create something that's both idealistic and effective. As a supporter of a small club, you can't hate Crewe without implicitly hating something that's much closer to you.

During the summer, various forecasts suggested that this might be a more comfortable year for the Railwaymen. Perhaps, as Wimbledon found out, you're really in trouble when people start to assume that you'll stay up. The season hasn't exactly got off to a flying start, with just one win (against Grimsby) so far. That form continued with Tuesday's 1-0 home defeat against West Brom, who've taken a holiday from being complete cack and also managed to hit the woodwork three times. The forthcoming fixtures aren't too pleasant either, with Saturday's visit to the Vic being followed by three consecutive games against Barnsley in the Worthington Cup and League...more than enough of Dave Bassett for anyone to stomach, I'm sure you'd agree.

The likely wearer of the goalkeeper's jersey is Australian Jason Kearton, formerly of Everton. Although Clayton Ince, a native of Trinidad and Tobago and signed from the bizarrely named Defense Force, has been Kearton's deputy until recently, that role will probably be taken by Ademole Bankole, erratic but warmly welcomed back to Crewe after an unsuccessful stint at QPR.

Really, it's only when you wander around the various websites in search of player profiles that you realise the extent of Crewe's reliance on youth development and scouting. The number of former trainees and part-timers is simply astonishing and the occasional 'proper' signings - Dave Walton from Shrewsbury for £700,000, for example, or Rodney Jack - stick out like a sore thumb.

Defensively, there's plenty to choose from. Despite the unusually hefty price tag, the afore-mentioned Walton was only on the bench on Tuesday. His place in the starting line-up is taken by Efe Sodje, the unmissable bandana-sporting ex-Luton and Macclesfield player.

Alongside him, in various positions that are virtually impossible to ascertain from the information available (I can hear the chants of "BRING BACK ROWSON!" starting as I type), will be a fine array of young talent - Dave Wright has been picked for the England youth team while Steve Foster appears rather leaner than his Brighton-based namesake who can sometimes be seen on the train to the South Coast, looking increasingly lardy. Yes, I'm padding. More experienced is Steve MacAuley, who has also played in midfield and attack during his eight years at the club. I have managed to discover that Shaun Smith is a left-back, so that's something. The whereabouts of Chris Lightfoot, a former sportswear model, are a mystery, we'll assume that he's injured and move swiftly on.

In midfield, highly-touted Kenny Lunt is likely to partner Neil Sorvel, who was released by Alex as a youngster and returned after time at Macclesfield. As cover, Gradi has brought Sunderland's Chris Lumsdon on loan. Skilful winger Kevin Street will provide some flair.

From the look of things, goals would seem to be a problem. Hot-tempered Colin Cramb will not be lining up against least, not on Saturday - he's been sent out on loan to Notts County after a fall-out with Gradi, much to the vocal frustration of some fans. So the fire-power will have to come from Rodney Jack, a familiar figure after our encounters with Torquay and still much the same player - lightning quick, full of tricks, thoroughly erratic, loved by the Alex fans. The available striking options are completed by Colin Little, top scorer for the last three seasons, along with Rob Hulse and Peter Smith, yet more former trainees.

You don't have to be a form expert to work out who will be favourites for the three points on Saturday. But football has a charming knack of punching you on the nose when you're not looking, and we'd do well to remember that, despite fourteen goals in four games, it's not that long since we were cruising for a bruising against Cheltenham. That's what happens when victory's assumed rather than worked for.

Don't take Crewe lightly, then. More of the same requires just that - more of the same.