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03/04: Preview: Crewe Alexandra
Opposition opinion
by Crewe fan Paul Wilkinson

What happened last season?
For many Alex fans, 2002-2003 was one of the best, breaking all sorts of records - most points, most away wins, and our highest ever finish in a division table (yes, it was the first time we've ever got promoted as runners-up; still no silverware) - and getting promoted with a game to spare meant two celebration parties: one at Loftus Road after the all-important draw against QPR and another a week later after the final, and now meaningless, match against Cardiff.

What a pleasure it was to go to games pretty confident of victory and come away with all three points week in, week out. OK, it didn't always happen - particularly at Gresty Road where the pitch posed huge problems for a side reknowned for its passing football - but highlights include bagging five goals at Mansfield, and four at both Luton and Cheltenham, and an 8-0 tonking of Doncaster in the LDV Vans trophy (though the 4-2 mauling we got later at Shrewsbury perhaps makes me glad we're not in that competition this season).

What's going to happen next season?
This will be Dario Gradi's 20th season in charge. Yes, 20! There is a whole generation of Alex fans who have grown up knowing no other manager at Gresty Road but Dario, and who regard reminiscences about the old Fourth Division days as the demented ravings of senile old tweedies. What a long way we have come....

... But what a long way we still have to go if we are to survive our second spell in the First Division. Selling last season's highest scorer Rob Hulse was perhaps to be expected (only a year left on his contract), but we also released Rodney Jack (perhaps not the force he once was, but still likely to cause defences problems), fellow forward Colin Little and tall defender Dave Walton, and there doesn't seem the strength in depth up front that we used to have.

However, Hulse's departure opens up opportunities for others to show what they can do. In attack, we hope that Dean Ashton can fulfil the promise he has shown occasionally (or is he the new Mark Rivers?); tricky Steve Jones (picked up from non-League a couple of seasons ago, and now a full Northern Ireland international) can continue his massive improvement and fill the place vacated by Rodders; and there should (at last) be a chance for Paul Edwards (confusingly, the third Alex player to bear that name in recent memory, but the first striker) to stake a claim to a regular first team place.

Midfield, there won't be too many changes, apart from those resulting from the inevitable injuries we seem to be prone to. On their day, playmaker Kenny Lunt, captain Dave Brammer and Neil 'Sideways' Sorvel can be brilliant (but on their off-days, can be pants!). Great things are expected of Welsh cap David Vaughan, and Lee Bell and Ben Rix will be pushing their claims.

In defence, however, we struggle to find a capable left-back. Man Utd loanee Paul Tierney initially did well last season, but the position has seen a string of players trying to be adequate - filling this gap is apparently a Dario priority. Centre-half Steve Foster is getting better and better, and Richard Walker is also improving, but David Wright has not really fulfilled the potential of a couple of season ago. Expect occasional outings (usually incident-filled) also from Nigerian bandana-wearing Efe Sodje who is keen to prove his worth to Dario.

When first choice keeper Clayton Ince is fit we all breathe a huge sigh of relief. If he isn't then we have real problems as Ademole 'George' Bankole does not inspire the same confidence and Dario is reluctant to use the home-grown third-string Stuart Tomlinson. Again, this is an area where Dario hopes to find a new addition.

In short, we have a squad that's a bit threadbare in places, but a season in which to develop some of the latest talent to roll off the Dario Gradi conveyor belt (I haven't mentiond some of the youngsters who already have England caps at various youth levels). Given that Hulse's sale will, at a stroke, remove most if not all of the club's modest debt and return it to profitability, there should be few off-pitch problems to worry us (shame we don't have the same confidence about the new pitch surface!).

However, I reckon there will be more than a few First Division clubs with financial worries making an impact on the pitch. It will be a very different First Division to the one we last played in 12 months ago, and although we will struggle against the best teams, I think there is less of a gulf between the Alex and the middle-ranking teams. OK, maybe we won't race into the play-offs, and perhaps we will repeat previous dalliances with relegation, but I reckon we are good enough to finish just above the bottom three come next May.

Can you recommend a pub for away fans?
A lot of visiting supporters seem to go to the Brocklebank pub on Weston Road - a relatively new place which is family-friendly, and has its own carpark. Otherwise, among the more established pubs, you could try the Brunswick, the Bank (doormen on matchdays) or the Barrel, both on Nantwich Road less than two hundred yards from the top of Gresty Road. The British Lion used to be a home fans pub, but the front door is now opened to away fans on many Saturdays and is a cheerful little boozer, often crowded on match-days.

What's the nearest railway station?
For a club nicknamed the Railwaymen, it is not surprising that the nearest station is Crewe station. Gresty Road is about 150 yards from the station (turn left out of the station, take first left - opposite Royal Hotel), and the ground is less than 200 yards walk down. Five minutes maximum, even if you walk veeeeerrrryyyy sloooooowly.

Where is the best place to park?
As a regular long distance traveller to GR, I now park in the main club car-park (pay-and-display 1.60), though there can be the usual delays in leaving after the game (turning left and working your way back to the motorway via Shavington can save time, and you pass the Alex Soccer Centre on the way). The main car-park can be full if the ground is near full capacity and there are the usual selection of cub scouts' carparks down Gresty Road. Best bet on busy days - particularly for those heading back to the M6 - could be the industrial estate off Weston Road (opposite the Brocklebank pub), just south of the roundabout near Crewe station.

Word Association
Crewe Alexandra Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone.... Dario Gradi, longest-serving manager in the football league... endless associations and puns to do with railways...
Beckham Irrelevant to us. Absolutely no value as a role model - unless you rate crass exploitation of his image and skills (certainly not his personality) for commercial gain
Milton Keynes Nice place (too many roundabouts) but should grow its own footy team, not rely on a bunch of arrogant south London businessmen foisting a franchise on it
The Premiership Some Alex fans (wacky-backy suspected) reckon Dario might one day get Crewe there. In the meantime, a potential source of cash as we sell yet more young Alex starlets
Division Two Great Division to be in last year and it's definitely not the end of the world if we go back there
Jamie Moralee thick neck ... scored a hat-trick in a pre-season friendly for us a few years ago ... unfortunately, this was the height of his goal-scoring powers. He failed to net even one more and deservedly joined a long line of ex-Alex strikers in the lower leagues
Watford Easy trip for the London-based Alex fans (especially enjoyed our last trip there - my daughter's first ever Alex match and 1-0 to the Railwaymen!)

Soundbites (from assorted Census correspondents)

"I like pie..."

"When taking part in sport, its not winning or losing that's important. Its how drunk you get afterwards"

"I work in student accommodation hence I know the spelling"

"When are Watford going to build a decent 4th stand? Red shorts definately. Steve Sherwood wasn't fouled"