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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 24/09/05, 3.00pm
Crewe Alexandra
Waiting for the Fall
By Matt Rowson

Dreams are a funny thing.

The driving thrust behind any football match is a desire to see your team win. I mean, I know that there's more to enjoying football than that: you enjoy the ritual, your mates, the release, whatever. But when it comes down to it, sitting down at 3pm, you have one focus. And even the fairly rational voice that argues against promotion to the Premiership (not premier, not a ship) whenever the vague prospect arises, remembering ticket prices, ticket availability, blanket but vacuous and patronising media coverage, not to mention losing every week, goes out the window. You Want Your Team To Win. Every game. That's the point of the exercise, so to speak.

And yet... there's something to be said for never quite getting there. Look at us, twenty-odd years ago. Finishing second in the top flight five years after winning Division Four, second highest scorers in the top division to boot. Dream land. I was a kid, I'd jumped on the ride halfway up so maybe I didn't fully appreciate it but I did know that this was as good as it got, as good as it was ever going to get. I wasn't completely stupid.

The season we went up, we averaged just under fifteen thousand at home, despite a proliferation of teams (like ourselves) with traditionally modest travelling support but with considerably less attractive a side to watch... Grimsby, Wrexham, Orient, Oldham, Shrewsbury. The first season in the top flight, the season we finished second, nineteen and a half thousand average. The fifth season in the first division, Graham Taylor's first last season having never finished lower than twelfth, we recorded what remains our second highest League finish, eighth place. And the fifth most goals. The average gate had dropped back to 15,800. Take away the visitors' figures from Tottenham, Arsenal, Man United et al and we were probably attracting lower home gates than we had in winning promotion.

You know that it's not going to get any better. You're rolling along on the top of the big dipper waiting for the drop. There's some who'll stay for it, of course, some who'll come along and still come along whatever. But there's something distinctly unsexy about waiting for things to get worse.

And so to Crewe. Dario Gradi, for so long one of the few managers who no supporters of any club speak ill of. The Crewe production line... Murphy, Johnson, Rob Jones, Lennon, Platt, Ashton. Ashley Ward. Okay, forget Ashley Ward. And punching above their weight, so consistently. And playing such decent stuff. What's not to like?

Except... if you're there, I guess, watching it every week, it must get a bit trying. There's a certain pleasure, a self-righteousness, in knowing that with the resources available Crewe have no right to expect to be in the division they're in, let alone be there without playing obstructive anti-football. But even that must wear thin after two wins in thirty games stretching back to New Year's Day, and those in consecutive competitive games (over Cov and Burnley), albeit separated by the summer break. What do you do? You can't sack Dario...

Ross Turnbull is likely to be in goal for Alex; on loan from Middlesbrough, the 6'4" youngster has played the last five games and impressed. Former Manchester United youngster Ben Williams, who Turnbull replaced after an injury, is fit again but restricted to the bench.

At the back, former Shrewsbury full-back Darren Moss should play on the right, with Anthony Tonkin, still far from a fans' favourite, at left back. In the centre Stephen Foster, generally solid but prone to the occasional lapse of concentration, should partner the legendary Chris McCready. With Adie Moses, who played a season in the Premiership with Barnsley, out injured, the lumpy Richard Walker is a candidate for a place on the bench, with midfielders Jones and Vaughan also able to drop back into defensive positions.

Such moves seem unlikely, however, as numbers seem a bit thin in midfield. Kenny Lunt, a favourite of Gradi's, survived the summer despite looking like moving on and remains captain, playing wide on the right but not remotely a winger. Eighteen year old Billy Jones, who had Danny Webber in his pocket last year when playing at the back, should play in the centre of midfield; at Reading on Saturday he partnered another eighteen year old, Gary Roberts, as Gradi got a more positive performance out of a 4-4-2 formation having previously tinkered with 4-3-3. Welsh international David Vaughan, another to impress here last season, should play on the left; Justin Cochrane, to the bemusement of some, has to be satisfied with a place on the bench.

Up front, the side's spectacular collapse following the sale of Dean Ashton saw Dario bring in a whole army of strikers over the summer to the point where he now has more than he knows what to do with. On-loan Eddie Johnson, who spent last year at Coventry, has featured heavily but pulled a hamstring recently and will miss out. Target man Michael Higdon and the pacy Steve Jones, linked with a move to Vicarage Road over the summer, were the favoured pairing on Saturday and may get another run. Waiting in the wings, however, is Luke Rodgers, signed from Shrewsbury after a prolific start to his career in the lower divisions, who has yet to feature following a knee injury but could come into contention. Other options include giant Slovak Pavel Suhaj, Xabi Alonso's best mate Juan Ugarte, former Norwich flake Mark Rivers and another speed merchant, Luke Varney, who scored at Vicarage Road in January.

Writing before Tuesday night's cup tie, there seems little doubt that the forthcoming games will test the depth of our own squad for one reason or another. We could have a tougher away trip to cope with in the circumstances than a visit to a low-confidence Crewe side. However last season, in a similar position, we travelled to Crewe having blistered through our first eight games before coming unstuck, slightly unfortunately, at home to the League leaders the previous weekend. Let's not take anything for granted, eh. I'm sure Dario isn't.