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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 28/01/06, 3.00pm
Crewe Alexandra
Sofa so good
By Matt Rowson

We have a sofa.

Before it was our sofa it was my sofa. Before then it was my aunt's sofa. It is, therefore, getting on a bit in sofa terms.

Loz, a number of years ago, declared it "the most comfortable sofa I've ever slept on" in a manner that was decisive even by his standards. One would imagine, without wishing to cast aspersions on Loz's character, that he has no small experience on which to base such judgments. Certainly, recent evidence necessitated by simultaneous visits of Tsega's Dad (who took the spare room) and our niece Betty (who took my side of our bed...) backs up this assessment.

In all other respects it's a fairly unremarkable sofa. Yes, it has certainly seen better days. No, it's not a complete disgrace, not yet. Thing is, objective judgment is impaired by both the varying perspectives of the two key interested parties, and by the very existence gentle conflict between them. My perspective, coloured by extra years of affection and the significance of it being the first bit of furniture introduced to my first flat, is that there's essentially nothing wrong with it. Tsega's judgment, borne of an emotionless pragmatism regarding such issues but coloured also by her being the most frequent inhabitant of said sofa, is that it has very much had its day. Today, Thursday, all debate became obsolete. The new sofa arrived.

It would, of course, be unreasonable and disrespectful to compare the long-serving Crewe Alexandra boss Dario Gradi to a sofa. Nor would I presume to comment on someone else's decor on the basis of a brief visit twice a year. However, I introduce the sofa for two reasons. Firstly, to illustrate that once something has been around for a while it becomes difficult to judge its merits and limitations dispassionately. Or to have a reasoned discussion on these merits (or not) without being sidetracked, as both relevant discussions between Tsega and I over the past couple of years, and any number of Alex messageboard conversations raging at present further suggest.

(The second reason to mention the sofa was in the perhaps optimistic hope of finding it a good home... anyone with need of a venerable but just about serviceable sofa and the means to transport it, drop me a line!)

Crewe's cataclysmic end to last season - in which they didn't record a win between New Year's Day (and the sale of Dean Ashton shortly thereafter) and a vital final-day triumph over Coventry - didn't suggest a successful 2005-06 season. Indeed, Alex only recorded six league victories in the whole of 2005, and haven't won at all since the start of November.

And much as the Railwaymen are punching above their traditional weight - they only spent three relegation seasons outside the bottom division in the seventy years preceding 1992 - and much as Dario Gradi is universally acknowledged and lauded as responsible for their current status, there comes a point where losing every week begins to grate...

A shortage of goals was always going to be an issue following the prodigious Ashton's departure; however a scattergun recruitment policy over the summer has not proven totally unsuccessful, and the Alex's Goals For tally compares favourably with those around them. Instead, it's the goals going in at the other end that are the issue, a quite remarkable sixty three conceded thus far in thirty games... Derby and Brighton, sharing the second-worst defensive record in the division, have each only shipped forty seven. Crewe have only recorded two clean sheets this season - one of those against ourselves in September, the other against Leeds a month later.

Alex have made a further 1m this week from a Dean Ashton sell on-clause, but whether or not Gradi will have the opportunity to spend it on his squad before the transfer window closes remains to be seen. Three new faces have arrived already this month; Tony Grant is out with a broken ankle, but fellow Burnley old-boy Gareth Taylor and Jon Otsemobor both impressed in the home defeat to Plymouth at the weekend.

Ross Turnbull is likely to be in goal, despite a shocker of a mistake in conceding what proved to be the decisive goal last weekend; on loan from Middlesbrough, he looked like being recalled had Mark Schwarzer quit the Riverside but will now stay on. His departure would have caused a major headache, with virtually untried youngster Stuart Tomlinson the only other available keeper. Ben Williams, who impressed when on loan from Manchester United last season but has looked nervous since, is out recovering from viral meningitis.

At the back, Otsemobor is likely to play at right-back; he made his first Crewe debut in our 3-0 defeat at Gresty Road last season when on loan from Liverpool; in the meantime he had joined Rotherham United, but made a permanent move to Crewe after only six months in Yorkshire. Right-sided Darren Moss has been filling in at left back, but Anthony Tonkin is back in training following a hamstring injury and could return to the side for the first time in almost a month. Voted the club's Weakest Link in our summer survey of Crewe fans, Tonkin is one of few to have impressed this term.

In the centre, another hamstring injury to the experienced Adie Moses weakens an already shaky looking hand. This leaves the notoriously unreliable Richard "the doorman" Walker alongside either Stephen Foster, who has gone downhill sharply since being the next big thing a couple of years back, or the legendary Chris McCready. Gradi has been trying to recruit a central defender, with Lincoln stopper Gareth McAuley a confirmed target.

In midfield, captain Kenny Lunt plays a narrow-right sided role, with David Vaughan having a disappointing season by his standards on the left. In the centre, eighteen year olds Billy Jones and Gary Roberts have a hundred senior starts between them; Jones would seem to be the likeliest candidate for the next big-money conveyor belt sale, but the Ashton windfall means that this won't be necessitated for a year or two. Reports suggest that he looks slightly out of position in midfield and is happier at the back, where he subdued the then on-fire Danny Webber at Crewe last season.

Lee Bell will probably be on the bench with Grant injured, but the aggressive Justin Cochrane is unlikely to feature having been transfer listed this week at his own request.

Up front, a partnership of Gareth Taylor and Steve Jones has enough about it not to be taken for granted, whatever Crewe's recent form. Taylor, now pushing 33, has been struggling at Forest but was a key protagonist in the memorable clashes with Burnley during Ray Lewington's tenure. He could prove a very sound loan signing, although some have suggested that his nous might be better employed at the opposite end of the pitch, as a centre half.

Steve Jones is persistently linked with the Hornets, although by this stage one suspects that if there ever was any interest it's Jones' agent who is desperately stoking the embers. The Northern Ireland international has been in pretty desperate form this season with only three goals despite a regular start that many on Crewe messageboards are questioning. First in the queue as alternatives are Luke Rodgers, who has only made one start since his summer Bosman arrival from Shrewsbury, and on-loan Manchester United striker Eddie Johnson. Less likely to feature are lanky Slovak Pavol Suhaj, and Spaniard Juan Ugarte, the latter of whom seems to be on his way back to Wrexham. Neither has impressed since their summer arrival. Mark Rivers has already moved on this week, to Carlisle United, whilst Michael Higdon and Luke Varney are out with injuries.

At a time when the top six all seem to be going hell for leather, a home tie against a side in Crewe's predicament ought to be a godsend. However we have yet to record a League win this season against any of the sides currently in the bottom five. Betty's team has been successful at turning it's hand to most tasks so far; confirmation that we can dominate a game against a struggling bunch like Crewe would be very welcome.