From Valencia to Crewe – a search for authenticity

OVER the past couple of months, I have witnessed football in all four divisions in England and hopped across to Spain to catch a Champions League tie involving Chelsea and Valencia. As well as the contrast in climate – it was great to go short-sleeved in Valencia while everyone was rain-sodden at home – seeing football across all levels was a reminder that for all the glitz and glamour of the elite, some aspects of the game remain humble and earnest. Some are in a precarious state.

On the subject of precarious, I must admit I have never felt so vulnerable at a football ground as I was in Valencia. Not because of the fans, but after the ascent of the north face of the Mestalla. Is there a steeper, more daunting climb than the one you encounter reaching the very top of the open stand? We were in the highest but one row, a floodlight behind us and the city before us. Fantastic, but I looked around and asked my pal, “Bill, have you noticed something?…we are the only people over the age of 21 in this part of the stand.” Indeed we were, for the older folk were perched down below. We had reached the summit and after some puffing and panting – not to mention negotiating the concrete steps which are a challenge for anyone under six foot – we were enjoying the view. No surprise the lift to this section of the ground had a long queue.

The Mestalla was a wonderful experience, the vibe was pure passion and the game was excellent, a 2-2 draw amid the shabby chic of one of Spain’s most iconic stadiums. We had to admit, though, it is an arena best suited to Sherpas and mountain dwelling creatures.

Valencia, along with my trip last year to Real Madrid, has given me a taste for Spain after years of relative neglect on my part, mostly because of a few trips to Lloret de Mar as a teenager in search of thrills and spills. Not being a sun-worshipper, my wife and I tend to patronise the Nordic region, partly because as a 50% Dane, I am naturally interested, but also because we cannot tolerate intense heat. However, after years of trolling around central Europe, Germany and Scandinavia, I have suddenly got an urge to visit Spain again.

What’s not to like, especially in winter? There was little obvious evidence of the economic crisis that brought the country to its knees a decade ago, although Valencia’s new ground has sat unfinished like a hotel at a suddenly unfashionable tourist resort. The city itself looks fairly prosperous at first glance with a relaxed air and a taste for modern architecture. The weather is glorious, the oranges that provide the world’s marmalade lovers with fruit glisten in the sun and Iberico ham hangs from the ceilings of countless shops, bars and restaurants. It’s not just about football!

By contrast, my trip to Crewe came just 48 hours after the latest general election in the UK. Anyone who has travelled the country in search of football kicks has changed at Crewe at some point in their lives. Valencia’s fans, supporting a club from one of Spain’s biggest cities, are passionate, but to attach yourself a club like Crewe takes a very special fan. In the UK, we’ve got millions of people who follow the less celebrated, less successful clubs, and the fortunes of their favourite team mean as much to them as any regular at the Mestalla.

From a footballing perspective, Crewe Alexandra is one of those romantic names that once proliferated lower league football, evoking images of flat caps, rattles and cups of Bovril. The beanie hat has succeeded the flat cap, despite a renaissance in natty tweed headgear by order of the Peaky Blinders, and rattles are nowhere to be seen, but Bovril is still on sale at Gresty Road.

I was in Crewe for a couple of reasons, one was to pick-up on the mood after the election, the other was to see a club that I’ve always had a soft spot for. I was fortunate to be seated with a number of similarly-aged Crewe fans who were intrigued why somebody with a southern accent was at the game. We had a good, through-the-game conversation that left me in no doubt about how the locals feel about their club – as well as their politics!

What do fans of clubs like Crewe really hope for? Success has to be relative when you’re as small and challenged as a Crewe, a Macclesfield or a Stevenage. Little victories, fleeting triumphs and, in the current climate where the rich clubs keep getting richer and the poor long to just get through the season, survival is the thing. Crewe have Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham not so far away, which makes life a little difficult at times. Valencia, despite their good gates and high level of expectation, have to contend with Real Madrid and Barcelona in the same stable. Who really has the hardest task, Crewe or Valencia?

I enjoyed both trips immensely, one for its scale, emotion and quality, the other for the stoic way clubs like Crewe co-exist with giant clubs whose financial clout is way off into the stratosphere. But the experience demonstrated why we love football, because it is about the giants and the minnows, the rich and poor, the bold and the humble. In some ways, those that follow clubs that only briefly get a glimpse of the spotlight are those that represent the heart and soul of football.

Constant success can soon become a  little bit “everyday” – why else would fans of some of recently-monied clubs hanker for the days when success was something they strived for rather than expected? It may be something to do with authenticity. Given that we supposedly live in a time when people, tired and disillusioned by the superficial, crave an authentic experience, a trip to Valencia or Crewe provide the ideal antidote to 21st century world-weariness.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, February 2020 edition.

Crewe Alexandra and football’s class divide

EVERYBODY has changed at Crewe at some point in their lives, or at least, that’s the popular myth. It was once one of the key railway hubs of Britain, the point where train lines intersected. At one stage, the railways employed thousands of people, more than 10% of the local population. It’s no real surprise that Crewe Alexandra’s Gresty Road stadium is among the closest to a train station, sitting adjacent to railway property and overlooked by an office block known as Rail House. Apparently, you cannot travel from any part of town towards the centre without passing under or over a railway bridge.

From a footballing perspective, Crewe Alexandra is one of those romantic names that once proliferated lower league football, evoking images of flat caps, rattles and cups of Bovril. The beanie hat has succeeded the flat cap, despite a renaissance in natty headgear by order of the Peaky Blinders, and rattles are nowhere to be seen, but Bovril is still on sale at Gresty Road.

In the past, the ground had wooden terraces courtesy of the nearby railway works, who provided chunky sleepers for the fans to stand on. Today, Gresty Road is as modern as it is possible for a small, homely club to be, neat stands all round with a giant structure that overhangs the rest of the ground and indeed, stands almost alone on the Crewe landscape. No smoking chimneys in this corner of the north, the horizon is strictly low level.

Crewe’s history is a modest one. They reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1888, losing 4-0 to then-mighty Preston North End and they’ve had a few seasons playing in the second level of English football. Above all, they’ve been known as a club that develops young players and hence, they’ve got a state-of-the-art training facility. “Bloody Premier class,” insisted a long-standing Crewe fan when explaining that the ethos established by Dario Gradi has continued at the club.

Model

There was a time when Crewe was seen as a role model for small-town football clubs in finding their place in the modern football structure. Gradi, an excellent mentor, brought through a number of players who won international honours. David Platt, for example, was released by Manchester United as a youngster but made his name with Crewe under Gradi’s management. Geoff Thomas was nurtured by Crewe before joining Crystal Palace, winning nine England caps. Liverpool signed Rob Jones from Crewe for £ 300,000 and he was also honoured by England. There are others who came through the Crewe system.

Prior to the arrival of Gradi in 1983, Crewe were perennial strugglers and were forced to apply for re-election to the Football League 10 times between 1956 and 1983. “Without Dario, I’m sure we would have become a non-league club,” says Nigel, who has supported Crewe since 1967. “He had some good ideas and wanted to build the club up.”

Crewe became one of the most admired clubs in English football, not just because of their ability to develop talent, but also for a distinctive style of play. Gradi was a disciple of Dave Sexton, the former Chelsea, Manchester United and QPR manager. In fact, the Italian-born former schoolteacher, who was an accomplished amateur footballer in his youth, was appointed assistant coach at Chelsea at the age of 29 in 1971.

Gradi is no longer at Crewe after retiring in October 2019. Sadly, his name became somewhat tarnished by recent sex scandal enquiries although nobody will have a bad word said about him. “This is effectively Dario’s club, we owe him plenty,” said one Crewe loyalist.

Gradi stepped down as manager in November 2011 after four separate spells that included 1,359 games. Since then, Crewe have had just two managers, rather unique in today’s football world but arguably a sign of the underlying stability at the club. The current manager, Dave Artell, a no-nonsense character who was described as a classic lower-league central defender, has been in the job since January 2017. “This is a club that has a reputation for being sensible, one that tries to live within its means at all times and not make rash decisions,” said Nigel.

Local

That must be a tough task, for one glance around Gresty Road tells you life is very different at this end of the English game. For a start, there’s an absence of global brands and international companies. In the club shop, porridge oats are on show, an indication of the type of sponsor the club attracts. Mornflake, a company that mills high quality oats, is based in Crewe. Then there’s the Whitby Morrison works, a Crewe company that makes Ice Cream Vans. There’s no Emirates Airlines, Chevrolet or BMW-type company looking to attach themselves to clubs like Crewe. “Money goes to money. These are local firms who have shown their loyalty to the club.”

But then, a town like Crewe loses people to the big guns every weekend. Manchester (United and City) is 36 miles away, Liverpool 48 miles and Stoke-on-Trent just an 18-mile journey. Crewe has a population of 72,000 and with nearby Nantwich, has a combined total of around 90,000. The Crewe & Nantwich political constituency was heavily featured in the media during the recent general election because it was deemed to be a “marginal” seat. Crewe is predominantly a working class town, but Nantwich is an aspirational place with strong Conservative links, so the constituency is somewhat torn. Like many similar areas – Crewe and Nantwich voted to leave the European Union to the tune of 60% – the electorate voted Tory.

With a 70,000 population, Crewe Alexandra are drawing around 5% of it to Gresty Road, not a bad percentage. Their average gate in 2018-19 was 3,762 but earlier in the 21st century, they were attracting between six and seven thousand. The usual gate is around 4,000 this season, a campaign that has started reasonably well.

Crewe’s team is a tribute to their youth system. Against Mansfield Town on December 14, 10 of the 14 players fielded were 23 or under. Eight were home grown and four were free transfers. One player, Chuma Anene is on loan from Denmark’s FC Midtjylland. Experience comes in the form of the much-travelled Nicky Hunt (36) and Eddie Nolan (31).

A general view outside of the Alexandra Stadium, Gresty Road, Crewe.

Next?

Crewe fans like Nigel anticipate that Tom Lowery will be the next major sale for the club. He’s just 21 years old and a relatively slight player, but he is very skilful. He’s started the season well as Crewe have forced their way up the league table. Their home form has been good and they’ve already won five times away from home. The Mansfield game ended 1-1, but was a lively and entertaining 90 minutes. Anene opened the scoring after eight minutes but a nicely taken goal by Mansfield’s Andy Cook drew the visitors level. Both teams missed several chances in both halves. Crewe were without their leading scorer Chris Porter, another experienced hand (36 years old) who has averaged a goal every three games for Crewe.

Gresty Road seems to have a healthy atmosphere where expectation is realistic and people have real pride in their club. Make no mistake, though, clubs like Crewe are in the survival game. They need to generate income from selling talent higher up the food chain in order to keep going. Their turnover in 2017-18, for example was just £ 4 million – compare that to clubs like Manchester United and the huge imbalances in the English game are very visible, and indeed, worrying. The situation at Bury, along with the recent news about the financial position of Championship clubs, was a reminder that the 92-club structure is under constant pressure. Yet we need clubs like Crewe, Accrington, Rochdale and Scunthorpe to exist, we need an eco-system that is financially robust. If nothing else, we need the likes of Crewe Alexandra to remind us there is another way.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: GOTP and PA