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Dario Gradi and Crewe Youth Academy Still Going Strong

July 9, 2011

The recent Under-17 World Cup came to a disappointing end for the young England lads as they were knocked out by old rivals Germany in the quarter-finals but a display of real footballing character and technical ability, not usually associated with the English game was apparent. The quality of English players has come in for some criticism over the past year since the dreadful display of the senior team in South Africa last summer but this young side showed real verve in their ability to play the beautiful game the right way.

A run to the quarter-finals was a satisfactory achievement for the young Lions, especially after knocking out rivals Argentina along the way and on penalties! In a squad consisting of mainly Liverpool and Manchester City and other Premier League youngsters it was somewhat of a surprise to many on-lookers to see three products of League-two side, Crewe Alexandra in the squad. But if you know of Dario Gradi, then this is no surprise at all.

The Crewe Alexandra youth academy has produced many stars including David Platt, Dean Ashton, Danny Murphy and Wales international David Vaughan but in a modern footballing era controlled by money it is unusual to see a League-two club still having such a fantastic impact on youth development.

It can be considered as somewhat of a crude money-making scheme set up by The Alex in bringing players in at a very tender age and turning them into first team outfits before selling them on for a substantial profit. It is a business model that has served the club well over the years and for many years kept them at a profitable level off the field, which is unusual for non-Premier League sides.

The system is one that has brought a basic financial structure to the club but in a time surrounded by so much debate over the quality of youth set ups in Britain, it equates to so much more than money at Crewe, as this is a club built around pride in developing young talent through the footballing philosophy of Dario Gradi.

Surely it is not possible to compare the youth system at Crewe with the scheme at Ajax or with Barcelona’s La Masia is it? But the thing is, even though they may be miles apart in terms of prestige and world recognition, and of course money, there are an abundance of similarities between the philosophies instilled in them.

The Crewe manager has always taught youngsters the value of actually playing football rather than just trying to win a game. The coaching philosophy of Gradi is all about ball control and the importance of passing and movement off the ball, the key traits associated with the current Barcelona side.

The Ajax youth system is known for its ability to promote the 4-3-3 formation from a very young age and rather than force the youngsters how to understand the tactical ins and outs of the game at such an age, the first rule of Ajax is to enjoy the football. Youth development is all about the enjoyment and giving the young players the freedom to express themselves on the field, a concept that has not been recognised in England until now, except at systems such as the one at Crewe.

New youth initiatives have been implemented by the Football Association allowing kids to have much more freedom on and off the field. Instead of playing 11-a-side league football at below secondary school age, schemes will be set up to promote a better development plan involving more 5-a-side based programmes. The FA Youth Development Review will also create a difficulty for the future of youth schemes at clubs like Crewe as it will allow the bigger clubs to take-on promising youngsters from anywhere at a young age.

These youngsters being scooped up by the biggest clubs may gain access to the top corporate facilities available but in a time when Premier League clubs prefer to spend money on recognised stars, it is unlikely that top clubs will prioritise the needs of their youth players.

Ben Garratt, Nick Powell and Max Clayton are the three Crewe Alex players involved in the England Under-17 tournament in Mexico and are possible stars of the future, whose footballing education under the maestro has been second to none.

For his role in the development of home-grown talent and philosophy of footballing coaching, Gradi has once again been recognised for his achievements in football this season after being presented with the Contribution to League Football Award by the Football League. This is not the first accolade bestowed upon the 69-year-old after 28 years involved with the club but it comes at a time when England are finally starting to realise there is a problem in youth development in the country and acknowledge that the Crewe boss has been a man ahead of the times for many years now.

In 1996, Dario Gradi was very close to becoming Technical Director at the FA and would have had a large say in youth development at clubs throughout the country, but Howard Wilkinson ended up getting the role. 15 years on and Gradi is still producing the next stars of the future with limited resources and the FA are finally doing something about youth development but what if the man ahead of his time had been given his say back in 1996, would England be like Spain, and be the technical kings of world football right now?

Alun Vaughan!/AlunLUHG

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