After years of struggling in England’s bottom division, things were to change for Crewe Alexandra in 1983 when they appointed Dario Gradi as manager.
Italian-English coach Gradi adopted an admirable approach upon arrival – he implemented a youth policy to promote young players into the first team and his aim was to field a full starting eleven of ‘home-grown’ footballers.
Thirty years later and his dream became a reality.
Crewe made history in 2013 when they became the first team in the English Football League to field a full team of academy graduates – and when they did it again in 2018, they were still the still the only club to achieve the feat.
👕 | ACADEMY XI 💪
Well… 5 years on & we're set to make history again!!!
— Crewe Alexandra (@crewealexfc) May 4, 2018
The club is now renowned as a hot bed for manufacturing and developing talent, with over 60% of Alexandra’s current squad made up of academy graduates.
The Railwaymen have produced some great talents since the youth policy’s inception too, namely Danny Murphy and Ashley Westwood, whilst former England captain David Platt also started his professional career at the Alexandra Stadium.
Such is the transformation of Crewe Alexandra under Gradi’s ideology over the past 36 years, the experienced coach was honoured with the ‘Outstanding Contribution to League Football’ award in 2011 – and his methods live on to this day too.
Now under former player and current manager Dave Artell’s guidance, the club continue to make forward strides, and he knows the importance of following in Gradi’s footsteps by maintaining Crewe’s youth development.
“The under-23’s play a massive part,” said Artell. “They’re still pushing to be in the team and players will be given chances.
“It is something that we constantly look at and promote, because that’s our next first team.”
Club Chairman John Bowler has been at the club since 1980, overseeing the development of the youth policy, and he says it is something that Crewe will always look to implement in their long-term strategy.
“Youth development is a long-term commitment and I like that this is something of the fruits that we’re getting from our continued support.
“We’ve got a good side off the field as well as on it.”
An expert’s insight into youth coaching and development in football
Whilst Crewe Alexandra are renowned for their youth policy’s success on a professional scale, UEFA B licensed coach Chris Newcombe has a wealth of first-hand experience in coaching youngsters at amateur level.
Newcombe was coach of Thurmaston Magpies under-11s in Leicester for over five years, nurturing them up to the age of 16, where they are now able to continue their development within a new coaching set-up.
— AFDA Education Hub (@AFDAcademy) March 9, 2017
Caption: Thurmaston Magpies take part in a training session with Leicester City legend Steve Walsh
The 47-year-old enjoyed great levels of success, progressing up through three divisions and reaching a regional cup final – all whilst winning over a multitude of people with his football philosophy and coaching methods.
An experienced coach, Newcombe knows how important good coaching and youth development is for a footballer and their potential careers.
“Developing youth is a really important thing to me,” said Newcombe.
“For me as a coach, it was never just about winning football matches, it was about the style and the way we did it as well – it’s a really big thing for me.
“I always used to say to my players, ‘parents have been at work all week and they want to be entertained, so let’s do that’.
“An American journalist Grantland Rice once wrote: ‘when the one great scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game,’ and that has really stuck with me ever since.
“In terms of how I wanted to develop footballers, I wanted them to play in a particular way. It wasn’t enough for me to just win, I didn’t want to win ugly. I wanted to win and play with style whilst doing that.
“For example, my team lost a cup final 6-4, but there were scouts from clubs that came along who said it was one of the best games of football that they had ever seen.
“My players were given the freedom to try things and entertain, and I think that is especially important for younger footballers.”
Despite his passion and enjoyment of youth development through his coaching, Newcombe also acknowledged some of the challenges that he faced.
“Managing players of different levels was one of the great challenges for me as a coach because obviously there is likely to be more players of different abilities at younger ages.
“However, I never saw growth in player development as linear, I always thought that there would be ups and downs for players.
“I always truly believed that there would be some that progress at different stages, and it was difficult for me to coach a group of players at different ages, abilities and stages of their development – but it was a challenge that I relished.”