Relegation was confirmed on Monday, though the blame games begun a long time before relegation was confirmed. In truth, numerous events over the last 18 months have contributed to a poor season, though Dean Ashton's sale is perhaps an obvious place to begin. Ashton's sale was confirmed on January 10 2005, 9 days after Crewe's famous win at Elland Road which saw them lie 8th in the table, just 6 points off the play-offs with a game in hand. Before his departure, Ashton had already bagged an incredible 20 goals for Crewe that season. The signs were there that Ashton's departure was imminent, with a scout from every Premiership club being present at Crewe's game with Millwall on November 30 2004 - it took Ashton just 12 seconds to find the net. Crewe's management team are no fools; they acknowledged that Ashton's departure was imminent and were searching for replacements. However, it was claimed that the players available 'were no better than what we've got'.
We all realise that we couldn't have held onto Ashton and that replacing him was always going to be a severely difficult task. However, January 2005 was a time when they was talent available in the lower leagues - most of which has now been snapped up. David Nugent was one of the players on offer, though not many had faith in Nugent's ability, perhaps lessening the blame squared on Gradi's shoulders at shunning the ex-Bury hitman. However, many were calling for the likes of Nathan Tyson, Jon Parkin, Grant Holt, Freddy Eastwood, Sam Parkin, Warren Feeney, James Hayter and Juan Ugarte to be given a go. Our league position would have made us a fairly attractive proposition for most, if not all, of these players, so they were realistic targets. Dario's failure to snap up any of this lower league talent must go down as his major error of January 2005.
Although we knew Deano's sale would be a massive blow, few could have predicted the extent to which he would be missed. As you will all be aware, Crewe went on a winless streak of 20 games - a run which would have seen us relegated had it not been for our superior goal difference of 1. From January onwards, the team's performances were largely woeful - the midfield disintegrated, the defence collapsed and the forwards were entirely uninspiring. Up until Ashton's departure, we had looked relatively solid defensively, not completely solid, but as solid as Crewe would ever be under our attacking style of play. Therefore, the signing of Colin Murdock to 'solidify' our defence was perhaps a sufficient measure at the time.
By the summer of 2005, it was apparent that a major rebuild would be required. Clayton Ince had left, our defence was woeful, our midfield was simply not good enough, nor were our strikers. Dario's striker spree was more than enough to satisfy people's desires for an Ashton replacement, with Juan Ugarte's capture seemingly providing reason for cautious optimism. However, Dario failed to address the desperate need for a centre-back, and this must be considered his second major error since Dean Ashton's sale. The candidates for a new-centre back weren't exactly obvious, perhaps slightly lessening the blame that can be attached to Dario. Dario wasn't realistically going to sign another Sodje - Sam Sodje, though he probably wouldn't have joined Crewe anyway. In fairness to Dario, he came extremely close to loaning Jonathan Spector from Man Utd, but Charlton's late interest scuppered Crewe's hopes. However, other loanees were available, with Man Utd offering to loan us any of their youngsters. Dario only loaned Eddie Johnson, and failed to accept Man Utd's recommendations of Rossi and Piqué, thereby providing his third major error - his second of the summer.
The season began in a surprisingly pleasant manner, as Crewe maintained an unbeaten record for the 2nd longest period of time in the league leaving them 12th in the league. However, the League Cup capitulation at Lincoln was to prove extremely damaging. Juan Ugarte's all round game seemed insufficient and the team's confidence was damaged, leading to a winless streak of 9 games. Despite a mini-revival of 3 wins of 6 games, Crewe ended 2005 bottom of the league, with some heavy defeats already suffered against Lincoln, Cardiff, Wolves and Luton. Relegation, however, was far from confirmed as Crewe were just 3 points from safety.
A good January transfer window was required. Gareth McAuley eventually rejected Crewe, whilst Tony Grant's signing was finally given the go ahead, though a broken ankle prevented his first team participation. In fact, January was looking like being a huge anti-climax as the club were having great difficulty in bringing players in. Dario went back to Man Utd asking for Piqué and Rossi on loan, though both were now unavailable for loan. Most of the lower league talent had been snapped up by bigger clubs or were awaiting moves to bigger clubs than Crewe. Crewe finally managed to sign some Algerian bloke called Madjid Bougherra, a Crewe, Rotherham and Liverpool reject in the shape of Jon Otsemobor and the 'experienced' Gareth Taylor. All things considered, Dario did very well in January in terms of transfers, though results failed to improve. Yet another of our winless streaks continued as we sunk further away from safety.
Taylor and Semmy were thrown into the team fairly quickly, with both making their debuts against Plymouth, albeit unsuccessfully as Crewe lost once again. In fact, it took three debutants, well two + Michael O'Connor, to finally secure the elusive win and Madjid Bougherra and Tony Grant made the difference. Since their introduction, Crewe have lost just twice, are unbeaten at home and are in top-half form. Oh yes, and we've been relegated. Conclusion? Too little too late.
In conclusion, replacing Dean Ashton was always going to be hard though the wealth of lower league talent on offer at the time means that Dario probably failed to get an adequate replacement. The failure to sign a centre back in the summer was a major factor in our relegation, though some players have also failed to perform, David Vaughan and Luke Varney most notably. Furthermore, there have been too many winless streaks this season, and the home games against Hull, Ipswich and QPR, as well as Sheff Wed away are ones which have proven particularly costly. Despite Dario making perhaps three major errors partly culminating in our relegation, Vital Crewe sees no grounds to get rid of the man who has done so much for this club. Dario has the necessary experience, has a good track record in the league below and will continue to see the likes of Billy Jones improve which can only be of benefit to Crewe.