As the Railwaymen prepare for the League Two play-off final, I take a look back at all the household names whose careers began at Gresty Road…

West Ham United proudly boast that they have the ‘Academy of Football’ and that they won the World Cup, as their fans frequently like to remind us all. The legends of Moore, Hurst and Peters were joined in the modern day by the likes of the Ferdinand brothers, Lampard, Cole, Defoe and Carrick, and this club is now rightly back where it belongs in the Premier League after beating Blackpool in the Championship play-off final 2-1.  

This weekend, it will be the turn of the League One and League Two representatives to battle it out at Wembley to see who will gain promotion. For the League Two play-off final, Cheltenham Town will take on Cheshire club Crewe Alexandra for the right to play in League One next season, indeed the sole bearer of the Football League in Cheshire following the relegation of Macclesfield Town from League Two.  

Cheshire’s sole remaining Football League participant has always relied and prided itself on it’s ability to develop and nurture young players, with arguably the best academy currently outside the club’s in next season’s Premier League, but also to balance the books, with a player commanding a £2 million fee every few seasons to keep the club out of debt.

Nevertheless, as fans of the Alex prepare for next weeks encounter with baited breath, I thought I would give a run-down for those who are perhaps not familiar with the club to illustrate the youth development that this club prides itself and indeed uses out of sheer necessity. However, some of the products that have played at the Alexandra Stadium over nearly three decades of tutelage under the legendary Dario Gradi speaks volumes, as this list will indeed hope to illustrate. Many of them have had varied careers, some with unbelievable highs and others with disappointing lows, but it is hoped that what this will demonstrate is that Crewe have got the best English academy system outside the clubs who compete in next season’s Premier League… 

Dean Ashton - Striker – 2000-05 

- 178 appearances, 74 goals 

- Sold to Norwich City in 2005 for £3 million

Dean Ashton retired from football at the age of just 26 in December 2009, following chronic injury problems suffered whilst training on England duty in a tackle with Shaun Wright-Phillips. Ashton will undoubtedly go down as one of those ‘what if’ players, as he was one with unbelievable potential. Likened to the great Alan Shearer for his clinical finishing ability, he was sold to Norwich City for £3 million in 2005, before joining West Ham United for £7 million in January 2006, and scoring 19 goals in five injury-hit seasons in East London. Ultimately, Ashton’s career went down as a sad tale of imagining what might have been for both club and country.  

Robbie Savage – Midfielder – 1994 – 97

- 87 appearances, 10 goals 

- Sold to Leicester City in 1997 for £400,000

Now a pundit for the BBC and very much retaining the personality he had as a player, what you can certainly say about Robbie Savage is that whether you like him or loathe him, you certainly can’t ignore him. Savage was initially part of Manchester United’s renowned ‘Class of 92’ that won the FA Youth Cup of that year, a squad that also included David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Phil Neville amongst others. He was offloaded to Crewe in 1994, where Gradi helped to mould him into a midfielder and away from the striker role he began his career at, and developed him into a highly promising young player. Savage handed in a transfer request at the end of the 1996-97 season and Martin O’Neill at Leicester City made his move for Savage, where the man from Wrexham would go on to play in two League Cup final’s, triumphing in one of them. Savage also went to go on to play for Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers and Derby County before retiring in 2011 and embarking on a full-time media career, using considerably more fake tan than he did in his playing days.  

Neil Lennon – Midfielder – 1990-96

- 147 appearances, 15 goals

- Sold to Leicester City in 1996 for £750,000

The Northern Irishman and current Celtic manager – indeed a Bhoys legend – arrived at Crewe Alexandra on a free transfer in 1990 after being released by Manchester City at the tender age of 19. Again, as Gradi has done so many times during his tenure as Crew boss, he nurtured the young Lennon into a Northern Irish international and cashed in on his asset when the time was right. In this case, it came in February 1996 from Leicester City, whom he was sold to for £750,000. Two League Cup final victories for Leicester later, he went on to play for his beloved Celtic, the club that he supported as a boy, and later became manager of the Bhoys, recently leading them to the SPL title.     

Luke Varney – Striker – 2003-07

- 108 appearances, 35 goals

- Sold to Charlton Athletic in 2007 for £2.5 million

Luke Varney’s career has been that of a journeyman since he left Crewe.  Took until the 2006-07 season before he was properly noticed and Alan Pardew, then manager of Charlton Athletic, stumped up the money to take Varney from South Cheshire to South London. At the Addicks, Varney had a disappointing spell, scoring only 10 goals in 61 games for the club, and was shipped out on loan to Derby County mid-way through the 2008-09 season. Despite being bought by Derby at the end of that season, he made only 15 appearances in three years at the club, being sent out on loan twice to Sheffield Wednesday and once to Blackpool. He is currently at crisis club Portsmouth, and will be playing League One football next season, potentially against the club where it all started for him.  

Nicky Maynard – Striker – 2005-08

- 67 appearances, 35 goals

- Sold to Bristol City in 2008 for £2.25 million

Nicky Maynard’s breakthrough season came in the 2006-07 season, where in his first full season with the Alex, scored 19 goals in 38 games, the equivalent of a goal every other game. After a brilliant maiden full season, Maynard filled the void left by the sale of Luke Varney to Charlton Athletic in the 2007-08 season by scoring a respectable 15 goals in 28 appearances. After two consecutively good seasons for a young striker, bigger clubs with bigger finances inevitably came calling, and Maynard became Bristol City’s record signing in 2008 when he signed for them for £2.25 million. Maynard’s four year spell in the West Country was a mixed experience, his first two seasons started off relatively brightly, scoring 32 goals in 90 appearances, but his final two campaigns with the Robins were less fruitful, scoring 14 goals in 40 games due to injury problems in the 2010-11 season. This January, after Maynard revealed he would not be extending his contract at Ashton Gate, he was sold to West Ham United for an undisclosed fee and will be playing in the Premier League next season at the age of 25.   

Rob Hulse – Striker – 1999-2003

- 129 appearances, 47 goals

- Sold to West Bromwich Albion in 2003 for £750,000

Another academy graduate who has gone on to represent multiple clubs all over England since leaving Crewe is Rob Hulse. A trainee at Crewe, Rob Hulse spent four seasons at Gresty Road, improving each season and becoming more clinical until he hit a career best of 20 goals in 43 games when the Alex were in the old Second Division, a figure he has not beaten since. These exploits meant First Division West Bromwich Albion came calling for him, having a £750,000 bid accepted for him in 2003. From there, he had a mixed time at the Hawthorns, scoring 13 goals in his first season with the Baggies, but was shipped out to Leeds United halfway through his second season in the Black Country. He has since played for Sheffield United, Derby County, and is currently at Queens Park Rangers, whom he made three appearances for this season.  

Danny Murphy – Midfielder – 1993-97, 1998-99 (loan)

- 152 appearances, 31 goals

- Sold to Liverpool in 1997 for £1.5 million

The current Fulham captain’s long and distinguished career began at the Alex as a trainee, scoring the winner on his debut in 1993 in a 4-3 thriller against Preston North End. Murphy went on represent Crewe for three further seasons, before the giants from Anfield came calling with £1.5 million to sign Murphy to the club he supported as a boy growing up in Chester. Initially struggling to make an impact in the Liverpool first team, Murphy was loaned back to Crewe for half of the 1998-99 season, where he helped to keep his first team up in the First Division. Upon returning to Liverpool, he established himself in the side and won several honours for the Anfield club and developing a knack for scoring against Manchester United, much to the delight of the red half of Merseyside. A UEFA Cup winner, an FA Cup winner and a League Cup winner with Liverpool, he left in 2004 and had spells with both Charlton Athletic and Tottenham Hotspur before assuming his current role at Fulham in 2007.      

David Platt – Midfielder – 1985-88

- 134 appearances, 56 goals

- Sold to Aston Villa in 1988 for £200,000 

Like Robbie Savage, David Platt was a Manchester United trainee who was snapped up by Gradi following his release from the Old Trafford club, and the young man from Oldham immediately established himself as a goalscoring midfielder as he flourished at the Alex, who were then in the old Fourth Division of English football, the equivalent of the contemporary League Two. With a regular and consistent run of first team football, Platt demonstrated the credentials that would earn him big money moves to clubs such as Aston Villa, Arsenal, Juventus, Sampdoria and Nottingham Forest. He would also go on to become a regular for his country, first catching the eyes of Sir Bobby Robson at the age of 22, and going on to score 27 goals in 62 games for the English national team, providing a goal from central midfield every 2.3 games. Once again, he has proved himself to be a winner by lifting the Premier League trophy at Manchester City as the assistant manager to Roberto Mancini. 

David Vaughan – Midfielder – 2000-07 

-  209 appearances, 20 goals

- Sold to Real Sociedad in 2007 for £300,000

Another Alex graduate who has progressed onto a bigger stage than Gresty Road is Welshman David Vaughan, an academy graduate who originally was an attacking full-back, but was converted by Dario Gradi into a left-sided midfielder. Vaughan spent just over seven seasons at the Alexandra Stadium before, somewhat surprisingly and glamorously, earning a move to Spain and Real Sociedad, in San Sebastián in the Basque Country, under the tutelage of Wales manager Chris Coleman. Vaughan’s move to Spain was a mixed experience, only making nine appearances for the Basque club as they narrowly missed out on promotion to La Liga. Since then, he spent three seasons at Blackpool and finally making a step-up to the Premier League, before moving to Sunderland at the start of last season.     

Nick Powell – Midfielder – 2010-present

- 63 appearances, 15 goals

The most recent star graduate from the Crewe academy, Nick Powell, has been tipped for a big money move to the Premier League after shining brightly in the Alex’s road to the League Two play-off final at Wembley. At the age of just 18, Powell has scored 15 goals this season – including a stunner against against Gillingham – and has gained the attention of scouts from Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur, with David Moyes and Sir Alex Ferguson making the short trip across Cheshire to watch the teenage prospect. A transfer fee as high as £4 million has been quoted in the national media, with Manchester United seemingly the front runners to sign him. At Crewe’s end of season awards, Powell won almost every single award, thus underlining his potential to be the best Alex graduate there has ever been, and how he would love to sign off in style this weekend at Wembley by helping his team into League One.