Crewe Alexandra: Steve Davis reflects on a happy first year
STEVE Davis celebrates his first anniversary as Crewe manager by asking his players to surprise him as much as they have done in his first 12 months in the job.
The Alex were 18th in League Two having just lost 3-0 to promotion favourites Torquay United at home in Dario Gradi's 1,403rd game as boss last November.
Five days later – following a 3-1 Johnstone's Paint Trophy defeat at Oldham – Davis was promoted with an initial task of rescuing the cash-strapped club from a fall into non-league.
Fast forward one year and the Railwaymen have moved up 28 places and one division in the league ladder and have a bank balance swelled by about £8m in transfer fees.
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Just three players from Davis's opening day line-up, a 4-1 defeat to Colchester United in the FA Cup, are likely to start against the same opponents in the league this afternoon.
But the 47-year-old has only spent in the region of £80,000 rebuilding the squad which now sits 14th in the third tier.
Consolidation, then, is the name of the game ... unless recent history starts to repeat itself.
Davis said: "It's been a real challenge (stepping up to League One), but I've tried to make it competitive with players looking over their shoulder for someone fighting for their place.
"A lot will depend on who we keep. If we lose anyone in January or in the summer it will impact on the quality of the squad. We've got to be prepared for that, and we are.
"If I had everyone free of injury I would have a very talented group of players and I would be scratching my head when I picked the team.
"I haven't got that as much as I want at the moment, but I've got a good enough squad certainly to stay in this division and that's the starting point.
"I don't think we've got a squad strong enough to be in the top five or six, but maybe I thought that to a certain degree last season and they proved me wrong.
"We are always putting these little challenges down for them and in the past they've responded, hopefully they will again."
Tactically, Davis has got the team pressing higher up the pitch while he has also introduced new training methods to get his players stronger and fitter.
Making Reaseheath a happy day-to-day work place has also been key to his evolution.
He said: "It was a little bit flat when I took over and everyone was despondent about the future. We weren't fit enough, conceding too many goals early and late on. We didn't have the energy to chase games when we went behind or put results to bed when we were leading.
"We brought in breakfast and lunch clubs to get everyone together and started doing yoga, while on the pitch we kept on at them to work harder and get the ball back in the last third.
"I released the shackles a little bit, too. They weren't coming in and enjoying playing football and, the same with any profession, if you love your job and have a good crowd pushing each other forward you will be more successful."
Losing key men Nick Powell to Manchester United and Ashley Westwood to Aston Villa has forced Davis back to the drawing board in many respects.
But he admits that will often be the way at sustainable, Academy-conscious Crewe.
"We had to reduce squad numbers in the summer to keep the budget as it was last year and 10 players left while we only brought in five," he said.
"I wanted to bring in players with quality and although a couple are stepping up two divisions, which is difficult, they have the potential to become good players for Crewe over the next couple of years.
"I've got to keep pushing those young ones too; that's my responsibility. Sometimes that might need me to make a brave decision, but if they impress me they will be given a chance."
Now Davis hopes to keep the Gresty Road crowd as entertained over the next 12 months as he has done so far, although results will come first.
He said: "There is still a lot of work to do.
"The restraints of the club financially means we have to get the most we can out of this group and the players coming through.
"We want to get that consistency and keep improving the quality of the players in training so they are heading towards being good enough for the top of this division and the division above.
"I want to establish the club in this division, then build on that."