Stevenage put the rails on Crewe’s play-off charge
After the fruitful festive period in which Crewe capped off a superb 2012 with six points from a possible nine to move within 3 points of the playoffs in League One, the first Saturday evening of the new year became a time to take stock and reflect on the early season prophecies that had Crewe cast in a possible fight with the possibility of a trip back to tier four after last year’s unexpected promotion.
The total of 39 points after 26 games after the game with Stevenage, which lies Crewe 17 points clear of the drop zone and still within a win of the top six, is a gross over-achievement for a side that lost its two best players in the summer and was, of just fourteen months ago, looking at the prospect of a slide into the Blue Square Premier. A run of eight wins in thirteen games stretching back to the end of October and a blip against Tranmere disrupting a 100% record in December had Crewe fans dreaming of Wembley again.
The Steve Davis era has seen remarkable progression so far and the journey upwards continues with every passing win, though it was down to Stevenage to provide a halt to the journey in the second home game of 2013.
Crewe had won their first against Carlisle in a scrappy 1-0 win, just like they did against Bury in their last home game of 2012. Results were coming, but performances, like the narrow victory at struggling Oldham or the defeat at table-topping Tranmere, were a concern. Luck was being rode and there was a suspicion that a defeat would come at the hands of a side who possessed the cutting edge to punish the naivety Crewe were showing in defending slender leads. Stevenage certainly had that and even though they too fell behind, to a first-half Chuks Aneke effort, another sloppy second half showing saw the home side’s luck finally run out.
In a tightly contested first half, Crewe just about edged it but were limited to half chances. Mathias Pogba nearly forced an own goal from Boro defender Mark Roberts from a driven low ball and it was Pogba again causing problems on the right side who caused the opening goal, drilling a cross for Aneke to sweep a shot past goalkeeper Steve Arnold. The away side responded, Greg Tansey curled a free-kick wide and Lucas Akins hit a shot which cleared the bar. Striker Marcus Haber, looking ever-dangerous, was prevented from heading in by Mark Ellis. A cross from Byron Moore hit the head of Stevenage defender David Gray which forced Arnold into an acrobatic stop on the stroke of half to keep the score at 1-0 for the half-time interval, similarly to the game with Carlisle five days before.
Similarly to the game with Carlisle however, Crewe came out after the break and sat off with the intention of protecting the goal lead. Stevenage duly punished such naivety with two goals in five minutes, Akins took advantage of some sloppy Crewe defending in the six yard box to stab past Steve Phillips for the equaliser, then Haber pounced on an uncharacteristic error from Ellis to make it two with a crisp finish. It was a double blow that knocked the sails out of the Alex and there was ultimately no way back.
Such has been the brilliant job Davis has done in south Cheshire that he rarely attracts criticism, but it was viable to aim the delay in substitutions towards him. Ajay Leitch-Smith bizarrely stayed off the pitch for the duration, while the lethargic Aneke and the ineffective Lauri Dalla Valle bizarrely stayed on it until the 75th minute, 15 minutes after Haber’s goal handed Boro the momentum, which in truth should have earned the visiting outfit a more handsome score-line. Max Clayton and Bradden Inman replaced the duo, but it was too late as still Crewe continued to struggle in terms of creating chances. Davis even put on Ryan Colclough, an inexperienced winger, for the physical Pogba in the first minute of injury time, it was ironic that a last gasp header presented itself to him, whereas Pogba perhaps would have buried it, Colclough sent it into the stands.
Stevenage, driven by the grit and determination of Anthony Grant and Greg Tansey in the heart of midfield, fully deserved the win in what was a battling display. For Crewe meanwhile, it was a disappointing afternoon that would provide Davis with a great deal of thought for next week’s trip to Leyton Orient. The decision to play Aneke for example, ahead of the impressive Bradden Inman, backfired as the Arsenal loanee once again produced a showing which lacked effort. Leitch-Smith, one of last season’s shining lights in the promotion side, may be called back ahead of Dalla Valle as it is hard to see what the Finn offers in attack which the academy product does not. Luke Murphy, brilliant all season in his role of talismanic captain, also began to fade once again to raise questions over his fitness. It may be time to give him a rest despite his importance to the team.
Steve Davis is sure not to lot a rot set in and it is hard to think that the winning mentality installed in this side will be lost on the back of this defeat. There will be a week to prepare for the trip to Brisbane Road and the Stevenage defeat would have possibly laid bare the problems lying within the squad. Most salient of all, the point that a loss to Stevenage to deny a climb into the higher reaches of the third tier is now classed as “disappointing” is indicative of the incredible rate of progress Davis’s Crewe have made in the past 14 months. It is that which suggests they’ll be back to winning ways soon enough.