The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy has given Crewe a pleasant side-track to a promising return to League One football this season and on Tuesday night, the lower league competition saw Gresty Road stage the northern section semi-final with Bradford City. The Bantams sit just outside the play-off places in League Two and have beaten Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa of the Premier League in a remarkable League Cup journey that has them ninety minutes, and a 3-1 lead over the Villians, away from Wembley.
After last week’s heroics over Villa, Bradford were back in the more modest surroundings of a below-freezing night in Crewe but Phil Parkinson’s side travelled down with a cup pedigree that promised to make this a very tough tie even with the squad changes, eight in total, that is likely to land the Yorkshire club a FA fine. Parkinson has bigger occasions possibly awaiting on the horizon however, the chance to enter themselves in League Cup folklore likely to only be secondary to the quest to climb out of the fourth tier, something their long-suffering fans have waited five years to achieve. The JPT was arguably third on their list of priorities and Parkinson rang the changes logically despite an awaiting financial penalty.
Crewe manager Steve Davis also made changes from the side that drew 1-1 at Leyton Orient. In came Ajay Leitch-Smith and Harry Davis for Max Clayton and Mark Ellis, whilst in goal Alan Martin replaced Steve Phillips whose error contributed to Orient’s opener at Brisbane Road on Saturday. That Lee Cook strike was all the Londoners had to show for an opening 35 minutes of domination however and Crewe managed to draw level through Byron Moore just before half-time. The second period, in which the visitors could have stole victory as Ellis, Clayton and Bradden Inman all had chances, saw improvement though the overriding feeling was the Alex had been lucky to escape from the capital with a point when a second successive defeat, after the substandard display against Stevenage the week before, seemed likely in the opening stages.
Despite a steady run of results, it is still only two defeats in nine league games, the standard of performances has began to suffer and the JPT, with it being secondary to domestic form, gave Davis a chance to tweak the side in order to arrest the slide that had been creeping in. Bradford’s heavily rotated team started the game very well however, obviously instructed by their manager to press and unsettle Crewe’s habit of moving the ball on the ground. The match became tight and fragmented as a result, the home side were making mistakes on a frosty pitch and Kyel Reid sent a long range effort fizzing through goalkeeper Alan Martin to give the away side the lead. In a match where chances were sparse, it was a goal that predictably came from nothing.
It was hard to see, from a Crewe point of view, where an equaliser would come from. Leitch-Smith appeared rusty in making his first start since the start of October after a long injury absence, Mathias Pogba struggled alongside him and the midfield of Luke Murphy and Abdul Osman were failing to cope with Bradford’s close attention of the duo in order to prevent their regular passing game. The disjointed performance was worrying until Byron Moore was allowed to run at an isolated Ryan Dickson on the right to loop a strike over goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin via a Nathan Doyle deflection. Pogba and Inman went close immediately after as Crewe finished a poor first half strongly, but the interval was welcome with the scoreline level.
The break seemed to galvanise the home side as they emerged brightly. Inman, continuing to impress on loan from Newcastle, broke free on the left to hit a shot that McLaughlin tipped over before Doyle and Dickinson combined to deny first Matt Tootle and then Moore with two desperate blocks. Despite the Crewe pressure, Bradford always had a threat on the counter-attack with the constant running of Blair Turgott and goalscorer Reid. Parkinson brought on highly rated striker Nakhi Wells and winger Zavon Hines as he tried to relieve some of the pressure building on his team. Davis responded by withdrawing Leitch-Smith and Pogba for Max Clayton and Chuks Aneke.
Those substitutions proved to be the catalyst for Crewe’s eventual victory as Aneke and Clayton combined for a move that culminated in the latter meeting a cross from the superb Byron Moore to direct a diving header past the helpless McLaughlin. From then it was one-way traffic; Inman was denied again by Bradford’s busy ‘keeper, Clayton had another diving header disallowed for offside just after Aneke sent a shot narrowly wide. The impact of the Arsenal loanee, so often frustratingly lethargic and ineffective, was game-changing and he sent Inman racing away to finally mark his influential display with a cool finish. Aneke finished things off with an emphatic half volley after a neat lay-off by Clayton.
The late goal glut made the score more one-sided than the game itself however and there will be still some concern about the standard of Crewe performance before Davis turned to his bench. The impact made by Aneke and Clayton however, plus the decent contribution maid by Leitch-Smith as he continues his rehabilitation from injury, will give the manager a lot of options as he prepares for the visit of MK Dons on Saturday. Coventry lie in wait in the northern area final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy but that tie will wait until February as the league will reclaim the focus in the meantime, one hopes that Davis will take the momentum gained from the competition in order to get Crewe back on track in League One.
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