After contrasting fortunes in the two domestic cup competitions of last week, from elimination in the FA Cup second round to progression to the area semi-finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, Crewe went back to league duty on Saturday. It would have been a welcome return with a run of just two defeats in nine stretching back to October 20th providing a strong platform for the newly promoted side to progress into the higher reaches of League One, but a trip to Preston, where Crewe had not since 1993, promised to be a tough test of ambitions to enter the top half of the table which become more realistic with every decent result.
Or at least many predicted it would be a tough test. After all, Steve Davis had to make full use of his squad following Matt Tootle’s silly red-card against Doncaster on Tuesday night and striker Lauri Dalla Valle, who has been a revelation on his loan spell from Fulham, suffered an injury. Oliver Turton came in for Tootle at right-back, whilst Adam Dugdale and Newcastle loanee Bradden Inman retained their places after playing against Doncaster in mid-week. Regulars Luke Murphy, Alan Martin and Mark Ellis also returned after sitting out the JPT tie as Davis gambled with a flexible 3-5-2, with full-backs Gregor Robertson and Turton relied upon for width, and Inman, Mathias Pogba and Byron Moore given the task of offering an attacking threat despite none of them being used as regular centre-forwards.
The best from this Crewe side seems to come out with the odds stacked against however, take the habit of coming from behind like at Walsall, or the scintillating performance that was summoned up when 2-0 down at Sheffield United. That so little seems to phase this Crewe team despite a short-while adjusting to the rise in quality in the transition from tier four to three, is something that will stand them in good stead as they try to achieve the first priority of their first year back in League One.
Preston were in the Championship play-offs just four years ago, but the pressure manager Graham Westley finds himself under at Deepdale illustrates their sharp decline. Before the game with Crewe, they were on a run of just two wins in ten games, leaving them eleventh in League One. Maybe the trip to Lancashire wasn’t as imposing for this young Crewe side, shuffled into a seldom-used system, as some feared beforehand.
Despite the experimental formation, Crewe soon settled into a comfortable rhythm that laid the groundwork for an accomplished away performance. Turton, recently being used by the management team as a central midfielder, excelled in his natural home of right-back, while Luke Murphy continued to boost his burgeoning reputation with a driving performance in the heart of midfield. Byron Moore was also lively in attack, teeing up Mark Ellis for a header before having a shot of his own, both easily saved by Preston goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckman.
Anthony Elding, formerly of Crewe in the Preston attack, and John Mousinho both had half chances from which they missed the target, while Lee Holmes powered an effort past Martin’s post. The Lilywhite’s chances were sporadic however as Crewe’s 3 man back-line coped with the task well enough, confidence began to grow through the team as a result and a free-flowing counter-attack led to captain Murphy blazing into the roof of the net following a precision ball from the impressive Inman just past the half-hour mark.
Preston tried to muster a reply but their shooting was array, making it easy for Crewe to see it through to the break with the advantage. Five minutes after the interval, they had doubled it as Inman latched on to Murphy’s through ball to thrash the ball past Stuckman via the post. Soon after, a brilliant cross-field ball from Byron Moore found Mathias Pogba at the back post and the ex-Wrexham man bundled home his tenth goal of the season. His celebratory dance was performed in-front of the travelling Alex support who were now in raptures; surely a lead of that size would not be surrendered and Crewe were well on their way to an excellent 3 points away from home.
Elding tried to lead a fight back but was denied at the foot of the post by Alan Martin, while Ellis and Turton made two desperate blocks as they shielded their lead. Graham Westley turned to his bench and made all 3 substitutions in the hope David Amoo and Akpo Sodje would offer a more physical threat, but the away side held firm. John Mousinho had a great chance to narrow the deficit but blasted his shot over from point blank range twelve minutes from the end.
Murphy, Robertson and Pogba were all guilty of wasting opportunities on the counter-attack as Crewe could have earned a fourth goal, but as the clock ticked, the less likely it looked like they would be made to pay. Paul Huntington did head past Alan Martin in the 88th minute but it was merely a consolation. A following succession of crosses were dealt with and the referee’s final whistle went, it was a great performance, a great result and Crewe were heading back down the M6 with another 3 points that brings them onto 30. And maybe, just maybe, looking up to the higher reaches of the table, a tally separated by just six points from the play-offs.
Avoiding relegation will remain the priority, but as Steve Davis has maintained all along, this Crewe side is capable of going as high as they want, which explains why the flat performances of Oldham, Yeovil, Burton in the cup, MK Dons and others can be so frustrating to the supporter and the management that continue their remarkable job at Gresty Road. Incidentally, Steve Davis allayed fears over his future by finally signing a new deal on Friday and, after a superb twelve months in charge, the Preston result promises to be the beginning of an exciting next chapter of his reign.
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