It was much easier this time, no falling behind, no need for a storming comeback or a stirring half-time team talk, only a second half brace from Lauri Dalla Valle was needed to earn Crewe a comfortable three points against Crawley at Gresty Road on Saturday.
After losing at Shrewsbury and gaining an unexpected point away at Sheffield United last Tuesday, it was very welcome to witness such a win that was earned with minimal fuss, something that many knew this talented side could do all along but so frustratingly deceived in favour of making their lives difficult.
On a wet, floodlit afternoon in Cheshire, Crawley may have been a difficult proposition for a Crewe side that was ravaged with inconsistency and had made the concession of an early first goal almost habitual. The Sussex team, fellow League Two promotion winners with the Alex last season, were sitting second in League One as of a month ago before a malaise of 5 games without a win set in and they perhaps would have targeted Crewe, who have swayed from the brilliant to the ridiculous so often this season, as a chance to end it.
What was predictable was the start. As par for the course with the Alex this season, supporters got an unsure first half, a nervy showing that only mustered a goal mouth scramble that finished with the legs of Crawley goalkeeper Paul Jones denying Byron Moore, and a tame shot from Matt Tootle that drifted wide.
The visitors however were much more threatening, from Gary Alexander’s first minute effort that hit the post to Mark Connolly coming agonisingly close to connecting to a cross from the dangerous Nicky Adams. Tootle and the centre-back pairing of Harry Davis and Mark Ellis were all drawn into last-ditch blocks as the defence remained solid, ensuring that for just the eighth time this season, the first goal didn’t go to the opposition.
Despite Crawley having possibly the better of the first half, neither keeper was particularly busy and a tense 45 minutes deserved its blank score line whereas at that point, it was difficult to predict where a winner would come from. It was not a particularly bad first period from his side, but manager Steve Davis revealed in his post-match interview that he said “unpleasant things” during the break, ultimately proving to be the catalyst for the victory.
Immediately after the restart, Ellis saw a header denied by Jones and Luke Murphy followed up to drive a shot against the cross bar. It looked like it might be one of those luckless days, especially when Chuks Aneke hit a volley over after a knock down by Mathias Pogba, though Crawley couldn’t withhold the one-way traffic for much longer. Just after the hour-mark, Murphy whipped in a free-kick and Dalla Valle, Fulham’s young loanee, cleverly glided a header over a helpless Jones. 3 quarters of the ground drew a collective sigh of relief and it was no more than Crewe deserved for a frenetic start to the second half which saw Richie Barker’s side outplayed at times.
Aneke, as he has suggested he is fully capable of despite his casual style, was dictating the attacking play and one sublime pass released Byron Moore who mis-hit a shot which fell kindly for Dalla Valle to slot home his fourth goal in four games, just four minutes after his first. There was no way back for the Red Devils who appeared stunned, another slick passing move put Pogba clear only to see a lofted effort hit the side netting whilst Abdul Osman headed over as Murphy and Aneke were orchestrating wave after wave of counter attack.
The defence continued to work hard as Crawley grew in urgency as they searched for a way back, but despite throwing Manchester United academy graduate Nicky Ajose on for Nathan Byrne, Alan Martin was seldom troubled in the Crewe goal, only being required to deny Adams, then Billy Clarke from long range as the Alex defence, again marshalled brilliantly by Mark Ellis, remained resilient. A booking for Clarke for a foul on Murphy was indicative of Crawley’s frustration as they headed to a sixth game without a win.
It was fitting of Murphy’s performance that the stadium announcer awarded him Man of the Match just before he slid into another 50-50 challenge to win Crewe the ball back, his stint with the captaincy has spawned a superb run of form for the midfielder and with pre-match rumours of a move away from the Alex in the near future, it would take a long search to find a Crewe fan who would begrudge the 23 year old a chance to follow the likes of Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood who have departed the Davis revolution before him.
However, the captain remains with Crewe for now and his immediate priority will be to lead his team against Burton Albion as the FA Cup takes centre-stage on Saturday. A place in the third round of the cup would be an excellent way to round off a November that has yielded ten league points out of a possible fifteen and a run that has seen just one defeat in seven.
There was not even a necessity for Davis to use his substitutes bench on Saturday which will bring a another positive in that the first team seem to be operating without any hint of burnout, especially before the busy festive period sets in. With Bradden Inman, Thursday’s deadline emergency loan deal from Newcastle sitting on the bench alongside teen prodigy Max Clayton, the Alex may just have the cover to convince supporters that a decent run of form is possible in order to challenge the top half of the table. That is, just as long as the team keeps listening to Davis’ half-time words.
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