After the glory of the 1-3 win at Preston, there would have sparked a flicker of hope amongst some elements of Crewe support that the dramatic rise under the eye of Steve Davis would not plateau just yet and that a charge on the League One play-offs may not be restricted to just a pipe-dream.
There would be no better test of that optimism than a game with struggling opposition, the transfer embargo-affected Bury residing in 21st position in this case, within the comfort of Gresty Road, as expectation has been so often the banana skin for Crewe where the momentum begins to speed up only to be crushed immediately by a disappointing performance.
For the week between Preston and Bury, you could have read the week between a comeback victory over Colchester and a trip to Shrewsbury where a large following witnessed a limp 1-0 defeat to a side also flirting with the relegation spots. With Crewe’s vulnerability to inconsistency, Bury, with a squad under severe strain following the transfer restriction that forced 6 loan players back to their parent clubs in the middle of the week, presented as much of a challenge to an in-form Alex as table-topping Tranmere Rovers or Brentford.
With news that midfield enforcer Abdul Osman was to miss the game with an injury, there were few people taking this fixture for granted as the former Northampton midfielder has become a huge influence, suggested by a record of five defeats in the seven games played without him this season. However, with Newcastle loanee Bradden Inman impressing against Doncaster and Preston, Davis had options available. The two other loan players, Arsenal’s Chuks Aneke and Fulham’s Lauri Dalla Valle, came back into the side as the 3-5-2 that proved so successful against Preston was continued. Byron Moore and Oliver Turton, also a victim of an injury, were the two to drop out.
Crewe predictably flattered to deceive after being on a run of just one defeat in seven, producing a display that could have seen Bury end the impressive sequence on a cold winter’s afternoon in South Cheshire. The system suddenly looked alien and short of attacking width, producing a flat, disjointed performance in which Matt Tootle provided the only real source of penetration with runs from right back leading to speculative shots that cleared the target. Inman was denied on the break by Bury goalkeeper Trevor Carson when clean through while Dalla Valle blasted into the side netting but Alex chances were sporadic.
The absence of Osman was plain to see in the struggles of Luke Murphy as he persisted to produce yet another of his talismanic midfield displays but found himself quite often isolated and overrun as he also had to carry out defensive duties without the influence of his usual partner.
That is not to take away from Bury however, who retained the ball very well and it was hard, based on this game, to imagine how they had manage to drop into such danger. A neat passing move saw Troy Hewitt shoot over on the half-volley while Tom Hopper managed to miss the target with a header as the Shakers were enjoying the majority of possession, getting the ball wide to launch dangerous crosses into the box. Ex-Crewe players Steven Schumacher and Efe Sodje, the latter showing no signs of declining at the ripe old age of 40, were solid and it was pleasing to see them performing well on their returns.
Bury were the better team and, despite Davis acting as soon as half-time by withdrawing the poor Aneke for Byron Moore and moving Harry Davis forward from centre-back to act as the defensive midfield shield vacated by Osman, it was a trend that continued to last well into the second half. Hopper managed to head over at the back post while Hewitt was somehow denied by the outstretched Alan Martin in the Crewe goal as he managed to claw a header away.
Despite a few half-chances falling to Mathias Pogba as Crewe withstood the Bury pressure long enough to launch attacks of their own, it was hard to predict where a goal would come from, but with the energetic Murphy now free to concentrate on attacking duties, there was always a slight hope that Crewe would edge something totally underserved from the game. It was feeling that grew after Hewitt’s chance that deflated Bury and left manager Kevin Blackwell seething at his side’s lack of ruthlessness in front of goal that ultimately proved costly.
The captain managed to hit a threatening shot that flew wide before cutting in from the left to scuff a tame effort that eased beyond Carson’s left post; it was almost the epitome of how unfruitful the home side’s afternoon had been until, with the clock ticking on the 88th minute, Murphy managed to deliver the most delicate of balls into the box which was guided home emphatically by the impressive Inman, who had been named man of the match just a few minutes before.
It was a smash and grab 1-0 job that was incredibly harsh on Bury who, together with Scunthorpe’s win at Leyton Orient, plunged deeper into the mire despite a showing of good quality. For Crewe however, it was just another win to tally seven wins in nine matches across all competitions ahead of a tough festive period that will go a long way to deciding the Railwaymen’s end of season fate. Sitting eleventh, just four points off the play-off places, Saturday night was a night to contemplate that the near-impossibility of successive promotions could well be on.
However, the fortune of that win will not of gone unnoticed by Davis and his assistant Neil Baker who will surely be aware of the necessity to improve for Saturday’s hosting of a resurgent Bournemouth, unbeaten in their last eleven league games, which is shaping up to be a very promising fixture, quite possibly a deciding one for the limit of Crewe’s ambition.
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