After the frenetic sequence of events that was the final half hour of the trip to Torquay, ending with the delirium that was Nick Powell’s last minute equaliser in front of the 600 fans that had made the achingly long trip down to Devon, Crewe Alexandra only needed a point from the last game of the season Vs. Aldershot, to secure a place in the random journey of emotion that is the play-offs of League Two.
A loss, compounded with an Oxford win at Port Vale, would’ve spelled out the unmentionable heartache of missing out on the top seven by the commodity of an inferior goal-difference.
A week went by, allowing for the nerves to spread and infect the veins of every fan who wished to be part of the campaign to fill out three quarters of Gresty Road under the guise of “target 7000”. A new shirt had also been released on Wednesday as the club attempted to clutch onto the fluid optimism that has been shining down on South Cheshire with a brighter pigment with every passing week this 15 game unbeaten run had remained intact. This level of excitement had been noticeably absent from the small railway town of Crewe since the period of solid decline swept through in 2007 and reached a nadir with the infamous 3-0 loss to Torquay back in November that would have rendered any man willing to make a prediction of achieving a top seven finish, in the same season, as being undoubtedly insane.
So then, Saturday drew in and it should have been an elementary task, right? Crewe were the form team, on a run of 15 unbeaten, with Aldershot safe in the mid-table with nothing to play for and just a draw would be sufficient enough for the home team. Aldershot travelled up from the capital with 280 fans in tow, a commendable effort considering it was a relative end of season dead rubber for them, and a refusal to pack their holiday luggage and be on their summer break quite this early. This, after all, was a team who went to relegation threatened Lincoln last season and ruthlessly condemned the Imps to the Conference with a 3-0 win. Dean Holdsworth was not here to see his side roll over in a fit of generous sentiment and with the stands sharing one collective ear and eye in the direction of events up the A500; we finally ventured into the nerve jangling business we had been waiting for all week.
If tension was threatening to simmer in the frayed opening stages, it was surely eased to an extent by Ajay Leitch-Smith’s 4th minute opener after goalkeeper Jamie Young could only parry a stinging Byron Moore effort into the striker’s path following some good work on the right by Swindon Town loanee Billy Bodin. But then, in true Crewe fashion, the home side reached for the self-destruct button and emphatically pressed it with enough verve to hark back memories to the defensive dark arts that were dabbled in the latter day debacle of the Dario Gradi era. Danny Hylton and Peter Vincenti were permitted to cause problems with neat approach play throughout the first half, before a free-kick from Ben Herd was diverted past a helpless Steve Phillips by his own defender Harry Davis.
There was slight reprieve with news flashing from Vale Park that Marc Richards had broken the deadlock against Oxford, but to twist the knife of rickety pensive discomfort dispensing around the Gresty Road crowd, Mark Molesly took advantage of a shoddy defensive clearance by Adam Dugdale to curl home a dashing 25 yard effort to make it 2-1 to Aldershot at half-time. Crewe were still residing in the top seven, but by duty alone of Port Vale’s narrow lead over Oxford. It wasn’t quite going according to the script, to borrow a line from the Stadium announcer’s half-time verbatim. The railwaymen were still creating chances, Leitch-Smith saw a header superbly saved by Young and also curled a sweeping effort wide after a good run to cut inside, but it was clear improvement was needed if the job was to be Crewe’s alone and not a reliance on Port Vale.
The turning point came on the 53rd minute mark; kamikaze defending between the distinctly off colour Kelvin Mellor and Adam Dugdale gift-wrapped a chance to Adam Mekki who rounded Steve Phillips and found nothing but the welcoming arms of the fans stationed in the Gresty Road end. It was Fernando Torres-esque to jog your memories back to his own haunting miss back at Old Trafford, but emotions were caught between one of mocking relief or the anger at such diabolical defending from the more rational-minded amongst the watching public. Surreal as this moment was, it seemed to spur Crewe on and it summoned a rasping drive from Ashley Westwood, brilliantly kept out by an inspired Young, with the rebound smashed against the cross bar by Nick Powell. By this point, the threat of Oxford had virtually been stubbed out by Sean Rigg’s second in Staffordshire and Luke Murphy’s belter into the corner of the net, if not really needed, sent the Gresty Road attendance, just under the target at 6,919, into raptures. It was job done. A third Port Vale goal wiped any remaining doubt downstream with authority and all that was left was the celebrations of a lap of honour.
In the melee of appreciation and applause that rang true into the evening air over the humble stadium, the public address system certified it was to be Southend who would form the opposition in the play-off semi-finals, by consensus the least attractive looking tie between Torquay, who play Cheltenham in the other semi, and Crawley, who went up automatically. As Crewe stretched this superb unbeaten run to 16 games Vs. Aldershot, it was worth noting it was Paul Sturrock’s men who were the last team to beat Steve Davis’ resilient unit with a goal from Bilel Mohsni, the Frenchman who terrorised Gresty Road with two late goals in a cameo appearance back in October. April’s player of the month has thirteen for the season and is only a part of Southend’s goal threat that is provided by the experience of former Millwall legend Neil Harris and Coventry loanee Freddy Eastwood. The Shrimpers have conceded just 2 goals in a defeat to Bradford over the past seven games and will travel to Cheshire in impressive form that Steve Davis must be aware will warrant vast improvement from the laborious negotiation that was Saturday’s tie with Aldershot.
For Saturday night however, that was all on the back-burner as applause rang out from three sides of the Crewe stadium to acknowledge the superb job the team have done in getting into the top seven over this 46 game season, and even shorter than that without getting into nuances. Steve Davis and Neil Baker, the orchestrators of what has been an almighty effort against all likelihood, embraced each other as they led each squad member around the ground to survey the gratitude aired in loud voice from the supporters. “The good times are here again” was pumping through the sound system as they did it, and for Saturday night at least, they were. Southend, as a massive hurdle they promise to be, can wait, for the players deserve every second of celebration and every sinew of plaudit they can fit into this next week amongst the hard yards on the training pitch to prepare for next Saturday evening in front of the Sky TV cameras.
We like this celebration lark, hopefully it will continue a little bit longer, throughout May.
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