Optimism was rife at Gresty Road on Saturday, after Cheltenham had been thrashed 18 hours before in Southend, here was the prime chance, verses. 18th placed Northampton, to cut the gap on the play-offs to just a solitary point. News was filtering through from Oxford too that they were being beaten at home to Morecambe, as things were going, mainly, according to the script in Crewe, right up until the very last minute.
Staring down the barrel of a draw after Northampton’s late goal, Nick Powell went down in the box and referee Patrick Miller pointed to the spot. Here was the opportunity to seize on the dropped points of those around them in the play-off point, but Danny Shelley stepped up to see his driven penalty, with the last kick of the game, denied by goalkeeper Neal Kitson. That wasn’t quite to the plan and the script, that had Crewe within a point of the promised top seven at the end of the day, had appeared to have been misplaced.
Credit must go to Northampton for an organised display which yielded a deserved point in the face of a good Crewe performance that had Northampton boss Aidy Boothroyd admitting his team were lucky to go in at half-time only 1-0 down. Wingers Billy Bodin and Byron Moore threatened down the flanks and Nick Powell, as always, caused problems from his attacking midfield station. Luke Murphy forced a smart stop from Kitson with an early half volley whilst Ajay Leitch-Smith drilled an effort wide, before Murphy opened the scoring in the 17th minute. Powell’s ball from the right was neatly controlled on the chest and drilled home on the sliding volley, it was a superbly taken strike and deserved of an intense Crewe opening to the game.
Chances continued to flow, Powell hit a long range strike that cannoned off the bar, Artell headed wide from a corner and Adam Dugdale also hit the woodwork with his own header, but it wasn’t unbridled dominance. There was always a threat that Northampton could steal an equaliser, Michael Jacobs, impressive throughout, crossed for Adebayo Akinfenwa to head wide, whilst John Johnson was unlucky not to be given a penalty for a trip from Artell which occurred right on the edge of the Crewe box.
The game was carefully positioned on a knife edge as we approached the hour mark with the looming second goal being a hugely important one. It came to Northampton. With the Crewe back two split, Toni Silva threaded a neat ball into the channel for Akinfenwa to latch onto it, goalkeeper Steve Phillips naively raced off his line and the striker rolled home his 17th of the season and his 6th goal in 6 games vs. Crewe for Northampton in an uncanny record. The striker is a commodity in that he runs the line to the tune of “you fat b*st*rd!” like a languid barrel, appearing miles overweight and comical in his movement, but his striking prowess can’t be ignored and it is illuminated by his record, evidently that Crewe just can’t deal with.
Well, it was a deserved equaliser and the final half hour will be lost to the ether in that no further goals were recorded, only a passage of play where Crewe persistently knocked on the Northampton door only to be adamantly turned away by a resolute and battling defence, led by captain Clark Carlisle and the large frame of Ben Tozer. The Cobblers were typical of an Aidy Boothroyd unit and although the football is not exactly easy on the eye, there is no doubting its effectiveness as was true here. As Boothroyd said, “the penalty in the last minute would have been a ridiculous way to lose” especially as the awarding was debatable and Northampton were well worth the point.
Dan Shelley, regarded as a set-piece specialist at Crewe, did all that was asked of him in drilling it on target but Kitson, only trusted into the limelight because of Bradford’s decision to recall Matt Duke in the week, pulled off a superb stop and the home side were left frustrated that they could not close the gap on the play-off positions. The gap did close, albeit by a single point to a tally of three, with the Easter weekend fixtures against Crawley Town and Bristol Rovers now taking on extra-importance; on Bank-Holiday Monday, a clearer picture will be painted of Crewe’s potential fortunes, but it is nearly make-or-break time regarding the play-off surge.
Crewe did not play badly here and heart can be taken from the fact the good performances continue to ebb and flow, manager Steve Davis was correct to effuse about it, calling it “on par with our best performance in terms of tempo and the passing was very good and our defending was very good, especially when dealing with their long throws” and he was right also to make it clear to BBC’s regional Late Kick Off programme that he will look at the troublesome second half dip that has been a recurring feature of his time in charge. It was a fine, level-headed analysis and there still not seems to be a serious decline in the standard of Crewe performance across this ten game unbeaten streak, and that brings relative satisfaction ahead of the tough trip to Crawley on Good Friday.
There might be reprieve in that the automatic-promotion chasers have been stripped of the services of defenders Kyle McFadzean, Pablo Mills and Claude Davis for their part in the fracas at Bradford last Tuesday and if Crewe can replicate the desire and intensity on display in the first half against Boothroyd’s Cobblers, there can be no reason why the three points can be plucked from the Alex’s first ever visit to the Broadfield stadium. Shelley’s penalty miss was unfortunate, but not disastrous and it will be a great effort on the Crewe behalf to keep it that way.
Excitement and frustration going in equal measure as we search for a place in that top seven, it’s what end of seasons are for. Easter will just be another twist in this superb rollercoaster of Steve Davis’ reign.
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