Nicky Ajose was the derby match winner as Crewe Alexandra recorded their first ever League double over our local neighbours.
Ajose certainly made up for his earlier penalty miss by slotting home a perfect pass from the influential Jamie Ness on 39 minutes. Ajose had seen his well struck penalty pushed away from Port Vale goalkeeper Chris Neal.
Ajose may make the headlines for his winning goal but Crewe goalkeeper Ben Garratt was again excellent, making fine saves to deny Ben Williamson and substitute Tom Pope. He also had the players in front of him to thank for helping achieve a clean sheet with Davis, Ray and Tate heading almost everything and sub Ollie Turton throwing himself in front of a late shot from Chris Lines to deflect it onto the crossbar.
Crewe held on to claim that elusive first double over the Valiants to take us back out of the bottom four.
Jon Guthrie failed to recover from his knee injury in time to make the short trip to Vale Park, so there was a recall to the starting line-up for George Ray. The defender was handed his opportunity after serving his second suspension of the season following his red card at Oldham on Boxing Day.
Anthony Stewart was named on the substitutes’ bench as was young midfielder Liam Nolan who earned a recall ahead of Adam Dugdale
. The former Port Vale goalkeeper Joe Anyon was not included as he is not quite 100% fit, so Crewe operated without a reserve goalkeeper in the squad for the third game.
The Port Vale squad contained five former Crewe Alexandra players. Former Academy graduates Adam Yates and Michael O’Connor started while Byron Moore, Tom Pope and Colin Daniel were named on the bench by Vale boss Rob Page.
Pope has not featured for our local neighbours since injuring his knee against Scunthorpe United back in October.
The home side began on the front foot and penned Crewe back into their half of the pitch, but with Alex rigidly in shape the Valiants were forced to play in front of our back five and holding midfield players. O’Connor did find Mark Marshall in enough space to allow him to cut back from the right hand side but his shot was wayward.
Irishman O’Connor registered the first shot on goal from distance but Ben Garratt was right behind it to gather into his chest. On seven minutes, Chris Birchall attained a yard at the far post but he dragged his shot right across the box from an acute angle.
Crewe’s first chance arrived via a corner that was initially won by Uche Ikpeazu. Jamie Ness swung over the cross from the right and it dropped invitingly at the foot of George Ray and as he stabbed out a boot at it, Chris Neal reacted quickly to block it and then gather at the second attempt. Ray must have been surprised that the ball had been allowed to travel so far and had dropped to him.
Moments later, Ikpeazu spun on the edge of the Port Vale penalty but his low shot was collected by Neal. On 14 minutes and with Crewe offering more of a threat going forward, right back James Baillie unleashed a powerful drive that struck defender Chris Robertson. Ray also went down under a challenge from Yates as he tried to win a header, but referee Gavin Ward was not interested in any appeals.
On 20 minutes, a promising build-up from the Railwaymen came to noting when possession was surrendered in the Vale half and Carl Dickson instantly hit a long searching pass that landed out of reach of Alan Tate and put Ben Williamson in behind our back line for the first time. The Vale forward had to get the ball under control initially but after doing so he drew a fantastic save from Garratt.
Three minutes later, Crewe produced exactly the same sort of move, resulting in a penalty. Ness picked out the run of Nicky Ajose and he cleverly lifted it over the onrushing Neal and his momentum meant he could only bring him down. There was rather surprisingly no card from the referee.
Ajose picked himself to take it but Neal redeemed himself by guessing the right way and keeping out his spot kick. Vale completed the clearance before Ajose could bounce on the rebound. Ajose had of course converted his last two penalties for the Alex.
On the half an hour mark, a shot from Ness rebounded rather invitingly into the path of the forward running James Jones in the left hand side of the Port Vale penalty area. The youngster cut it back to find Ajose but after pulling the ball down superbly well under a bit of pressure he could only fire a yard wide of the mark.
At the other end of the pitch, Adam Yates ambitiously shot from 25 yards but his effort rested with the Crewe Alexandra fans behind Garratt’s goal.
Crewe continued to control the game possession wise and looked the more likely side to break the deadlock. Another excellent passing move saw Jones slip Ajose into space and his deflected shot off Robertson looked as though it was going to loop into the net with Neal grounded, but it landed on top of the netting.
The opening goal duly came on 39 minutes and in truth it had been coming from the Railwaymen, who had grown in confidence the longer the half had gone on. Ness was once again the architect, producing a perfectly weighted pass to put Ajose in on goal again and this time he confidently slipped it past Neal for his sixth goal for the club.
In first half stoppage time, Port Vale were presented with a good opportunity from a free-kick that was rather dubiously given because Baillie had clearly played the ball from Marshall on the edge of our box. O’Connor curled a dangerous shot over the wall that Garratt did well to save and the onrushing Williamson could only poke the rebound wide.
The first half lead was well deserved from the Alex, who after weathering a storm in the opening ten minutes of the game had looked more of a threat.
At the beginning of the second half, Louis Dodds pulled a shot wide of the target as Port Vale looked to start the second half on the front foot.
On 50 minutes, a flowing move from the Railwaymen saw Ness and full-back Greg Leigh exchange a one-two before Ness lofted a perfect pass over to Ikpeazu. He pulled the ball down on the edge of the area before rolling a pass over to his strike partner Ajose, but on this occasion he didn’t apply a good enough connection and he shot straight at Neal.
O’Connor was booked for a foul on Ikpeazu before Tate had to read the situation brewing inside our box to clear from Williamson after Dodds had cleverly directed a header towards his run.
On the hour mark, Rob Page made a triple substitute with Pope, Lines and Daniel introduced for Dodds, Brown and Birchall.
On 65 minutes, the busy Grant was tripped by Marshall on the edge of the box but Ness could only guide the free-kick over the crossbar. A minute later, Ness and Ajose combined yet again to create a half chance for Ikpeazu but he could only shoot straight at Neal.
Garratt was called upon to make another goal saving stop when he spread himself in front of Williamson, who couldn’t quite believe that the Crewe goalkeeper had managed to get himself upon him so quickly couple of minutes later, substitute Lines couldn’t keep his shot down from close range but to be fair to him he thought Williamson had gone for the same ball.
With winger Marshall getting more of the ball, Vale were enjoying their best period of the game with Robertson heading over from a Lines corner and O’Connor driving a shot straight at Garratt. Harry Davis also did exceptionally well to flick a header away from the lurking Pope.
With 13 minutes left, Steve Davis introduced the fresh legs of Ollie Turton for Grant, who had certainly put in a competitive shift in for the Alex.
Davis was booked for catching Daniel as he raced through but the tackle look worse than it appeared as the ball had bobbled up at just the wrong moment. From the resultant free-kick taken by O’Connor a bit of melee occurred but Leigh managed to whack it away.
Vale cranked up the pressure with the ball entering our box as soon as possible. The Alex back line were having to stand firm with Tate and Davis continuously getting their head to crosses.
With five minutes remaining, Steve Davis made another change with Lauri Dalle Valle replacing the hard working Ikpeazu.
Crewe were having to hold on and were struggling to retain possessionin the opposition half, and that resulted in two great late chances for the home side. Firstly Pope headed straight at the excellent Garratt. Turton also threw himself bravely at a shot from Chris Lines and in doing so he got enough on it for it to strike the crossbar and go over.
Tate also performed an miracle to get a late cross off the line deep into injury time.