Crewe Alexandra collected their first point in three matches with a solid display away at Southend United as youngster George Cooper curled home a superb free-kick with four minutes left on the clock - but Ben Nugent conceded a needless penalty in stoppage time when he barged over the Southend United substitute Jamar Loza.
Fellow substitute Jack Payne kept his nerve in the 93rd minute to squeeze it past Ben Garratt to salvage a draw for Phil Brown’s side. It was cruel on Crewe who had been the better side on the night and the lateness of the goal made it feel like a defeat as was the level of performance.
Crewe also had their number one Ben Garratt to thank for the draw as well after he made a smart save to deny Tyrone Barnett from the penalty spot in the first half.
Manager Steve Davis named an unchanged side for the mid-week fixture at Southend United and that was made possible because defender Ben Nugent was fitted with a protective mask after suffering a facial injury in training.
George Ray was also named on the bench as cover after getting some game time for the club’s Development Squad at Sheffield United yesterday. Youngsters’ Callum Ainley and Charlie Kirk were named on the substitutes’ bench.
With the Alex conceding early goals on their recent travels to Rochdale and Chesterfield, it was imperative that we didn’t follow suit against a side chasing a potential top six finish. Phil Brown’s side came into tonight’s game on the back of a defeat to our local neighbours Port Vale on Friday and with designs on a play-off place they tried to get on the front foot at home. Crewe had to survive an early corner from the left hand side but it was ably cleared up field to Tom Hitchcock.
It was Crewe though registering the first real effort at goal on eight minutes. George Cooper confidently let fly from 25 yards and it deflected off the Southend midfielder Cian Bolger to sent it over Dan Bentley’s crossbar. Southend cleared the corner.
On 13 minutes, Tyrone Barnett tried to turn an ambitious volley goalwards but under pressure from Jon Guthrie, he couldn’t direct his left footed shot on target to test Ben Garratt for the first time on the night.
On 20 minutes, Crewe really should have taken the lead following a superb free-kick delivery from James Jones. His accurate cross into a crowded box invited Marcus Haber to get a run on it and power a header goalwards. Bentley made a fine save to keep out his close range effort and defender Nugent could only lift the rebound over the crossbar with the Southend goalkeeper completely out of the picture. Nugent, sporting his mask, would be extremely disappointed not to have scored his second goal for the club.
Four minutes later and another fine move from the Railwaymen saw a confident Zoumana Bakayogo make inroads into the Southend last third and his clipped cross was flicked just over by Hitchcock, who had ran across Bentley to beat him to the centre. The Southend stopper was relieved to see the effort just about clear the bar.
Moments later, Cooper had another powerful shot from distance blocked by the Southend captain Adam Barrett. It was a really encouraging performance from the Alex and us being on the front foot was certainly causing anxiety on the Southend terraces.
Somewhat against the run of play, the home side were awarded a controversial penalty on 38 minutes. Ollie Turton made a firm challenge on David Mooney and the momentum of the Southend striker took him over Turton’s legs and the referee Charles Breakspear harshly pointed to the penalty spot. The Alex players were absolutely livid and protested to both the referee and his assistant that the instance took place outside the box. After a short delay, Barnett stepped up but saw his effort saved and well held by Garratt. It was probably justice after the dubious award in the first place.
As the first half drew to a close, Gary Deegan shot a yard wide of Garratt’s left hand post and the Crewe players’ left the pitch at the interval still discussing the award of the penalty. It was no surprise that boss Steve Davis waited for him for clarification.
Cooper whipped over an early cross to restart the second half but it was just too far ahead for Haber to get his head on it. The Southend defender Anthony Wordsworth was booked for grabbing Inman back as he looked to break on to a forward pass from Cooper.
Phil Brown soon decided to make a double substitution with David Worrall and Jamar Loza replacing Mooney and Sam McQueen.
Just after the hour mark, Southend were awarded what looked a soft free-kick on the edge of the Crewe penalty area after Barnett went down but Worrall could only curl him effort into the side netting. Garratt had shuffled across accordingly and had the angle covered anyway.
With some pressure coming from the home side, Nugent did well to head away a dangerous looking cross from Worrall before at the other end Hitchcock stumbled on the ball at a crucial moment following a surging run and pass from Inman. If he had managed to have steadied himself, he would have been through on goal. That would be one of the loan striker’s last contributions, as he was replaced by the fresh legs of Callum Saunders.
At the game reached its final phase, it was crying out for a moment of quality to be the deciding factor. Southend made their final change with Jack Payne replacing Will Atkinson. Steve Davis also made a chance with the more attack minded Callum Ainley replacing captain Fox.
A run down the touchline from Haber did create some space for Cooper to get a shot off from 20 yards but his low drive took a slight deflection off of Barrett to deflect behind for a corner.
Neither team had really done enough to claim all three points but the game ended with some excitement. After Cooper himself was fouled, the teenager picked himself to curl home a wonderful free-kick past Bentley. It was Cooper’s first goal of the season and looked to be the winner until Nugent’s late rush of blood in stoppage time. There didn’t seem to any real danger when Jamar Loza took the ball on his chest but Nugent barged into the back of him and the referee again pointed to the spot. Jack Payne took the responsibility this time to slot it just out of Garratt’s extended reach to salvage a point.